note: inspiration for this post comes from the contemporary austin’s do ho suh exhibit, opening to the public today, ee Cummings, and john updike’s story museum’s and women.
the first stairs i can recollect were those of the back porch at the first home i can remember. the home was the apartment that my parents had in wichita, kansas. the memories coincide with the photos in my parents’ picture albums. the shots are of the back of the building with one or more of our immediate family sitting, standing, or laying on the stairs.
i remember the coarse, grainy gray of the stair (for it was only one step) — made of the concrete that composed the remainder of the rows of apartments’ foundations. the steps were cool in the fall and winter and warm in the spring and summer.
the next stairs i remember are those of my dad’s parents in iowa, before they sold their farmhouse. memories are faint, but i can still remember (“remember” more than “see”) the ill-lighted back staircase that we would take up to my guest room.
i also remember the stairs at our next home in wichita — on hillside drive. the house we lived in then brings me close to bradbury’s dandelion wine and his childhood self, douglas. the house was rather stately and large, as i remember, reminding one of a southern home from the ’40s.
at that time, hillside drive was on the verge of being in the black part of town. we had a big porch — the only real porch i can ever remember — and the steps up to it were wooden and wide.
i can remember looking out the front door at night and seeing a police motorcade speed by the night the monkees rock group played in town at the height of their 60s popularity.
i can also remember looking out and standing on the porch during a few nights of curfew during the year the race riots were aflame. at the time, it was on parallel with the biggest of other events, because the police were out in force and the night and town had quiet power and tension to them.
the back stairs of the hillside house were higher and only led to a landing for the back door, without a porch.
my greatest single memory of those stairs is seeing my uncle keith (husband of my dad’s sister judy) leaping down the stairs ahead of my parents one day when i faked being hurt. i don’t remember the exact details, but i talked my brother frank into going in to the adults and telling them i was in trouble.
i layed down on the ground and acted as if i couldn’t get up. frank must have been only a few years old at the time, so although he was doubtful at first (we had been playing normally before i layed down on a whim), he “went for the bait.” (i guess i must have been exerting my dramatic juices.)
however, seeing keith rushing down scared me out of my wits and i immediately leaped to my feet telling them everything was okay. i think i was firmly but gently reprimanded and was left with a genuine impression of concern from keith that i remember to this day.
we moved to amarillo, texas in the middle of my third grade year and i attended Wilson elementary. in texas, i found most things were very flat. (in junior high and high school, the halls were dominated by long wide ramps that led up to one floor of school and down to the other.)
wilson was an old school though and, being somewhat in the style and probably the period of its namesake president, it had sheer brick facades, lots of stairs, and the look and feel of rock solid history.
at wilson, i was a patrol guard primary duty of this honored position was stair monitoring. principally, keeping an eye on the manner in which other children walked the stairs between classes and making sure that no unorthodox techniques were employed.
walking out of single-file, backwards, or taking more than one stair at a time were not to be tolerated by a patrol guard. a person flagrantly violating stairs rules was to be turned in by the observing patrol guard to receive appropriate punishment.
i suppose that the patrol guard was a position of responsibility given to children assumed to be the elite — preparing them earlier than their peers for the other responsibilities that would soon be pressing from around the corner of years.
as a regular guard in fifth grade and a captain in sixth grade, i relished my responsibility and the respectability that came from the associated authority. the only time i can ever remember crying in grade school, though, came from this stairs duty.
a friend had been walking back to class after morning recess up the stairs in the usual single file. as he passed me at the halfway point, which was a landing where i took up position, i believe he grinned. the next thing i knew, he skipped some stairs right there in front of me!
i later told my teacher of the incident, making her pull the details out of me. i remember her comforting me because i was troubled with the idea of having to turn in a friend. duty versus friendship. she listened and i felt better and i can’t recall if my friend was ever punished.
the job I had before and during junior college was at a hotel. as a bellman, i was basically an all-around, do-everything person. two memories of stairs there remain.
the first memory is a fond one. the lobby of the hotel was a large two-story affair with a great carpeted wooden stairway coming down from the top. i remember learning how and then repeatedly sliding down the great rail of the stair every chance i got, when customers weren’t around.
although it must have looked perilous, I found it easy and enjoyed the little gasps and wide eyes i would get from other staff who hadn’t seen me when i would come zipping down and land in a full trot at the bottom.
the second recollection is less fond. as i said, the hotel was two stories and half of the rooms faced out while the other half were inside. during the summer, when things got really busy, we had a lot of guests request roll-away beds for their rooms.
we had a limited supply of roll-aways, which we tried to keep evenly distributed between the first and second floors. however, invariably, the weekend would find me needing to take a bed from below to above, or vice versa.
let me paint the picture for you:
- there were no elevators in the hotel — this was pre-ada
- our roll-aways were full-size single beds that folded up in half and had wheels — they were not smaller cots or day beds
- i worked by myself
if the picture isn’t clear, suffice it to say that i gained a bit of strength during those summer days and evenings, hauling beds up and down those stairs.
i believe that it was during this job that i first began a practice of counting the stairs i frequented. particularly on some of the heavier beds i remember lifting upwards, it was either know how many stairs there were and rush up as fast as possible with faith, or struggle step-by-step, peering down at your feet for the last four or five before taking them to make sure you didn’t anticipate one that wasn’t there and break your neck, or vice versa.
the next stairs are from college, and i see them more vividly than any others, perhaps because i walked them more times. i attended a very small, private church-sponsored university in the middle of texas to which i had won a full academic scholarship.
there were only two men’s dormitories. the one on campus was the jock dorm, where all the athletes lived. it always seemed dimly lit, even during a bright day, peppered with loud music and an odor of sweat, i think i went in there to visit someone once during my two years at the school.
the other dorm was an early 1900s converted hotel. besides being the tallest structure in the city, it also housed the remainder of the college’s men — and the majority of its eligible bachelors. because of its age, the dorm only had two elevators, even though it was 12 stories high.
and because of their age, these elevators were in a constant state of repair. every week, it seemed, the maintenance men were hovering over one or the other of the shafts, while lowering a comrade down to service one of the units — looking like the coal-black workers in a diamond mine.
i lived on the 9th floor of this dorm-hotel throughout my stay. because of their lack of dependability, general overuse when they were operating, and overall untrustworthiness (i was trapped in one of the vators on my way to an important lecture one afternoon; even though i yelled for help, it was about 20 minutes before anyone noticed anything wrong), i soon learned that the preferred method for getting up and down was going to be the stairs.
i have several impressions of these stairs. first, they were steep, but not unmanageable — just the right height. this characteristic is as opposed to the lack of height of stairs at many modern facilities, including sports arenas and churches, where each step is only a few inches in elevation above the previous, confusing the climber as to whether to go the slow and awkward way of taking each step or stretching for every other step, which makes it almost too steep.
i also noticed a characteristic ( which i have since concluded is a feature ( or perhaps a common engineering principle) of most staircases) such that the majority of flights of stairs from landing to landing are numbered in odd sets. therefore, i developed a technique of always taking the first step by itself and then skipping every other stair therein, which i practice today.
this seemed the most logical way to take the stairs when running up or down them, which is what i was usually doing. i was usually running because walking 9 flights of stairs (yes, i lived on the 9th floor) got to be rather trudging work — particularly when you walked up and down them several times each day.
the stairs were an ugly, but not unfriendly, yellow color sprinkled with green. (no doubt this gave them a modern look when first built. today, most builders ignore painting and just leave the concrete or steel steps barren to absorb the dirt, trash, and wear of their users.) i don’t think I had ever considered walking stairs a preference or habit until after my college career. since then, given a choice, with all things being equal, i go with taking the stairs.
in graduate school, the stairs were less memorable, but by this time, as i said, habitual. i worked as a a graduate assistant for a non-profit, quasi-academic group that promoted free enterprise ideals. my duties evolved into what some might observe as a curious mix of brain and brawn work.
i did a lot of hauling of the center’s propaganda from place to place but also took care of the center’s financial records — which included transactions, both donations and disbursements, of tens of thousands of dollars.
we were on the 6th floor and, although the elevator service was vastly improved over my old dorm, i took the stairs up and down. they were concrete, not very wide, and harshly lighted. during my time there,
i practiced trying to walk noiselessly. i wanted to walk like indians and the fox, to develop a stealthy quality, for whatever reason at the time. as i went up or down, i would listen for the volume and length of the sound made by my step. i worked on different ways to place my feet, different combinations of shifting body weight, and even the most deliberate of slow speeds.
after achieving only marginal success, i gave it up to go back to just walking as a means of getting from one point in a vertical space to another, and not a skill to be cultivated.
i was hired by a big eight accounting firm to do consulting work coming out of graduate school. in houston, the building our offices occupied was one of the older of the modern building era. our offices were spread across a dozen or more floors of the building. there were three banks of elevators serving logical partitions of the tower, with six elevators in each bank. the elevators were dependable, fast, and pretty convenient.
by contrast, the stairs of the building were practically inaccessible. from the ground floor, they could only be exited, not entered (except, i presume, with a special janitor’s or guard’s key).
on the regular office floors, the stairwells were locked from the inside. this meant that entering the stairwell without your office key left you with 3 options: knocking on the stair doors in hopes that someone would hear and come rescue you (an embarrassing option); waiting for someone else to enter the stairs to go one way or the other (a fifty/fifty shot); or, walk all of the way down to the ground floor and come back up in the elevators (an unexpected interruption in the tasks you were performing before being trapped).
at first, i actually used the stairs a lot. i did most of my work between 2 or 3 floors and the convenience factor was in my favor. however, the equal convenience of elevators for distances greater than my 2 or 3 floor world broke me of my habitual use of stairs. during college, it had become quite uncomfortable (and disconcerting, for some strange reason) to use the vators.
but, in the professional, business world, using the stairs had a sense of being vaguely unnatural — as if the person using the stairs had some unusual quirk that motivated them to do so, like a distaste for waiting for anything (i.e., the vators) or a propensity for being a loner.
i began to use the stairs less, eventually taking them only at night as part exercise and part avoidance of the five o’clock rush.
my affairs with stairs are infrequent today. my occasion to resort to them is rare — mostly in practice of mock fire drills or when the elevators are broken. since joining my new company and moving to our new building, i can’t say i even know where they are. i wonder if anyone does?