Some of the most valuable skills I learned in college were outside the classroom.
Through the summer and holidays, I worked as a porter at One Liberty Place,
a skyscraper in Center City Philadelphia — the city’s tallest at the time.
I swept cigarette butts, mopped coffee spills off the white marble floor and Windexed revolving doors (a literal exercise in futility). My favorite job was piloting one of the two Otis freight elevators that span the building’s spine,
from two subterranean levels to the 55th floor.
I learned everything I know about small talk in those elevators.
In an elevator, there’s only time for small talk. After I punched in their floor and closed the door, the choice between awkward small talk and awkward silence was all that remained.
I chose my comfortable, quiet place. But truckers and delivery folks are small talk pros, and I couldn’t help but learn from the best. In a time before the Internet, they were a proto-Twitter — always armed with a weather forecast, ballgame score or political opinion.
I turned small talk into a game. The elevator travels at 2 seconds per floor.
Once you tell me where you’re going, I know how much time we have.
I needed to be interested and interesting for a precise amount of time. Overshoot, and I’m holding up the elevator to finish chatting. Come up short, and the silence becomes an awkward elephant.
Nearly thirty years later, I’m still my most charming self in an elevator.