You can tell who has lived in my building for a while by their elevator behavior. Anyone who’s spent any time in that unreliable apparatus knows it to be molasses slow, and that there is a significant interval between the stop and the opening of the doors. For instance, if you say, “Have a good one!” as soon as the elevator reaches the floor, there will be an agonizingly long moment of awkward silence in which you both stare fixedly at the door, willing it to open. An old-timer, by contrast, will allow the moment of silence first, and then slip in the valediction at the last possible second. I usually walk.
But on this occasion, I was riding. You see, I’d snuck up to the roof to collect a mothballed sweater I’d been secretly airing and didn’t feel like walking all the way down to the basement laundry room. I had already marked out the other occupants of the elevator as newbies, both because I’d never seen them, and because they essayed a premature good-bye to a departing tenant on twelve. They had a very cherubic baby with them.
“What a little sweetie,” I said. “How old is he?”
I wasn’t particularly invested in the answer one way or another—I have no baby of my own to compare, development-wise, and thus no possibility of common ground, let alone concealed panic or concealed smugness—but I didn’t want to leave it at a remark on his cuteness. What if the parents then felt compelled to say thank you, as if I’d been complimenting them, somehow? I didn’t want to put them in such a position.
“Fifteen months,” said the mother, and I smiled in the knowing way I felt was expected.
“Do you live on fourteen?” I asked.
“We’re visiting friends,” said the dad.
“Do your friends who live there feel like they’re living a lie?” I said eagerly, because I always wonder, and the one person I’d managed to corner on the issue hadn’t spoken English. “I mean, because it’s actually thirteen, and such a big part of their lives is dictated by medieval superstition?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the woman.
We subsided into silence. I smiled at the baby; he was really very cute. He glared.
“He’s a little grumpy,” said the man, apologetically.
“I don’t take it personally,” I said.
The dad then turned to the baby and said, loudly, “You’ve offended her, Jackson! You’ve hurt her feelings!”
I didn’t know what to say. I was appalled. Was he crazy?
Or, worse, was he telepathic? I wasn’t exactly offended, but I did feel exposed. After all, everyone knows a baby can secretly see into the blackness of your soul. That’s just common knowledge.
As we reached one—finally—the baby Jackson broke into a toothy grin. “There it is!” said his mom. We were all relieved.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.