57156 paternoster

I stand in an upright casket and ascend to the sound of a gentle rumbling, a low wooden thrum, regular like a heartbeat, together with the occasional mousey squeak of gears and chains. Surrounded on five sides by cello-colored wood, I am hanging in a small chamber, loosely fitted in a vertical tunnel, so that any shift of my weight, say from one foot to the other, causes the sides of the box to softly strike against the walls of the shaft with a deep throaty rattle.

At regular, slow, intervals, the open side of the box faces well-lit corridors, some bleak and empty; others rustling with footsteps, but the ascent of the car continues. The light dims as the edge of a floor descends before me, which is then followed by another bright corridor; a series of them passes by. Occasionally, I see a person or two standing, waiting. The alternating bright and dark, an ebb and flow of light, a lugubrious pulsation, makes a mechanized mockery of sunrise and sunset from these quick false days and nights.

A posted message and a black line warns me back. Step off! Step off now! But I disobey, I vow to go up and over the top. I feel a mild fluttering in my stomach as the line is crossed. I know it must be safe, but nonetheless I am gripped by the inevitability of this cyclic motion, an unreleased tension, a fated-ness, as if passing a line of no return. I rise further, into the unknown, as a wall descends, closing off the open side of the box. It’s too late now for a different decision! I travel in a vertical passage of darkness.

The motion of ascent subtly changes, and the car, with a soft jolt, begins to move to the right as the ascent also slows, though the speed of travel, considered without regard to its direction, remains constant. At the top of the trajectory, through a small opening visible only momentarily at the top of the open side of the car, I get a glimpse of a dusty attic, radiant with rays of the afternoon sun neatly sculpted in ambient dust, a sham golden heaven, forever denied. No sooner has our upward and rightward motion crested, than the box starts back down. Another soft jolt and we slide slowly down another shaft, and the second act begins.

The sequence continues as before, but this time I am descending. On its fixed track, the revolution of the machine lifts and lowers a loop of wooden boxes in precise balance, as many such boxes rising as falling at any given time, so much motion standing still, like the mythical perpetuum mobile. When we get to the bottom, what lies beneath? A dark cave, a black fundament. For a short time, I become a dim spectre, outlined in the whispering sliver of light left to me.


Field recording from a paternoster on V jamě street, Prague

The paternoster elevator, of which there are numerous working examples in Prague, take the form of a series vertical train cars running in a pair of adjacent shafts. Its orbit depends on a configuration of gears and rollers, pulleys and chains, and two large offset wheels at the top and bottom. Fed with electricity, it moves cyclically between its zenith and nadir, shuttling people up and down as they go about their business.

The name paternoster evokes a prayer, because the series of cabinets on a track forming a loop resembles the beads on a rosary. Perhaps a prayer is in order, for a newspaper article linked from a Wikipedia page informs me, “At least five people have been killed by paternosters since 1970…”, often elderly people, whose agility and coordination may be compromised, who mis-step and are crushed in the works.

But the wheels roll lethargically, predictably, always in the down direction on one side and up in the other. Standing ready, transfixed, waiting for the floor of the car to rise or fall, one waits. Then, with a split second of tension, a glimpse of death, one steps on. But the floor rises up in front of you to greet your step, pushing up from below onto the sole of your forward foot, and you are then carried upward like an angel.

This essay was first published in Czech
on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 9th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“