Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Escalator Incident

Kerriana Johnson lost three fingers in an escalator, and it's a department store's fault.

Dillard's has been ordered to pay over nine million dollars to the family of the girl who lost the fingers when she tried to free her stuck shoe. The jury found that Dillard's didn't do everything it should have to repair the escalator after more than 80 people had shoes or clothing caught since 1998.

As soon as I heard the story, my mind flashed back to an incident that occurred when I took my radio show to Moscow in June, 1989.

Although communism was in its waning days under Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, this was still The Soviet Union, the Evil Empire. Many parts of their system had been so overburdened for so long that they no longer worked with any efficiency, if they ever had.

Their subways were an exception. We used them to go all over town, divining our way despite maps and signs written solely in the Cyrillic alphabet. The trains ran quickly and on time, through stations filled with paintings and sculpture -- and not a bit of graffiti.

They also had the deepest, steepest, fastest escalators I've ever been on. These things could be a ride at Six Flags. Muscovites were used to this, especially during rush hours, but if you were a naive American tourist, it was easy to be overwhelmed. The stairs moved so fast that if you didn't hold onto the handrail, you'd get an instant lesson in Newtonian physics while falling onto the person behind you..

On one of our excursions, we went to the Old Arbat, a street filled with artists, performers, and an open-air flea market. As the subway escalator reached the street level, someone about three people in front of me stumbled. She didn't fall, but she stopped for a moment. That moment was just long enough to cause a domino effect -- the man behind her stopped, the woman behind him stopped, and I had to stop.

Unfortunately, I was forced to stop at exactly the point where the escalator ends and the grooves meet that sharp steel step-plate. You're supposed to get off at that point, but the crush of people prohibited any forward motion on my part. Of course, the escalator didn't know this and kept moving.

That's when I felt a tug at my foot. Actually, it was more than a tug -- more like a violent rip. In the half-second that I was trapped at this nexus, the escalator grabbed the back of my right sneaker. Before it could take me with it, I yanked my leg upwards, saving my foot -- and three-quarters of my sneaker -- from permanent damage. However, the entire heel area of the sneaker was now gone.

The crowd kept moving. The incident had occurred so quickly that my wife and two colleagues had no idea what was going on until we stepped away from the rush of humanity.

It took a minute or so before I recovered. I had experienced a real-life version of that childhood nightmare we all have, of being devoured by the escalator and sucked into its machinery, like Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times."

Unfortunately, no one on the Old Arbat was selling footwear in my size that day, so I limped around like an odd homeless man for awhile before we headed back to the hotel and I could change shoes. My wife commented, "well, at least you have material for the show tomorrow!"

So, I got a story out of the ordeal. Kerriana Johnson wasn't so lucky. Her loss was flesh and bone -- body parts she didn't have to lose if a store manager had just done the right thing.

I bet Dillard's could find a Russian immigrant or two who knows how to make that escalator work.