Going Up

by Lindsay Bell

This short piece of ethnographic fiction is made of conflated scenes and observations from recent fieldwork in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I am interested in resource infrastructure and affects in a town that is known as a ‘gateway to the arctic’. I spend most of my time in a lone residential high rise tower built in the 1970s as part of a larger modernization effort known as “the road to resources”. In this piece, I experimented by using observations from the elevator taken from my own notes and the notes of a long time friend and fiction author Genevieve Scott. Gen joined me in the field for the first time this summer. We are both in search of details but for different ends.

Gateway to the Arctic

The tiled lobby of the apartment building looks like it’s in a state of renovation, but the specific work in progress is unclear. We debate if the vacuum in the corner is in use or being discarded. Are the black garbage bags piled by the front door waste going out or belongings coming in?

A large map of Canada is pinned to a wall with thumbtacks. We recognize it as the kind of map we had in elementary school. It would be rolled up on a spool at the top of the chalkboard and brought out when it was time to learn capital cities. You say you were always very good at those kinds of tests. I admit I could never keep Whitehorse and Yellowknife straight.

Waiting for the elevator, we don’t stare at the newly installed LCD television. It plays CNN. We hear the loop about shootings in the south cutting to an update on escaped convicts in the north. Large satellite dishes on the roof bring U.S. stories to this small subarctic town. Some tenants think the channel should be changed to the national station. Others use the material to create cultural distance: We aren’t like them. We are better off.

There are three of us now waiting for an elevator. A fourth arrives and attends to the grid of square metal mailboxes. Several doors hang open. He keys his box open and shut. Box number 1506 has a sign taped to it: No KEY. Do Not Deliver. We will meet 1506 later in the week. He’ll say he likes the walk to the post office. It avoids his box being filled with flyers from the local grocery store, the federal government and the mining and oil companies trying to peddle their good will.

Beside the mailboxes, there is a painted a mural of the waterfalls that are just outside of town. In the lobby of a seventeen story building many folks wish would just disappear, thick acrylic paint replicates the attraction most visitors are here to see. Southerners, as they call them, drive north to see the falls and to say they have ventured passed the 60th parallel. Like many things around here, the falls are named after British Princesses. The walking trail out to the falls reminds visitors that Dene have traveled these parts for centuries. Didactic panels tell of medicine women, stories from Before and explain how to live Right. Monday we’ll drive out there. This is your first time here. Everyone is asking you, “have you been out to see the falls?” It will be better if you have. The southerners and their RV campers usually turn around after the falls and go home. They don’t usually come into town. If they do, they don’t stay long. Like the railcars full of fuel that arrive each week, they’ll be gone soon.

We are now four people waiting an elevator. We watch the panels over the doors. The numbers light up orange as they climb 5,6,7,8 and stop. The second panel’s orange light comes down 4, 3, 2 M. Doors open. We file in.

“Floor?” I offer.

The elevator buttons are deeply inset. Pressing them feels intrusive, like you’ve got your finger in a stranger’s bellybutton.

“8,” she says.

“15,” he says dragging an outmoded elliptical machine in and pinning himself behind it.

4 uses a beaded moosehide keychain to select his own floor and DOOR CLOSE.

We are staying on 17. That’s where all the people like us stay.

Doors close. The smell of metabolizing alcohol mingles with lingering laundry detergent scent left behind. We look at the floor. We’ve all stood away from the pooled yellow liquid in the corner. Elevators aren’t explicitly made to hold liquids and odors, but leaky bodies and lives can’t be contained under skin. We suspect the liquid is from the wiry brown haired dog from 11. 4 confirms the idea we have thrown out. He jokes, “His owner is the guy always in Hawaiian shirts. He even wears ’em in winter. He must wanna forget he’s in the North”.

Doors open onto stained maroon carpet with a lattice pattern. This is the only floor with this particular carpet. We’ll double check that later. On a few other floors, we will find it used as trim around a cream industrial carpet. The bricolage approach to apartment repairs isn’t new. When the building went up in the 1970s and plans for the oil pipeline were canceled, the few occupied units were repaired with materials from the empty ones. Easier to bring materials down a few flights that have it shipped in. 4 steps out of the elevator, tipping his company hat from one of the diamond mines. Doors close.

“I guess this isn’t one?” asks 15, knowing something we don’t. His eyes run the perimeter of the scratched shellacked wood panel elevator walls. He’s in his fifties and is here on a short work contract that keeps being extended. He specializes stucco ceiling installation. “Guy out front said the elevator was covered in blood this morning. Blood everywhere.”

We notice three thin dark red streaks on the bottom corner of door.

“I hear it wasn’t no one from the building”, he adds.

For the rest of the day, everyone will use elevator exchanges to try and piece together what could have happened. Those who sit and smoke at the picnic table out front will get the story from the property managers who are out watering their struggling plants.

“Twenty-three hours of sunshine. You think this shit would grow faster”, the manager jokes to every tenant passing by. His wife hauls the green watering can in and out of their ground floor unit.

Doors open. The carpet on the eighth floor is hunter green with a large black stain shaped like a doormat. 8 is holding a clipboard and wearing an oversized golf t-shirt with the water meter company logo. She seems more in disguise than in uniform. On her clipboard, paper notices have the header ATTENTION. Her pursed smile hasn’t changed since she walked in the lobby. “Have a good day” she says striding off.

“They’ve condemned the god damn balconies, you know that?” says 15. “I can only imagine what’s next. You heard about the fire alarms, right?”. We nod.

Doors open. The carpet is a calm steel gray in near perfect condition. The walls are freshly painted. 15 pushes his elliptical machine out onto his floor. Doors close.

I look at you and wonder why I was so certain you’d be captivated by these scenes. They have held me for so long. “Let’s write these down” you suggest. Doors open. The scenes and scents of elevator travel leave us, but only partially.

Lindsay Bell is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at SUNY Oswego. She is also the Associate Editor of North American Dialogue.