Riding the Freight

Photo by Lauren Mitchell. Click on image for license and information.

Photo by Lauren Mitchell. Click on image for license and information.

My father was a delivery man for an office supply company. He delivered coffee, soda, plates, cups, and sugar, but he was known as the "Coffee Man" to most of the people he delivered to. He got up every morning at 4 am—which might have explained his impatience with me and my sister when we slept in on weekends—and drove out to Hicksville, NY to load his van before driving into Manhattan. His goal was to be there by 7 am or 8 am and be done by noon or so to beat rush hour in both directions. I think part of the appeal of this type of work was freedom it afforded him to set his own schedule. In Trinidad, he had tended toward employment that let him set his own terms, and this may have been the closest match to those types of jobs.

It's with no small sense of irony that I pass his distribution center every morning on the LIRR on my way to my office job. My company does not use an office supply company like the one that he worked for—and indeed the growth of chains like Fresh Direct and the expansion of office supply companies like Staples heralded the end of his job long before that end was really known to us. Still, there's no end of delivery men (and some women) who filter through the office. They come up through the freight elevator and they largely pass unnoticed through the office; sometimes, they're waved irritably away to reception if they choose to announce themselves (the freight elevator is near the back of the office). They make up an invisible class of workers who provide services to keep the City running.

When I was nine, I decided I would spend the summer working with him. I didn't have a sense for what that would mean. I was lonely and bored. He agreed with the condition that I would wake myself up and get ready. And I did: I'd ride with him to the distribution center, hunkered down in the passenger seat because I was still mostly asleep, and then follow him on his delivery routes.

We don't make it easy for delivery people to do their jobs. They come in through the service entrance so as to not mar the appearance of professionalism and exclusivity the building strives to maintain. There is a perception that these service professionals get in the way. They're treated with impatience if they board the front-of-house elevator, doubly so if they are carrying anything more than a letter, but how many of us have ridden the freight?

The freight elevator is a crude animal. It has none of the sensibility of its forward-facing sibling. It walls are grossly padded, in place of a door it has a steel grate, and it can be interminably slow. But the history of the freight elevator begins with the earliest instances of the elevated platform itself. As far back as 336 BC, an open platform that could be hoisted vertically by some form of manual power was being employed by ancient Romans to lift heavy materials like water barrels and building materials. In these early forms, the elevator's functional purpose was greater than the symbolism it came to embody. With the growth of cities as urban and commercial centers, the elevator spread, still serving a mixed purpose of carrying both goods and people (and people as goods) but little attention had been paid to comfort and security. The elevator was still largely a beast of burden with function outweighing form.

In the 1900s, following a series of deaths involving both passenger and freight transports, public attention was turned to the issue of safety in the US. There were 256 deaths in New York City between 1907-1912 and 401 deaths in Chicago between 1904-1916. These fatalities were caused by shaftway falls (people could open the door of the elevator manually if an elevator was not present and gain access to the shaft—why they would want to do that is a different story entirely), the elevator moving away from the floor while people were entering or exiting the car, and elevators falling because they lacked speed regulatory devices and other safety mechanisms. With this increased regulation also came a greater divide between freight and passenger elevator demographics, particularly as each is held to its own set of fire and code requirements.

Passenger elevators were built to be sleek and efficient to serve the people who ride them. There are more of them; they're automated; and they sometimes have express routes. They suggest privilege, exclusivity, and professionalism. Freight elevators were built to accommodate bulk—they carry the things we'd rather not see, like cases of sodas being rolled into an office kitchen, or the unattractive, plain boxes that hold clothes and other goods before they are added to displays, as well as the people who bring them. Their slowness suggests greater stability and stands in direct contrast to the hustle and bustle that is a hallmark of urban life; their manual operators offer a greater sense of control in a setting where the raw mechanics are exposed.

But the experience has not kept pace with expectations. Delivery people are held to the same hustle and bustle their office counterparts wield as a badge of productivity. They have quotas and delivery windows. And that means they need to move quickly. During that summer with my dad, there were instances where elevator operators would not let me ride up with him due to space or safety concerns, and instances when other delivery men openly complained about the additional small body in the queue for the elevator. It meant one less person and his packages could go up. It meant more time in the line and less in the truck. It meant waiting.

A FedEx delivery woman I met in the passenger elevators right around Labor Day was surprised when I held the door for her. It had been just the two of us and she was dropping off a letter. "Thanks. I try to be ready. I know how they can get," she said was an expansive wave at the receptionist she had just spoken to. I laughed with her and said "Yeah, probably in here too." She nodded. "Yep. I try to be ready in here too. But it's the middle of the day and the freight is closed."

There are plenty of instances where a package won't fit in a passenger elevator and the freight becomes necessary. But the freight elevator has become ingrained in the identity for the service industry and it's professionals. Not seen and not heard, the freight becomes an almost secret entrance to a world that considers itself more professional, more efficient, and more business-oriented when these experiences are built in part by what comes out of the freight.

Have you ridden the freight? What does your elevator look like?


Carrajat, Patrick. The History of the Elevator Industry in America 1850-2001: http://www.elevatorpreservation.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/historyofelevatorindustry1850-2001-wq.pdf

4 responses so far

  • mistressoftheanimals says:

    Thank you for an excellent tribute to an (other) sector of working class people who get ignored. We often ignore and dismiss the "little people" without whom we could not do what we do.

  • In the laboratory buildings at my medical school, there are almost no passenger-only elevators, and deliveries are constantly flowing up and down in all the elevators. There is also no effort whatsoever to hide the flow of deliveries to the labs.

  • Pascale says:

    In my outpatient clinic building there is a "back elevator" that the mail and supplies travel through, along with those of us who figured out that it is infinitely faster than the "public" elevators most of the time. It's not as pretty as the ones out front, but it's nice enough. Same safety features, but then it's a 4 year old building.

    • kdcosta says:

      Hey guys! So in my own building, we sometimes have to take the freight when, you guessed it, the passenger elevators break down! This happens every other week or so. I'd say the majority of the people who queue for the elevator will continue to wait for the passenger option. The freight option requires you to leave the building and enter a really sparse, barren corridor. They don't make this option available if the passenger elevators are working, so this just has a sense of a second class experience. I do think it is slightly faster though--and have told the delivery people I encounter in the passenger elevator that it's probably their best option.

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