Saturday, December 16, 2017
Human Interest

In the quest for justice, a severely crowded elevator is the first stop

The Hillsborough County courthouse, where attacker and victim meet by appointment and men are condemned to death; place of sobs, stares and sighs of relief, where the custodian pushes a wet vac, because bathrooms get smeared in contempt.

In the annex, where criminal cases are heard, 29 courtrooms span six floors. They fill on busy mornings, dockets starting around 8:30. The public stairwell ends at the second floor. Beyond that, there is only one way up:

By elevator.

So into this metal box they cram, the prosecution and the defense, the judges and the accused, bow-tied and seersuckered, neck-tattooed and ankle-monitored — up to a dozen at a time — sharing a rough 6 feet by 5 feet and oxygen, and the experience of momentary captivity.

Six seconds to the next floor.

They have more in common in here than anywhere else. Humans, especially American humans, value personal space. But inside this elevator at its most packed capacity, that space is reduced to mere inches. This, writes anthropologist Edward T. Hall, is the distance of love-making and wrestling.

To minimize the discomfort, the captives engage in an unspoken choreography. Occupy the walls first, then spread. Stand straight, to minimize the chance of touching. Don't flinch.

When two rhesus macaques are trapped together in a small cage, writes biologist Dario Maestripieri, they try everything they can to avoid fighting . . . The monkeys sit in a corner and avoid any random movements that might inadvertently cause a collision, because even a brief touch could be interpreted as the beginning of hostile action.

"Sorry," one woman says. Another responds, "You're okay."

Conversations last no longer than this, as all stand silent, facing the doors, waiting together, to be vomited back into the world.

Someone drank coffee this morning. Someone smoked a cigarette. Someone applied a generous dose of cologne.

Breathe upward, where the air is more fresh.

Break the silence.

"Mmm-mmm-mmm," says one woman. "What's the weight capacity of this thing?"

Alexandra Zayas, a general assignment reporter in Tampa, rode the elevator for about 90 minutes during the morning courthouse rush. She rode it several times a day during the year she spent covering the courthouse. Now, John Barry has the honor.

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