Motel Hell

I was never afraid of elevators until I rode in the elevators at the Regency Hotel. There are three of them, equally spooky, lit with bare white fluorescent bulbs. Carved swastikas and gang symbols scar the wood-paneled walls. The emergency-phone compartments hold dangling wires, pistachio shells, cigarette butts, scorched pizza crusts and broken crack pipes. Some floor buttons are missing, and many of the rest don't light up when pressed. When the elevators ascend, they squeak and rattle and creep along, as if they are being pulled up by hundreds of chinchillas running on treadmills. Going down is worse. Much worse. Going down, the elevators don't rattle and squeak -- they shudder and groan as the lights flicker. And they are prone to sudden, blood-chilling plunges, like small planes hitting air pockets in a thunderstorm.

The elevators behave as if possessed. They randomly freeze between floors long enough for claustrophobia to prowl the edges of your composure. They jolt to a halt on floors where no one has called them, doors sliding open to reveal empty hallways.

I was never sure where these elevators were taking me during a recent Saturday stay at the Regency. But Lee was. Lee is the Regency's self-appointed elevator operator. He lives in the former luxury hotel, paying a little over $100 a week for his room a hundred feet off the ground, in the main tower. All day long he rides the elevators, hitting up passengers for tips. Nights he holes up in his room and smokes methamphetamine. Lee claims to be a wizard. He only rides the middle elevator; he says the other two are cursed beyond his power. All I know is, the middle elevator never dropped when Lee was on it, and several times he coaxed it out of a stall between floors, his hands flitting like spiders over the buttons, pushing four, then six, to get me to nine.

"There are secret combinations," he says. "You just have to know, and I know. I'm numerological."

My introduction to Lee was uncivil. I was on the twelfth floor, having just checked in, and I was trying to get back down to the lobby, except the elevator call buttons on my floor had been torn from the walls. A fellow guest, a Mexican laborer newly in this country from Culiacán, Sinaloa, showed me a trick: He removed the cap from a ballpoint pen and began violently stabbing it into the socket that had once held the "down" button. "Elevator's coming," he said after five or six thrusts, then vanished into a stairwell. (Many hours later on another floor, where the call buttons were likewise missing, I witnessed a different guest achieve the same effect by wedging a bent key in the socket and then kicking it.)

A minute passed, and then I heard squeaks in the central shaft growing slowly louder, accompanied by a coarse voice spewing profanity. The squeaks stopped at my floor. The muffled swearing continued. I heard a warbling chime, and the doors slid open. There stood Lee. He was tweaking -- jaw grinding, eyes vibrating beneath a watch cap low on his brow, ratty black T-shirt pulled tight over the crystal-cut muscles of a natural athlete on speed. Lee looked me over. "I will fuck you the fuck up!" were his first words to me. He paced back and forth in three-step cycles. "You're making me paranoid," he said. The feeling was mutual. The doors began to close, and Lee reached out to part them with both hands like a ghetto Moses. "Well, get the fuck on this motherfucker," he said.

On the way down, Lee told me to give him a dollar. "Gotta tip the elevator man. You don't tip the elevator man, there's no telling what the elevator man might do." I tipped the elevator man, then told him I just wanted to ride along for a spell. He said it would cost me one dollar for each trip up, two dollars for each trip down. In return, he guaranteed safe passage. We shook on it. Moments later we hit the lobby, and two men got on carrying plastic bags stuffed with bottles of strawberry-flavored fortified wine, plastic liters of cheap vodka, chips, orange juice and candy. They both had untrimmed beards and wore torn leather jackets over grimy hooded sweatshirts and Army jackets. They wouldn't have looked out of place standing on a corner during morning rush hour, holding cardboard signs: "Christian Vet. Anything helps. God bless."

"I haven't been here in ten years," one of the men said, checking out the plywood patches in the elevator's ceiling. "I see it's still a shithole."

"Yeah," slurred his buddy. "But it's a shithole with a view."