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The Elevator Story

ACCORDING TO A very popular story circulating in the early '80s, a group of white, female tourists visiting New York City were joined in an elevator by a black man with a large dog in tow. As the elevator doors closed, the man firmly commanded his dog to "Sit," at which point the timorous ladies - assuming they were being mugged - sat.

As the story goes, the man apologized profusely even though he had done nothing wrong and explained that the order was meant for the dog. Embarrassed, the women brushed themselves off and explained they were from out of town. One of them asked nervously if the man could suggest a good restaurant nearby. He did so, then departed.

Later, after dining at the restaurant, the women were presented with a check marked "Paid in full." The waiter told them their meal had been paid for by baseball star Reggie Jackson - the man they had met on the elevator.

Quite an amusing story, not a word of which is true.

How do we know? Because, among other reasons, precisely the same story has been told over the years with Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, O.J. Simpson, Charlie Pride, and other black celebrities in the role of the gracious gentleman mistaken for a mugger. (Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand catalogued many of these in The Choking Doberman, W.W. Norton, 1984.)

False or not, the elevator story is still with us today, circulating in both oral and electronic form, though a few important details have morphed since the '80s - Eddie Murphy is the current celebrity guest (sometimes accompanied by basketball star Michael Jordan); the number of fearful tourists has dwindled to one; and, most interesting of all, somebody figured out how to make the story work without a dog.

The following email version was sighted in November 1998. (Compare to the word-of-mouth rendering contributed by a reader in March of the same year.)

Having her hair done at a Dallas beauty parlor, a Woman told a cautionary tale about racial prejudice. The story deserves a wider audience.

On a recent weekend in Las Vegas, the woman related, she won a bucketful of quarters at a slot machine. She took a break from the slots for dinner with her husband in the hotel dining room. But first she wanted to stash the quarters in her room.

"I'll be right back and we'll go to eat," she told her husband and she carried the coin laden bucket to the elevator. As she was about to walk into the elevator she noticed two men already aboard. Both were black.

One of them was big... very big... an intimidating figure. The woman froze.

Her first thought was: These two are going to rob me. Her next thought was: Don't be a bigot, they look like perfectly nice gentlemen. But racial stereotypes are powerful, and fear immobilized her. She stood and stared at the two men.

She felt anxious, flustered, ashamed. She hoped they didn't read her mind, but knew they surely did; her hesitation about joining them on the elevator was all too obvious. Her face was flushed. She couldn't just stand there, so with a mighty effort of will she picked up one foot and stepped forward and followed with the other foot and was on the elevator.

Avoiding eye contact, she turned around stiffly and faced the elevator doors as they closed. A second passed, and then another second, and then another. Her fear increased!

The elevator didn't move. Panic consumed her. My God, she thought, I'm trapped and about to be robbed! Her heart plummeted. Perspiration poured from every pore.

Then ... one of the men said, "Hit the floor." Instinct told her: Do what they tell you. The bucket of quarters flew upwards as she threw out her arms and collapsed on the elevator carpet. A shower of coins rained down on her. Take my money and spare me, she prayed. More seconds passed.

She heard one of the men say politely, "Ma'am, if you'll just tell us what floor you're going to, we'll push the button." The one who said it had a little trouble getting the words out. He was trying mightily to hold in a belly laugh.

She lifted her head and looked up at the two men. They reached down to help her up. Confused, she struggled to her feet. "When I told my man here to hit the floor," said the average sized one, "I meant that he should hit the elevator button for our floor. I didn't mean for you to hit the floor, ma'am." He spoke genially. He bit his lip. It was obvious he was having a hard time not laughing.

She thought: My God, what a spectacle I've made of myself. She was so humiliated to speak. She wanted to blurt out an apology, but words failed her. How do you apologize to two perfectly respectable gentlemen for behaving as though they were going to rob you? She didn't know what to say. The 3 of them gathered up the strewn quarters and refilled her bucket. When the elevator arrived at her floor, they insisted on walking her to her room. She seemed a little unsteady on her feet, and they were afraid she might not make it down the corridor. At her door they bid her a good evening.

As she slipped into her room she could hear them roaring with laughter while they walked back to the elevator. The woman brushed herself off. She pulled herself together and went downstairs for dinner with her husband.

The next morning flowers were delivered to her room - a dozen roses. Attached to EACH rose was a crisp one hundred dollar bill. The card said: "Thanks for the best laugh we've had in years."

It was signed,
Eddie Murphy and Bodyguard

> 'Who's Afraid of Black Men?' > Page 1, 2


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