Comedy

Musings While Trapped in a Miami Courthouse Elevator

Getting stuck in an elevator is a long-standing phobia for many people, including at least one New Times reporter
Getting stuck in an elevator is a long-standing phobia for many people, including at least one New Times reporter Photo by Derrick Treadwell via Unsplash
It's about 20 minutes into my unscheduled confinement in a courthouse elevator nine stories up when I start to appreciate how nice it is to have nothing to do.

Outside my dangling metal cell, hanging motionless between the eighth and ninth floors of a federal courthouse in downtown Miami, conditions were less than serene.

A local elected official's legal team was getting slammed by a magistrate judge who said their arguments aren't "holding water"; voters were on their way to flipping Miami-Dade County to a deep shade of red; and South Florida prepared for its most belated fall hurricane on record.

So, from a certain perspective, solitary confinement in a shiny elevator isn't half bad, even if I am actively experiencing my greatest childhood fear. I don't have to do anything because I can't do anything.

Plus, I have my lunch.

Just a few hours ago, on November 8, I was in the 11th-floor courtroom of Magistrate Judge Lauren Fleischer Louis, watching an evidentiary hearing in a federal civil rights case against City of Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo.

The lawsuit, filed by Little Havana business owners William Fuller and Martin Pinilla, is already in its fourth year. The pair sued Carollo in 2018 alleging that the commissioner mobilized city officials to harass them and target their businesses after they supported Carollo's political opponent Alfie Leon in 2017.

The hearing, meant to address the Carollo camp's objection to a key piece of evidence Fuller and Pinilla acquired, had taken up much of the morning and was adjourned for lunch.

It was on my way back, toting takeaway hot dogs from a café at Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus, that I met my misfortune.

I passed through security at the temporary entrance of the C. Clyde Atkins U.S. Courthouse, a brutalist structure built in 1983 and renamed in 2007 after a U.S. District Court judge who had helped desegregate Miami schools. It was 2:14 p.m., just a minute before closing arguments were set to begin, and I entered the next elevator after Fuller and Pinilla's attorneys, electing to ascend alone.

When the cab reached the 11th floor, the door refused to open. Panic quickly set in — this is, again, one of my oldest fears — but I swallowed it and pressed "10," hoping the elevator would open a floor lower so I could take the stairs.

No luck. The cab jerked and lurched downward, but the doors wouldn't move.

Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic.

After pressing "9" only to experience the same stomach-churning jerk, I did what I always imagined myself doing in my worst-case scenarios: I pressed the "Help" button. A dispatcher answered. I told the dispatcher where I was, texted my editor that I was going to miss the end of the hearing and sat down on the floor to reflect until someone arrived to rescue me.

A few things have gone through my mind in the roughly 30 minutes I've spent in the box.

I questioned my odds of survival if I plummeted nine floors and roughly 100 feet down (I later learned this is a myth and elevators don't fall, but I'm still going to imagine it).

I thought about what I must be missing on the 11th floor, and what the judge had to say about the closing arguments.

I mused about whether my confinement was by design — had someone somehow contrived to sabotage the elevator so I wouldn't see the end of the proceedings? That line of thought quickly ended when I realized I wasn't special enough to warrant that kind of plot.

Two fire-rescue workers finally arrive around 2:45 p.m. and pry open the elevator door from the eighth floor, which I can see through a sliver of space in my suspended cell. The cab is mostly on the ninth floor, but dangling over the eighth floor with just enough space that I can see the head and shoulders of my would-be saviors.

One man, whose name I forgot to ask amid the adrenaline rush, asks how skinny I am as he peers at me through the small gap from which I am meant to escape.

"Not very," I reply, "but I'll try anything."

He instructs me to slide out through the gap on my belly but warns me in no uncertain terms where I should point my legs.

"If you go straight down, that's your death. You will die if you don't aim your feet at the floor," he says.

Of course, because this situation had to get even worse. That's how it goes.

In no rush to stay stuck any longer, I make like a penguin in reverse and the firefighters grab my legs to pull me away from the shaft, which I see clearly on my way out. The man wasn't kidding: That was my death.

They take me down to the lobby and ask if I want to head back up the stairs to the 11th floor to watch the end of the hearing, if it is still happening. I decide, instead, to go home.

I am too busy kissing the ground to consider another trek up.

There's no grand moral to this story, except to say you can take the stairs once in a while.

And never get into an elevator by yourself, because misery loves company.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos

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