That Button Doesn’t Work

Yesterday in a crowded elevator, I watched a man punch furiously at the door-close button, trying to guard his territory from further invasion. And I thought back to the April 21 New Yorker, in which Nick Paumgarten dropped this bombshell:

In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception.

For me, this was a Lewinski-sized revelation. Granted, Paumgarten phrases it as a kind of aside (much as Lawrence Wright broke the news in the January 21 issue that he’s been the subject of FBI wiretapping.) Still, I expected this news to spread rapidly – and to lead to a sharp decline in door-close-button pushing. Of course, my assumption that hundreds of thousands of Americans share my enthusiasm for Nick Paumgarten’s writing about just about anything appears, in retrospect, to have been misguided. I’ll be curious to see whether The Millions, with its vast readership among elevator riders, can finish what Mr. Paumgarten started. The Door-Close Button Doesn’t Work – pass it on!

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Umm…no offense, but I thought everyone knew that the Door Close button isn't active in normal situations.

  2. I must confess that Paumgarten's revelation wasn't new to me either. However, I always thought it one of those things that straddled truth and urban legend. It passed the New Yorker's factcheckers, though, so it must be true.

  3. Zizek has written about this as a metaphor for the false choices of electoral democracy or something.

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