The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor

slip elevatorWith Halloween just nine days away, it’s time to enjoy a little warm-up scare. The first thing along those lines that came to mind was Room for One More, the classic urban legend style horror story that took place in a department store elevator. The notion of department store elevators got me thinking about the dreaded 13th floor, though the only department store I know of that ascends to those heights is the Shinsegae Centum City in Busan, Korea. That shopper’s paradise is 14 stories high, though this number may be somewhat elastic since I am not sure if the 13th floor was omitted.

This general dread of the number thirteen (Triskaidekaphobia) has been around for a long time. though nobody knows for certain how it got started. A Norse legend states that twelve gods were sitting down to a banquet, when a thirteenth god, Loki, showed up and wrought havoc. Some say Judas was the 13th to sit for The Last Supper.

Thought it wasn’t until 1885 that the first skyscraper was built––and that one was only twelve stories tall––in skyscrapers that followed thirteenth floors were often omitted––officially at least. That hasn’t changed. According to Otis Elevator Company, up to 85 percent of elevator panels today omit the number 13. The practice is so pervasive that emergency responders generally assume that to be the case.

In this uncharacteristic epic poem, Ogden Nash addresses that missing floor. It’s a delight to read any time, but perhaps it’s most enjoyable this time of year. Read it, and get into the spirit of a spooky Halloween!

The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor

The hands of the clock were reaching high
In an old midtown hotel;
I name no name, but its sordid fame
Is table talk in hell.
I name no name, but hell’s own flame
Illumes the lobby garish,
A gilded snare just off Times Square
For the maidens of the parish.

The revolving door swept the grimy floor
Like a crinoline grotesque,
And a lowly bum from an ancient slum
Crept furtively past the desk.
His footsteps sift into the lift
As a knife in the sheath is slipped,
Stealthy and swift into the lift
As a vampire into a crypt.

Old Maxie, the elevator boy,
Was reading an ode by Shelley,
But he dropped the ode as it were a toad
When the gun jammed into his belly.
There came a whisper as soft as mud
In the bed of an old canal:
“Take me up to the suite of Pinball Pete,
The rat who betrayed my gal.”

The lift doth rise with groans and sighs
Like a duchess for the waltz,
Then in middle shaft, like a duchess daft,
It changes its mind and halts.
The bum bites lip as the landlocked ship
Doth neither fall nor rise,
But Maxie the elevator boy
Regards him with burning eyes.
“First, to explore the thirteenth floor,”
Says Maxie, “would be wise.”

Quoth the bum, “There is moss on your double cross,
I have been this way before,
I have cased the joint at every point,
And there is no thirteenth floor.
The architect he skipped direct
From twelve unto fourteen,
There is twelve below and fourteen above,
And nothing in between,
For the vermin who dwell in this hotel
Could never abide thirteen.”

Said Max, “Thirteen, that floor obscene,
Is hidden from human sight;
But once a year it doth appear,
On this Walpurgis Night.
Ere you peril your soul in murderer’s role,
Heed those who sinned of yore;
The path they trod led away from God,
And onto the thirteenth floor,
Where those they slew, a grisly crew,
Reproach them forevermore.

“We are higher than twelve and below fourteen,”
Said Maxie to the bum,
“And the sickening draft that taints the shaft
Is a whiff of kingdom come.
The sickening draft that taints the shaft
Blows through the devil’s door!”
And he squashed the latch like a fungus patch,
And revealed the thirteenth floor.

It was cheap cigars like lurid scars
That glowed in the rancid gloom,
The murk was a-boil with fusel oil
And the reek of stale perfume.
And round and round there dragged and wound
A loathsome conga chain,
The square and the hep in slow lock step,
The slayer and the slain.
(For the souls of the victims ascend on high,
But their bodies below remain.)

The clean souls fly to their home in the sky,
But their bodies remain below
To pursue the Cain who each has slain
And harry him to and fro.
When life is extinct each corpse is linked
To its gibbering murderer,
As a chicken is bound with wire around
The neck of a killer cur.

Handcuffed to Hate come Doctor Waite
(He tastes the poison now),
And Ruth and Judd and a head of blood
With horns upon its brow.
Up sashays Nan with her feathery fan
From Floradora bright;
She never hung for Caesar Young
But she’s dancing with him tonight.

Here’s the bulging hip and the foam-flecked lip
Of the mad dog, Vincent Coll,
And over there that ill-met pair,
Becker and Rosenthal,
Here’s Legs and Dutch and a dozen such
Of braggart bullies and brutes,
And each one bends ‘neath the weight of friends
Who are wearing concrete suits.

Now the damned make way for the double-damned
Who emerge with shuffling pace
From the nightmare zone of persons unknown,
With neither name nor face.
And poor Dot King to one doth cling,
Joined in a ghastly jig,
While Elwell doth jape at a goblin shape
And tickle it with his wig.

See Rothstein pass like breath on a glass,
The original Black Sox kid;
He riffles the pack, riding piggyback
On the killer whose name he hid.
And smeared like brine on a slavering swine,
Starr Faithful, once so fair,
Drawn from the sea to her debauchee,
With the salt sand in her hair.

And still they come, and from the bum
The icy sweat doth spray;
His white lips scream as in a dream,
“For God’s sake, let’s away!
If ever I meet with Pinball Pete
I will not seek his gore,
Lest a treadmill grim I must trudge with him
On the hideous thirteenth floor.”

“For you I rejoice,” said Maxie’s voice,
“And I bid you go in peace,
But I am late for a dancing date
That nevermore will cease.
So remember, friend, as your way you wend,
That it would have happened to you,
But I turned the heat on Pinball Pete;
You see; I had a daughter, too!”

The bum reached out and he tried to shout,
But the door in his face was slammed,
And silent as stone he rode down alone
From the floor of the double-damned.

— Ogden Nash

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