Back in the day, elevators were run manually by an operator controlling a lever that started, stopped and sometimes regulated the speed. It required some skill; a trained operator could deftly increase the velocity of the flying cage, slow down, open the door, let people on and off, step back, reengage, and do this cheerfully, all day long. "Watch your step" really meant something back when a passenger was at risk of tipping her toe on a lift that had settled an inch or three below the threshold.
As automatic elevators began to replace manual ones, the operators disappeared. Oh, sure, they were there, when you went shopping in the classic department stores where they doubled as the marketing department, announcing special price offers. You also might see them in swanky apartment buildings in cities like New York, London or Chicago, where they were silent witnesses to the lives of the rich and famous, knowing but never telling about comings and goings.
The other day in New York, I was surprised when at the Pierre Hotel, I stepped onto an automatic elevator manned by a uniformed lift operator. She told me that they are the last hotel in the city that still does this. You may be thinking, "How quaint," as did I, that is until she ferried me up to my floor. By the time we arrived, I was feeling a little ...well... like royalty. Weary from a travel day punctuated by the scolding airline attendant who admonished us to move through the aisles (as if it's our fault) and the taxi driver who needed me to lean in and repeat my destination five times, it was luxurious to be asked "What floor?" and allow someone else to take charge of a brief leg of the trip.
It would be too easy to write the ten bazillionth article about why automation is killing us. Everybody knows that when an automated answering service suggests you push 7 for customer service - what you get will probably be anything but.
The more interesting revelation was how little time it takes to make someone feel very special. A ride from a lobby to the 7th floor takes no more than 30 seconds; a teeny tiny fraction of the hours I spent in transit flying from Boston to Philadelphia and later riding the train to New York. I will forget the hour and twenty minutes on Amtrak next to a middle-aged woman gorging on a disgusting smelling meatball grinder. I will recall with delight the joy of "going up" in a lushly carpeted, wood paneled lift, allowing someone else to take care of me for a few fleeting seconds.