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All Morning in a Chelsea Elevator

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The door is streaked with scratch marks, clearly some have tried to claw their way out. Nine silvery buttons, with tiny holes that blink red like drugged eyes. Eight naked bulbs, illuminating the cubizoid space in perfect light. But silvery walls distort images, my reflection is emaciated and bowed, like a bean pod, at times I cannot even find it. I hallucinate, I gasp, I rant. I pace dizzy squares on the floor, which is marble and sketched with sand and dust, detritus of those who have come before. And in a bead of water, I finally catch a clear glimpse of my reflection. What horror! Up, up, forever up, zooming up, to a vast honeycombed orb, the mothership, where await the alien surgeons.

Others join me. A girl in yoga shoes with wet hair. A man in a cream-colored coat with a brochure about Art Basel. A man in a shirt camouflaged for war and baby blue Nikes. A man in a thick black suit made of sweatpants material. He has a leather backpack slung over his right shoulder and a bushel of salt and pepper hair tied in a ponytail that is more like a knot. The way the colors of his hair blend together reminds me of those dirty melting glaciers in Alaska. The man has a calm Buddha nature but is steeped in great sadness, a professor who has lost his way and now eats out of cans.

Many are relieved. "Phew," says a black man with a pink collared shirt and pot belly. "Phew, phew, phew." "Phew," says an Asian woman with mousey shoes and a backpack the color of gum. "Phew, phew, phew."

Many complain. "He has the air conditioning going full blast," says a woman in a beret and high heels with faces printed on her umbrella. Her body is ravaged by old age but her face looks 40. The man she is speaking to has an opposite face, thick-skinned and rubbery, with a large fleshy nose.

Many don't show their faces. A woman with hair like a witch and bright blue umbrella turns towards the door and never turns back. A platinum blonde with saggy trench coat and large rigid purple purse, ragged on the bottom as if chewed by a cat, looks down and never looks back up.

Many are aloof. A girl in fire-engine-red pants and tattoos up her arms taps a phone with a cigarette in hand. An attractive woman with wavy hair still wet from the shower holds a book but reads a phone. A man with a beard like a Middle Easterner and a white umbrella he uses as a staff scans texts with a serious face. Everyone taps away, tap, tap, tap. Up, up, up, onwards and upwards.

Some are lost. "Excuse me, do you know where is the Gallery District?" It's a dweeby European couple, her in snow-white pants and grey toenail polish, him in school-bus-yellow shoes and thick glasses.

Some banter. Two gay men:
"Did they send anyone pictures of last night?"
"Only two, I tweeted them."

Two Chinese women:
"Hickady-rickady-hickady-hung, hung-hung-hung. Pickady-lickady-pickady-pung, pung-pung-pung."
"Really? Hah hah hah hah hah."

Two Italians:
"Babble-babble, Meg Ryan, rabble-rabble."
"Rabble-rabble, ah Meg Ryan, babble-babble."

Some are here to clean. Two Hispanic sisters, the younger with a Tweety shirt and massive boobs, one with a tattoo on it that says, Leila. "I don't trust nobody," she says, carrying a broom. The other wears a disposable face mask with a trash bag slung over her shoulder. A janitor in blue work clothes handles an antiquated vacuum with a thick orange cord, it looks like the type of thing that can suck you through time and is dripping wet, leaving a strange pattern on the floor, a halo of robin's eggs, or the Kuiper Belt. And a pair of painters, eyeing me suspiciously, speaking Russian. They aren't fat but have fat faces, one old, one young. The elder wears a hunting cap, carries a bucket and has on cotton work gloves, the palms of which are blotched with blue, as if he has just bludgeoned a Smurf. The younger looks like Val Kilmer in The Saint.

Some are artists, shielding their art. One man with two suit bags. "So professional," says his girlfriend, with a see-through purse, like those indestructible Korean umbrellas. She pats him on the shoulder. A gay man with hair streaked like a skunk is loaded with bags, one clear and blue, containing bundles of cylinders; in them are lemons. He sips iced coffee. Another man with three rolls of packaging, one glossy, one squeaky, one bubble wrap. Another with a willowy dry cleaning bag.

Some are messengers. One wears destroyed Filas, shoes once snow-white now botched with soot, mesh shorts, red thermals and is very tall and very black. His left foot is neatly wrapped in a clear trash bag. On his right arm is a horrendous scar, a gash which has healed horribly and is raised around the edges, like vagina lips. He's probably from Africa, I think. The man deftly fills out forms for his packages. He looks deeply troubled, possessed by great sadness. I wonder if he's sad because of the arm, or if there's something else.

More messengers. A sopping man with a black sack. One with a pink cape checkered by rain. A UPS man with a brown satchel, like what rock climbers use to put their powders in. He pushes a cart of multi-sized boxes, listening to headphones, sounds like a ballgame. And a man with an enormous rectangular box in a bright white suit, as if he worked in a chip fab. He produces a pair of interesting eyeglass, patterned in turn-of-the-century style flowers and peers at the art exhibit fliers.

The elevator's rear wall is covered with them. A suited buffoon with an umbrella wears galoshes, the show can be seen Wednesdays. A pink high heel camouflaged in gems, by appointment only. A flag made of leather. A winter tree with candy spots. A barefoot woman with spread-eagled legs, sitting on a mud flat, wearing a bandana, hair stirring in the breeze. A topless boy with lean kid muscles, holding a kite string, shielding the sun. A white heavenly space that could be a kitchen, yet no hints of appliances.

I'd rather look at spilt paint on the sidewalk than a painting in a gallery. The true Thoreau never left the woods. The real art is right here in the elevator, on the floor, in the record of the passage of time and people, their footprints, drippings, crumbs, spittle, flecks, tracks, stains and movements. When did we begin bubble-wrapping art? Do you think Chauvet Cave's painters got paid? Art is free, it is all around. Artists have lost all their savagery.

"Let me out of here!" yells a man carrying the mail. "Let me go down to the lobby! Please! Can I get to the lobby, please. I don't want to be stuck here. I got work to do." He wears a soiled fleece the color of smog, has a hunched posture and is writhing.

Finally, someone who understands. But it is too late. Upwards we zoom, ever upwards, to meet the alien surgeons who will remove our hippocampi. And suddenly we have reached the top, everyone out. The light is blue and heavenly. We zigzag up widely spaced steps, headed towards the honeycombed orb, and what will become of our brains?

I detach myself from the group and peer in a window, inside is a large room, workers like drones behind giant iMacs, fluorescent lighting. It is the chip fab.

One comes out, iPod eyes in his ears, black hipster suit, dark shaggy hair. He looks Latino. In well-manicured English he wonders why I am there. I explain I am looking for art. There is no art on this floor, he tells me. We are an architecture firm. And what of the honeycombed orb, I ask, the mothership? It's a museum the firm built in Mexico City, he says. A private collection, modern art and some pre-Colombian. We no longer need conquistadors. Now it is all done from afar.

I am back on the elevator and headed down, with a man in charcoal tuxedo, cane and top hat. He's being escorted out of the building by a plump rosy-cheeked woman in a polka dot dress, like a turn-of-the-century brothel proprietress.

"Luv luv luv luv luv luv luv you,' she says. "Bye."

He gets into a black Lincoln Town Car, the door being held open for him, and zooms away, out into the overcast city, out, out, out. Forever out, onwards and outwards.

A distant thunder rumbles, like a poorly digested meal. There is no lightning.

Justin Nobel's writing has appeared in TIME, Tin House and Orion; his essay, "The Last Inuit of Quebec", was included in Best American Travel Writing 2011. He pens a blog called Digital Dying for a funeral information website and another called the Absurd Adventurer, where he sits all day or night in iconic NYC spots observing minutiae. In October 2012 he's publishing a book based on that blog called "Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle." He speaks on it July 26th at The Oracle Club, in Long Island City.