How to buy an elevator – a John Dunn story

by John Dunn
A few explanations before reading:
1) Marie is Mrs. Marie Dunn
2) Sister Camillus was Marie’s aunt
3) Port Arthur is the present day Thunder Bay

220px-Otiselevator_1856Sister Camillus, born Mary Tierney at Fallowfield, lived for one hundred years and six months. In all that glorious span of years and months, nothing that she ever accomplished happened quite the way anyone else would have anticipated, given the like circumstances, and not because an insouciant younger generation might declare that she did things unpredictably, ‘right off the wall’.  Not at all.  Those who knew her best realized that a measure of practicality and careful consideration  marked her every enterprise, and put a stamp into its completion in much the same way carbon content characterizes high quality tool steel.

Take for instance, the day when she came unexpectedly to Toronto to buy an elevator for St. Joseph’s hospital in Port Arthur.  Sister Camillus was then ‘the person in charge’ at the hospital, chief of nursing, director of finance, manager of maintenance, chief operating engineer, and handled other aspects of managing a hospital in her spare time.  In a letter to me ‘somewhere in England’  with the Canadian army in wartime,  Marie,  Sister’s godchild and niece, wrote telling me that before eight o’clock one morning in January, 1944, she had answered the telephone in the apartment on St. Joseph Street and in surprise heard a familiar voice say: “Marie, it’s Sister Camillus.”.

“Sister, what a wonderful surprise,” exclaimed Marie.  “Where are you?”

“I’m in Toronto.  I’ve just arrived from Port Arthur.”

“In Toronto!  What are you doing in Toronto?”

“I’m here to buy an elevator.”

“You’re buying an elevator?”  Laughter at such a bizarre notion could have started a Charlie Chaplin sketch of a nun and her niece getting started in the elevator business.

“Yes,” Sister Camillus confirmed the reason she was in Toronto.  “And since I’m alone this time, I wondered if you’d be able to find time to accompany me on this business.  It might take most of the day.”

“Yes, I can.  I’d be glad to.”  Marie replied.

“I’m glad to hear that.  Let me just come up to your place then and make a few telephone calls, and we can begin our business from there.  Would that be all right?”

“Certainly..  I’ll be waiting for you.”

At the apartment, Sister called the Otis people, and explained that she was in Toronto for the purpose of buying an elevator for the Sisters’ new hospital in Port Arthur.  At ten o’clock, a long sleek Cadillac limousine with a uniformed chauffeur at the wheel drew up in front of the apartment building on St. Joseph Street, and a very nice young man came to the apartment to announce that he would be happy to escort Sister Camillus and Marie on a tour of the city and give them first hand experience of Otis quality in elevators. They set off for the Toronto Western Hospital where they rode up and down, in Otis elevators exclusively.  That led to further demonstrations of Otis quality at the Toronto General.  Each new up and down offered an additional note of improvements in the technology of getting up and down, and the day wore on, listening to the manufacturer’s representative extolling the merits of one versus another installation for hospital use.

At three-thirty in the afternoon, when it seemed they had covered the Otis scene with a blanket and the day was about finished, the nice young man seemed of a sudden to lose his aplomb.  His enthusiasm went damp.

“Is that it, then?” Sister Camillus asked him.

“Well,” said he haltingly, “Maybe yes, Sister, and maybe no.  You see,” he fumbled for words, “The very latest improvement in elevators for hospitals is a self-leveling device.  You know how awkward it is when the cage comes to a floor and the elevator stops an inch or two lower or higher than the floor where you’re stopped.”

Sister Camillus nodded, quite aware of those awkward occurrences.

“Now we’ve got a self-leveling device which stops the cage right at the level you want, and makes it easy to bring patients from the operating room into recovery, and even allows the staff to move patients from one floor to another as they improve.  We’d like to have you see this device at work too.”

Sister nodded in agreement with the advantages to be had in the self-leveling device.  “I understand,” she said.  “Is there some place we can see it?” 

Distress in the nice young man reached the acute stage.  “Yes, there is” he managed and almost choked, “It’s just that there’s only one in Toronto right now, and, well it’s quite central too.  On Dundas.”   He lapsed into silence.

Sister Camillus offered palliative care.  “Where on Dundas?” she asked.

“O’Keefe’s Brewery,” he confessed shamefacedly.

A pause lasted five seconds, and again Sister’s instinct for palliative care broke in.  “Well, what are we waiting for?” she asked…

Raised eyebrows in the O’Keefe lobby greeted the nun in full regimentals of black and white, her niece and the Otis man.  Animated conversations in little groups of men in animated conversation suddenly stopped talking, their words choked off, and replaced by a stunned silence.  Men watched silently, staring open mouthed as the Otis man escorted a nun and her niece across the foyer and boarded the new elevator.   A generically-neutral door closed on them.  The three rode up and down, back up and down again, and because it was just change of shift time with men coming on duty and others leaving, intermediate stops multiplied.  The self-leveling device proved itself a boon in the brewery.  Doors opened to admit brewery workers, whose naturally ebullient temperaments went silent as if flash-frozen.  The Great Silence in the Trappist monastery at Oka would have been pandemonium compared to the stillness in the self-leveling elevator in the O’Keefe sanctuary.  Men removed their hats as if warned by an inner voice that their days were numbered.  Sister thought Toronto had become a place of many wonders.  The self-leveling scene enraptured Marie.  The Otis man rejoiced that his device instilled muffled quiet akin to the presence of the Almighty.One brewery worker escaping the cage at the 1200 foot level wiped his brow immediately and hissed into the ear of a waiting union steward “Do you know what I’ve just seen in that elevator?”

The door of the cage closed before the steward’s reaction could be assessed for accuracy, but later report had it that his retort hopped, skipped and jumped up from the Mediterranean to land at Lake Ontario.  There, after a deep breath the steward enquired. “Dante’s ‘Inferno’, maybe?”

At five o’clock the limousine drew in again to the parking space at the curb in front of 26 St. Joseph Street and Sister Camillus and Marie returned thanks to Otis for the courtesy of the Cadillac and all the advice they had received about elevators.

The streak of practicality in the Tierney genes broke out in Marie’s wonderment.  Back inside the apartment she enquired about the cost of an elevator for a hospital.  “How much would it cost to buy an elevator for your hospital in Port Arthur?”

“Somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand dollars,” said Sister Camillus.

“And do you have that kind of money?” asked practicality-driven niece.

“Oh no,” Sister Camillus laughed.  “Not at all.”

“Then what will you do?” asked Marie, desperation writ all over.

“We leave that kind of thing to St. Joseph,” replied Sister.  “He provides.”

A year later, a celebration brought about a family gathering which also was held in Toronto.  It gave Sister Camillus and Marie an occasion for reminiscence about the special day they’d spent on Toronto elevators.  “Did St. Joseph ever come through with money for your elevator in Port Arthur?” Marie enquired.

“Oh yes, of course,” Sister said, adding “Self-leveling device and all.”  And, seeing the puzzlement in Marie’s eyes, Sister added “As the men in the family say, ‘No sweat’.”