Loudly speak the word “transubstantiation,” enunciating clearly, in a crowded elevator and observe the reactions of the people around you. There may be one or two who, not quite sure what was just announced, will say, “Excuse me?” Another couple will look away in awkward silence, pretending they did not hear anything. At least one will glare in angry disbelief as if an avowed enemy had just urinated on his leg. There may be one who nods and asks, “Are you Catholic?” And, on rare occasion, one might hear a small voice from the back of the elevator say, “That word is meaningless without giving us the context.”
I have never spoken the word in a crowded elevator, nor have I heard it spoken in such a place, so my suggestions about what one might hear were one to speak it are purely conjecture. So, why am I writing about this fictitious occurrence as if it had happened?
Simply to prod my brain into action, forcing it to build a scenario in which the nameless, faceless people in the elevator will come to life.
As I contemplate their responses, I will picture the way their facial expressions will change ever so slightly when I speak the word. I will attempt to understand what thoughts must be going through their minds as they attempt to make sense of an utterly foreign situation, a circumstance in which they have never before found themselves. Tiny changes in their expressions…the way they hold their mouths, how their eyes narrow by just a hair into what could be a squint were the movement accentuated a thousand times…reveal so much about these elevator people. Just by observing them, I can tell who among them are Catholics, which ones are atheists, who has children, and who is married but opted not to procreate. The flutter of an eyelash can reveal to me who has lived a long, anguished life subjected to emotional abuse. I can tell by the set of his jaw and suspicion in his eyes the man who votes Republican and scoffs at the trials and tribulations of a homeless mother and her baby daughter as he passes them in the street. By looking into the pleading eyes of the young man pressed against the elevator door I can tell he has the makings of a minister or a Peace Corps volunteer; he is the one who would have comforted the homeless woman and given her his last twenty dollars. The monstrous diamond-crusted metal cross dangling from the neck of the middle-aged woman standing at the center, coupled with the steely certainty in her eyes, suggests she preaches and flaunts the prosperity gospel. Even in her street clothes, it’s obvious to me that the petite woman in the back corner is a nun, having joined her order twenty years earlier. I can tell that by looking at her gentle grey eyes and watching the way the corners of her mouth edge up at the sound of the word. The short, nondescript man at the very back of the elevator mouths the word “Darwin” in response to my trigger word; he is the confirmed atheist in the group, a label that threatens the stability of his three-year-old marriage to a Southern Baptist woman from Alabama.
The enormous size of this elevator is just becoming apparent to me. It was designed to accommodate enormous couches and refrigerators and pallets stacked to the ceiling with sacks of rice and flour. Instead, it is crowded with an odd assortment of people unused to loud pronouncements of words ill-suited to elevator dialogue. There’s something else about this elevator that is, initially, strange and then becomes frightening as I think about it: there are no buttons to select floors. I realize we’ve all been herded into this large room whose vertical destination is being chosen not by us but for us. None of us knows what we will see when the doors open. We are afraid to say anything more. We know almost nothing about our fellow elevator riders (though I know far more than the rest of them). Every one of them could have been planted, with the sole intent of evaluating the other riders and determining their fates once the doors open. As I consider what I have done by speaking the word, sweat forms on my forehead. Suddenly, elevator car jolts to a stop and the doors slide to the sides. After a collective sigh of relief, we begin to stream out of the elevator car, forgetting those twenty seconds of terror.