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On a routine night shift several years ago, Eddie Fagerberg heard a strange noise as he tooled away on the escalator at the Dupont Circle Metro station. Plop, plop, plop, it went. Fagerberg was working at the bottom of the giant escalator and couldn’t see to the top. The noise stopped, so he just went on working. Ten minutes later the noise returned: thump, plop. Again he stopped working and peered up the escalators. Nothing. Ten minutes later, the noise started again, and a man, dead drunk, rolled off onto the cement platform at the bottom of the escalator. The man got up and asked Fagerberg if the station was open.
As a Metro escalator technician, Fagerberg rarely meets his customers, and they don’t often run into him, either. In this case, Fagerberg told the man that the station wouldn’t open for hours, and the man began a wobbly, 45-minute ascent back to Dupont Circle. And Fagerberg returned to his own grind—laboring alone at night in the tenebrous guts of the massive machines that feed the Metro.
At 3:30 a.m., the scene around the Pentagon City Metro station is as abandoned and eerie as you would expect in an antiseptic enclave with nonexistent nightlife. The only sound competing with the whoosh of traffic on the nearby interstate is the grunting of two escalator technicians, Larry Howland, a Bostonian, and Bernd Heinrich, a transplanted New Yorker from Germany. They have just finished stripping the rubber handrail from the escalator, and it’s lying on the floor like a dead anaconda.
Now it’s time to install a new one—a task that requires some muscle. Howland, who sports Navy arms, grabs ahold of the handrail and strains to set it onto the rolling track.
“I feel like I’m pulling the whole escalator,” he cries, his arms flexing with every thrust backward. “Again?”
“Yep,” responds Fagerberg, who is supervising the work.
After several minutes of pulling and grunting, the handrail has found its rightful place, where in a few hours hundreds of Metro riders will grip it, spit on it, kick it, and stumble into it.
“Did you have that fortified vitamin D milk, Larry? You didn’t throw down a box of Wheaties?” asks Heinrich. “It’s that grain cereal, you know what it does for you.”
Fagerberg, Howland, and Heinrich are members of a specialty niche in an obscure trade. Janitors and other service workers make headlines with their strikes and protests. Government workers collect all kinds of sympathy when budget cutbacks put them on the streets. Lunch-pail construction workers have a secure spot in America’s blue-collar romance. But nobody sees—much less cares about—escalator workers.
Elevator and escalator workers generally come from a few Irish and Italian families in big cities like New York and Boston. Fagerberg’s family illustrates the typical story: His father owned an elevator business in Boston, and 21 men in Fagerberg’s extended family work in the elevator/escalator business. For families like the Fagerbergs, the trade’s allure is part camaraderie and part financial: Trainees right out of high school are guaranteed $15 per hour plus plenty of overtime.
No wonder Fagerberg’s notion of work has always been wrapped around sleek steel machines that move up and down on tracks. “I’ve been going with my father since I was 14,” Fagerberg says with a tenacious accent that hasn’t lost its marble-mouthed hollowness. “[I would] go with my father after dinner on maintenance crews.” When Fagerberg was offered a hockey scholarship for college, his father asked, “Are you going to work for me or go to school?” Fagerberg chose escalators over books.
With its 522 escalators, the Metro system has become a jobs program for Fagerberg’s trade. Sometimes it seems the Metro is as much escalator as train. The Wheaton station’s, for example, is the longest in the U.S. Six motors, the equivalent of 60 horses straining at the bit, drive the steps up 248 feet of steep slope. Woodley Park-Zoo, Medical Center, Rosslyn, and Dupont Circle stations share the long, slow escalators that get riders with a fear of heights holding one railing with both hands, half turned away from their destination and eyes averted from the depths below.
To keep all the machines humming nearly 19 hours a day, Metro maintains the costliest in-house escalator-service contract in North America. And it’s continually battling to flesh out its ranks of service technicians; folks with credentials like Fagerberg’s—willing to work odd hours and versed in the ins and outs of escalators—aren’t exactly flooding employment centers around the region. Today, Metro contracts with 90 escalator/elevator technicians.
Competent escalator technicians are in short supply nationwide as well. The International Union of Elevator Constructors boasts a mere 26,000 members, and the ranks of nonunion laborers are no bigger, says Fagerberg. Metro snags many of its best technicians from New York, where members of the two union locals for elevators and escalators sometimes pound the pavement in search of a gig.
If you don’t have seniority, the quiet, fluttering midnight hours could be yours for many years. And for someone who has been working days on elevators, being told to work the escalator graveyard shift doesn’t sit too well. Fagerberg recalls a technician with years of experience who joined the crew, worked his first night, couldn’t fall asleep the next day, and quit.
Those who can stomach the hours need never worry about taking a number in the unemployment line. “There is a lifetime supply of work,” Fagerberg says. “You can’t get caught up. It’s impossible.” In the last month, Fagerberg went from four crews to three, while Metro grapples with its labor shortage. “People get tired,” says Fagerberg. Maintenance superintendent Don Kloehn says Metro could still use another 30 to 40 technicians.
As their title “technician” suggests, the crews do much more than lughead labor like pulling handrails and lifting weighty steel steps. In addition they bump heads regularly with sleek, computerized escalators like the model at Pentagon station, which was designed by the British company A.P.V. Baker. The control box, which is basically a giant microprocessor, is as clean and neat as a silverware tray. Gone is the tangle of relays, starters, timers, fuses, and tubes that spills from older models. The box flashes a digitized screen recording the last 99 times the escalator has shut off and why—like a souped-up Xerox machine. Although the space-age diagnostics save the technicians the usual sleuthing routine, actually fixing the beast means dealing with chips, memory, and other gadgets familiar mostly to computer techies. And the technicians have to learn the intricacies of the escalator’s fussy glide brakes, which turn a jarring, knee-bending stop into a smooth slide into home.
Technology notwithstanding, Metro’s escalators break down every day. For some machines in the system, a heavy mist is enough to call off work. Others have more legitimate reasons to stop churning, like the pens and other detritus that get wedged into the ribs of the steps. And escalator crews swear there are mischievous kids who know exactly which side panel to kick to stop the escalators.
Although escalator breakdowns are never tragic, they exact a toll: Having to slog up the stairs is enough to tear the stuffing out of the average flabby suburban commuter, a life-threatening ordeal for the infirm, and a chance for health nuts to nauseate the panting crowd by showing off their thighs. All of which puts a premium on competent escalator technicians.
On a rainy fall afternoon, Kloehn is checking the machine room at the Dupont Circle station under 20th and Q Streets NW. As dozens of visitors stream up the escalator into the drizzle, Kloehn lurks underneath, in a gray dripping concrete chute, where there is no sign of those people, only the muted clacking of the escalator turning on its rack and axle. The few white lights on the walls and the muted green of the machine lights lend the place a dungeonlike feel. Kloehn and another maintenance supervisor climb up a slope of steps that run underneath and between the two escalators. Down here there are no handrails, just the continuous whirring of five motors, some chains, and a blur of machinery that seems destined to continue moving forever. And if Kloehn does his job right, they will. And the people above will never know he exists.—Ruth Levine