All around us, in tall buildings and underground, in townhouses and subway stations, vast legions of staircases go about leading their quiet, invisible lives. When they get lonely, they communicate to one another in messages relayed on the soles of shoes. We can no more understand their messages than they can understand our need to travel so often, though they rely on our moving just as we rely on their staying put.
Staircases find creative methods to fill their days. Do you ever leave your apartment and walk halfway down the stairs when you get a strange feeling you have forgotten something? You might go all the way back up, only to stand in the living room, wondering. This is a trick staircases play for their own amusement.
Sometimes when we slip and fall, it is because the stairs are in a blue mood. Sometimes it is because we are a little clumsy.
Staircases know more about us than we guess. Consider what we tell them just with the gait of our steps, our buoyancy or heaviness. This is information we’re giving away. Stairs intuit much more. Ceilings may know our dreams, and walls our frustrations, but staircases see what we aspire to, in our heart of hearts.
A man once wrote a poem imagining his life as a staircase. He described a world of vibrations punctuated by periods of silence, the peculiar hopes of steel and stone. He wondered: Do stairs sing? In his poet’s ear he heard the hum of a thousand stairwells, drawn from the drums of hidden pipes and hollow spaces.
When he felt satisfied with his work, the poet printed a dozen copies to submit for publication. In his excitement as he hurried downstairs to the post office, he did not notice the page that slipped from the pile and landed facedown. The staircase read the poem and thought, Well, here is a man who understands us. Word spread quickly, and soon thereafter the staircases voted the poet their king.
The King of Staircases remained unaware of his election, and his life continued much as before. His poem, for example, did not get published. However, certain things about his habits changed. He often felt an inexplicable desire to stand idly in unfamiliar stairwells. He discovered an intense dislike of elevators and wondered if he had developed mild claustrophobia. Meanwhile, the stairs plotted.
In the building next door to the poet lived a dancer who was well loved among the staircases of the city for her tiny, eloquent feet. In all the years the two had been neighbors they had never met. One afternoon, as the woman descended the stairs on her way to run an errand, she was seized by the notion she was missing something, and went up to her apartment, only to realize she had not forgotten anything after all. This small delay in her departure led to her emerging onto the sidewalk just in time to be knocked over by the poet on his way from the printer with a new poem in hand. His stack of papers scattered, whipping down the street in the autumn wind.
The staircases never knew what the poem was about, this time. But now is not the time to concern ourselves with verse, because here is the poet helping the woman to her feet; here is the woman laughing and brushing off her coat. The woman spots one page still within reach—she grasps and misses; the poem goes fluttering down the sidewalk, lost for all time. The poet will not accept an apology. But, yes, he will accept a cup of coffee. The woman leaves her errand for another time, and she and the poet walk together inside. In whose building it doesn’t matter, because either way, the stairs will know.