In praise of staircases

Tuesday, September 25, 2018 - 3:30pm

University of Michigan Musuem of Art

University of Michigan Musuem of Art Buy this photo
Cassandra Mansuetti / Daily

Freshman year, I lived on the eighth floor of South Quad, in the room closest to the elevator. When I say closest to the elevator, I mean legitimately right by it. No drab hallway standing in between the elevator and my door. If I was taking big strides, I could get to my door in five steps and fewer seconds. I could open and close my door faster than the elevator could do. If my roommates were particularly quiet any given evening, I could hear many a muffled “GOING DOWN” while dozing off. We had no neighbors, or perhaps we had the most, as that elevator room hosted more people over those two semesters than any cramped double ever could.

The two elevators were, initially, my friends. They lifted a bin full of all my crap for move-in up more stories than I ever could, and quickly to boot. On long, raucous nights, they offered me a rectangular chamber of reflection before I unskillfully climbed then crashed into my bunk bed. They made the wait for pizza or wings or cookie a bit more bearable.

The left elevator was inclined to break down, however, and I grew to fear it. Leaving for class one day and seeing a repairman lying prone on the floor, flashlight in hand, with cries for rescue in the distance didn’t help, either. There was a rare chance for one or the other or both to be caked with vomit, random expelled libations and burritos from the night before. And what could be a meditative sanctuary when alone was transformed into a playground for social anxiety when flanked by people on all sides.

There isn’t any specific day when it started, but not too long into my college career I tried to take the stairs as much as possible. All eight flights of them. “It’s exercise,” I chastised my sluggish self. That usually got me up and climbing after eating too big a helping of vanilla soft serve with my signature Fruity Pebbles garnish, or halfway through days with long breaks between classes and short walks. Yet I still tried to opt for the stairs on exhausting days, days where I rode multiple buses and walked across multiple diags and sat endlessly in multiple classrooms.

Rackham Graduate School

Rackham Graduate School Buy this photo
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Dental Building

Dental Building Buy this photo
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Maybe it was the possibility of saying hello to fellow 8th Huber residents because the most convenient staircase gave me a considerably longer path to my room than the elevator. Maybe it was the thought of what I would cinematographically look like dancing up the stairs from a static, exterior lens, as the eight windows only afforded glimpses of my gallivanting. Maybe what kept me stair-stepping was the bliss of stomping along synchronously to the beat of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.”

Angell Hall

Angell Hall Buy this photo
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Law Library

Law Library Buy this photo
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A lot of stairways on campus are targets of ire, but I think they deserve better. (Except for any set of stairs in Mason Hall, which are all congested and clammy and as dreadful as the Math 116 class I had in that silly building). A staircase presents its own special experience: Walking up to the 4th floor of the MLB is an odyssey of lighting and varying stair width, the many floors of Haven Hall have a certain medieval bell tower-esque whimsy to them, the twisting stairs tucked in the side of the Union (may she rest in peace) allow for an interior appreciation of its ivy-covered architecture, Hatcher’s dueling grand staircases brace you for the studious battle ahead. A ride on an elevator is fundamentally the same now as it was 160 years ago when Elisha Otis was still farting around.

Otis elevator

Otis elevator Buy this photo
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Martha Cook Building

Martha Cook Building Buy this photo
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Stairs work our minds as much as they work our bodies by giving us a steadfast stage for contemplation and expression. They have a greater ability to move than their mechanical rivals, despite being set in stone. They provide a lush canvas as an artistic medium, from their tangible aesthetic flourishes to their ability to frame in film. Take “Inception,” a film whose lauded special effects could easily visualize the impossible Penrose stairs but could only make a scene in an elevator exciting through the addition of zero gravity. M. C. Escher might have been less of a household name if he decided to sketch endless elevators.

Hatcher Graduate Library

Hatcher Graduate Library Buy this photo
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Ross School of Business

Ross School of Business Buy this photo
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I’m not advocating for some sort of crusade against elevators — “Cut the Cables of Oppression!” — all I’m saying is that staircases have been here before elevators and will probably be here after. Stairs still remain more practical and important and ask your local fire marshal if you’re not convinced. You could ride the same elevator for a lifetime and have only a tiny fraction of the distinct experiences walking up the stairs would grant you.

Hill Auditorium

Hill Auditorium Buy this photo
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Modern Languages Building

Modern Languages Building Buy this photo
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I could escape into the stairwell of that first dorm of mine and leave my mom a voicemail telling her how much I love her and appreciate her after watching “Lady Bird” and noticing my family and the McPhersons have the same cherry red “You are special today” plate. I don’t think I could’ve spit out the same sentiment on a quick, crowded elevator ride.

North Quad

North Quad Buy this photo
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