The ups and downs of the elevator life
Imagine spending your working day transporting people and packages on an elevator, chatting, commiserating, pushing buttons and joking with a downtown building's tenants and visitors for eight hours.
Living the elevator life, as Jim Wodke and Cornell Weatherspoon do every day at the Century Building, 808 N. Old World Third St., has its ups and downs.
Of the last two remaining full-time elevator operators in Milwaukee, the relative newcomer, Weatherspoon, who is 23, likes the elevator life because he finds it "smooth and unique." Wodke is a seasoned veteran who will mark his 20th year on the job next month and, while still jovial and playful conversationally, is overall less enthusiastic than he once was about the elevator life.
The Century Building is located in an area known as old Kilbourn Town, one of the original city settlements on the west side of the Milwaukee River now part of downtown. Century was built in 1925, a couple years before the first installation of automatic elevators and still many more years away from their widespread use.
Century's elevators were manufactured and installed by the Otis Elevator Company, which was founded in 1853 and has installed elevators worldwide, including in the Eiffel Tower.
According to the Otis Company, the first automatic elevators were "clunky and unsophisticated, and passengers didn't embrace them as enthusiastically as building owners, who enjoyed saving the expense of an operator."
Throughout the '30s, however, the company says elevator operators remained "symbols of a building's prestige."
Wodke and Weatherspoon are not exactly remnants of a bygone era. While the building manager has a dress code for the elevator operators, he does not require the crew to wear suits reminiscent of apartment high-rise doormen or the elevator operators of yore.
"Ron (the manager) just likes old things," says Weatherspoon.
The Century Building contains office and retail space. Tenants on the ground floor and mezzanine levels include a hair salon and a Subway franchise; many legal and other professional offices make up most of the rest of the eight-story building.
The main floor of the Century Building has two entrances, the one on Old World Third and another at 230 W. Wells St. Visitors walk an L-shaped hall from either set of doors to the elevator bays, where the usual-seeming buttons call one of the three cars. (Only one is in service at a time.)
Unlike the automatic elevators to which we've all become accustomed, the buttons in the Century Building are connected to buzzers in the elevator cars that alert the operators.
"When people buzz a lot, there's nothing you can do. It doesn't make the car come faster; we hear the buzzing but we're busy letting people off above," says Weatherspoon. "Some people push on the button without releasing it, which just keeps the buzzing going up in the elevator car."
Wodke and Weatherspoon split the building's public hours into two shifts, one from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the other from 2 p.m. until 8 p.m.
Weatherspoon wears black gloves befitting a baseball player, police officer or bus driver to work the metal gates and doors on the elevators.
Wodke, however, wears a wrist brace, a testament to his years pushing and pulling at the ornate elevator gates.
Smells are sometimes a downside to the enclosed space of the elevator life. Cologne can linger in the cars for a long time after the wearer departs.
"Food that people bring on the cars can be challenging, especially if you're hungry," says Weatherspoon, who likes joking with the riders.
Wodke, who spent six months and 21 days in the U.S. Army, says the job is very social and that it suits him well. Sharing all kinds of details, like how long you've been in the army, just comes out after years of making small talk with your elevator passengers.
Weatherspoon, who's from Chicago, has lived on Milwaukee's East Side for two years and has worked 14 months at the Century Building, as both elevator car operator and as a cleaner early mornings in the building. He also works as a parking attendant at the nearby Frontier Airlines Center.
He estimates that he goes up and down between 100 and 200 times each shift. The operators have a power cord tied to the elaborate brass work at the top of the cars for phones and other electronics.
The cars have a maximum capacity of 20 people.
"There's no room for claustrophobia on this job," says Weatherspoon.
Riders will tip occasionally and more so will the regular building tenants, "especially around Christmas," according to Weatherspoon.
There is one building maintenance worker who fills in for Weatherspoon and Wodke when they need a day off. Jivan Seifert, whose family has a law firm in the building and the Arin-Bert Coffee and Grill on the ground floor along Wells Street, filled in for Weatherspoon once for two weeks.
"It's actually a lot of fun," says Seifert.
Wodke has been stuck in the elevators multiple times over the years; 15 minutes was the longest.
He says one of the weirdest things that's ever happened on the job was when the elevator stopped at the same place with the same 13 people on board two weeks in a row.
"Needless to say, the third week most of those people took the stairs," says Wodke.
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