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Jonas Ekblom

Swedish journalist with breaking newsroom experience and prize-awarded photography. Currently reporter at Reuters in Washington D.C.

Recepient of the 2019 Overseas Press Club Scholar Award and Reuters Fellow. Top-of-class MS (Honors) graduate from Columbia Journalism School.

Previously at Swedish Public Radio (Sveriges Radio) and other outlets.

Into New York’s deep caverns and back, 17 seconds at a time

Into New York’s deep caverns and back, 17 seconds at a time

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in The Uptowner as “Uptown MTA Elevator Operators Face Looming Closures”

The elevator ride at the 181st Street No. 1 subway station takes 17 seconds from platform to street level. Simone Williams has taken that trip up and down for eight hours every workday for the past 22 years.

“Count the times? No, I don’t do that! I’d go stir crazy!” said Simone Williams, one of the few remaining MTA elevator operators in the city’s subway system. After working as an elevator operator for more than two decades she has taken that journey uncountable times. The times she, like so many MTA riders, has gotten stuck in the elevator, are also uncountable.  

Williams has her own corner next to the button console of elevator 110, the innermost one to the right after the turnstiles at 181st Street #1 train station. The elevator is wholly automatic and Williams can’t do anything but push one button to override the doors closing automatically. She wears an orange and yellow safety vest and a dirty MTA baseball cap pulled down to her eyes to work. The vest and her jacket are both too large for her, making her look even shorter than she already is.

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Passengers shuffled in and out of her elevator, dressed in warm winter clothes to combat the recent cold that November suddenly brought. Some said hi, some didn’t. The elevator accelerated and decelerated smoothly going up and down. A hollow, whirring sound from a ventilation drum filled the elevator, quiet more often than not; tungsten lights, dimmed from dirt, struggled to light it up.

Fifteen years ago, Williams had two colleagues manning two additional elevators of the total four at 181st Street. Now she is alone here and the other three elevators are unmanned. She thinks that having someone manning an elevator is important. “There’s still people that are afraid that they’ll get stuck and then they’re alone,” Williams said. The corrugated stainless steel covering the elevator’s innards reflected her brightly colored safety vest.

Williams seldom gets scared herself, she said. But when she does, it’s of the subway riders themselves - and when there are many of them: “It’s like ‘They’re gonna smother me!’” She is rarely afraid of being assaulted or attacked. Another time when her elevator got stuck the passengers got extremely upset. “It was an hour and a half with crazy people,” she said. “I tried to keep them calm, but they wanted to shoot me, they said ‘I’ll kill you!’”

The 55-year-old operator remained unflappable as she retold the harrowing incident. “Why threaten me?” Williams sighed as the elevator doors slowly closed and opened just as slowly as another person got in before they closed completely, irritating some passengers, anxious to get going.

Three yellow barriers keep a clear line between her and the passengers; a shabby wooden desk and a worn dark-gray plastic chair make her working space. All standard issue for the operators manning five elevators in uptown Manhattan: 181st and 191st Street stations for the 1 train; 181st Street and 190th Street for the A train; 168th Street for both. William’s prefers the 181st Station – it’s the easiest for her to get to from her home in East Harlem, where she lives with her sister and her nieces.

The MTA only staffs five elevators out of the total 249 elevators dispersed in their system of 472 subway stations. All staffed elevators are located uptown, in “deep-cavern” stations, called that because they are located too deep to be reached efficiently by escalators. The 191st Street station along the #1 train, 10 blocks to the north, is 180 feet underground, the deepest station in the system.

One reason, proponents like the Transport Workers’ Union argue, is to keep riders calm when elevators break down, for example. And break they will; the New York Times reported of more than 14,000 MTA elevator outages in 2015. But when the #110 elevator at 181st Street station gets stuck, the operator can’t do anything but to wait, just like the rest of the passengers.

“They don’t like the idea of getting stuck so they get in with me. Little do they know, I can’t get out myself,” Williams laughed. A couple of years ago her elevator broke down so bad her and an elevator filled to the brim with passengers had to be evacuated.

“We had to walk over to the other elevator,” Williams said and explained that they had to put the elevator in the shaft next to hers parallel. To get out they were forced to walk across between the elevators – with the 18-story-high shaft under them. “I’m sorta afraid of heights.”

The elevators along the #1 train uptown are particularly bad: the small, crammed elevators in the 168th, 181st and 191st Street stations are the worst in the entire system, due to their age. According to MTA statistics, elevators in the system as a whole averages 53 breakdowns per year – more than once per week.

An accessibility study from NYU, published in December 2017, paints an even bleaker picture of the elevators at the 168th Street subway station: the station reported at least one outage for one of their four elevators at 755 occasions in one year.

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Williams was first put on elevator operating duty after hurting her back on the job – a fate shared among all operators, the job being earmarked for employees who can’t do their normal assigned work for some reason, often medical. Williams got hurt emptying a trash can on a subway platform.

 “I was put on restrictive duty when I messed up my back,” Williams said and explained that she used to clean subway stations. “Someone had put a cinderblock in the trash and I pulled it out. I cried a lot and went home.”

Her back never got better after that, and she takes pills daily for the pain, as well as for her diabetes. “I’m tired,” Williams groaned as she shifted a bit in her plastic chair; it’s not a comfortable spot, and her back acts up every day. Every movement showed pain. “I’m dying from going up and down,” she sighed.

Williams works for a cash-strapped MTA that looks everywhere to stem a bleeding $500 million deficit. At the end of October there were talks about cutting all remaining elevator operators who man the deep-cavern stations in uptown Manhattan. But the local Transport Workers’ Union, TWU Local 100, pushed back.

In an increasingly automated world, with drones on the verge of delivering food, these jobs are at a first glance archaic, and proponents even admit as much. “They are anachronisms – kind of,” said Pat Debird, a 50-year-old artist and neighborhood activist.

“They are there for safety,” she said when arguing for their continued existence. “One reason the elevator operators are so important in these deep-cavern stations is that there isn’t any security down here.”

Debird mentioned that the emergency phone systems in the unmanned elevators is very unreliable: “It takes minute and a half to reach Brooklyn dispatch – what if someone has a heart attack?”

While she manned her elevator at 181st Street, Williams said she tries not to think about the future too much. “Yeah, maybe… they might put up a robot or a sensor or something.” Her job, and being unionized, keeps her, her income and benefits, safe for now.

Williams said she doesn’t care much about what she works with. “After 31 years, they have to put me somewhere!” She looks forward to retirement, hopefully in seven years’ time, when she is 62.

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The work shift ebbed and flowed in Williams’ elevator at 181st Street, the elevator filled with metallic subway air, still warm, despite the November cold. Passengers labored to open their thick coats, adjusting to the warm indoor air. Sometimes the car went up or down empty, or only with a couple of passengers. Sometimes the elevator was full and Williams had to exclaim, “Step all the way in please!” She glanced at a convex mirror in the ceiling of the hallway and saw it full of people and beckoned for them to wait for the next one.

As Williams took a sip from her large Poland Springs bottle the Harlem-raised elevator operator complained that the water wasn’t cold enough. Every so often she glanced at her watch, a simple black digital Casio, tightly worn on her left wrist. She’s was powering through until her lunch break: 30 minutes at 4.30 p.m. She’s had a cold and her nose was runny.

After the elevator regurgitated another load of passengers at platform level a black woman with pink hair and a dark pink winter coat stepped into the car. A child clung onto her right arm. “You’ve been here for a while! Since I was in school!” the woman exclaimed, surprised. “I used to take this train every day. It’s nice to see you.”

Williams nodded, smiled and said that it’s nice to see her as well and waved at the child holding on to the woman’s arm as they scurried off. She said that she’s seen many children grow up  – and some recognize her still.

When another passenger heard that there was talk of removing the elevator operator jobs she spurted out “I hope not!” Longtime Washington Heights resident Chantal Bilodeau, 50, agreed. “I really like when they are here late at night,” she said. “I can push my own buttons – but it adds safety.”

Bilodeau is far from the only rider who quotes safety as a main reason for wanting to keep the operators. “It is nice,” Claire Valletta, 26, said when asked about the elevator operators continued existence. She had recently signed a lease for a new apartment but had been in the neighborhood before. “It’s a safety thing at night also,” she added.

A couple of hours into her shift, Williams took out a copy of the New York Daily News and started flipping through the pages – even though this is not allowed. When asked about it, she put a finger over her mouth and went, “shhhh.”

Two of her colleagues at other stations also admitted to bringing forms of entertainment: books, radios and magazines to work, but asked for anonymity to not risk retribution from their supervisors. Over a decade ago, the operators were even allowed to play their own music, but that was also shut down as some operators repeatedly played music that “wasn’t PG,” as Williams put it. Williams herself liked to play classic R&B.

Williams leads a quiet life outside of her work. She lives with her sister, three nieces and her sister’s two grandchildren. When a baby screeched and the screams echoed through the tiled passageways, she sighed. “Ah babies – love ‘em but the screaming drives me crazy” She said that her nephew, two-month-old Princeton. “He’s always crying.”

The second baby in her sister’s apartment in East Harlem is four-month-old George, born on July 10. “I was hoping he could be born on my birthday – July 18,” Williams said while she flicked through photos of the babies on her worn Samsung smartphone.

Williams sighed when asked about the nieces’ father, who doesn’t live with them. “Yeah, the dad is around – but he’s a pain in the butt! He thinks he’s the man of the house when he comes.”

The communites around the stations with manned elevators have rallied to keep the operators at several occasions. In 2003, the MTA suggested cutting all elevator operator jobs, which would have saved the organization $1.3 million. A major backlash from the community, both from its grassroots and political representatives, stopped some parts of the cut and left one operator per station. In a proposed budget for 2019, the transit authority wanted to remove all operators – but the union said no.

“It was a classic union fight,” according to Pete Donohue, Director of Press and Media Relations at TWU Local 100, who explained that the fight to keep the few operators was taken as high up as the president of the MTA and the union. Donohue and his union argue that the deep-cavern stations uptown are “unique,” and places “where riders can feel particularly isolated.”

According to Donohue, transit workers in uniform can be a big deterrent effect for crime, and the operators play an important customer service role, something that the MTA has been working hard to strengthen under the leadership of its new president, Andy Byford.

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Williams’ elevator, along the ones in the 168th and 191st Street stations, are slated to be replaced between April 2019 and the spring of 2022, due to their age. Uptown activist Debird is worried that the MTA will see this replacement scheme as an opportunity to remove the operators completely. “That’s the fear – they will reassign them and we’ll never get them back,” she said, concerned that she and other activists will have to fight once more to keep their elevator operators.

Donohue of TWU Local 100 has similar worries. “I guess they want to reduce the ranks through attrition,” he said, but still ready to work to keep them if the MTA wants to cut the remaining elevator operator positions: “If they try again, we’ll fight again.”

The MTA, which declined to comment via their press office, is more than half a billion dollars in the red and is looking to cut costs everywhere. Elevator operators and their wages are no different.

Williams, who earns $28 an hour according to government watchdog Empire Center, said that she doesn’t reflect all that much on her salary or her job, and wouldn’t say how much she earns: “I try not to know.” In 2017 she made almost $60,000 manning her elevator, and will continue to do so – for now.

When a dapper gentleman, dressed in a grey suit, tie and gold jewelry put his hand between the closing doors of Williams’ #110 elevator, her own tiny realm, she shouted, “Don’t do that! There’s a button for that!”

“I wouldn’t trust the elevator,” Williams said as the man got on and her elevator eventually, over 17 seconds, churned up towards street level once again.

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