A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Sunday, August 22, 2021

SOUND: Macy's wooden escalators

In summer, many New Yorkers head to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone, delighting in the rattles and creaks of the roller coaster's wooden trestle as they hurtle through its turns and drops. For wooden-ride aficionados looking for some mellower ups and downs in the off-season, I recommend Macy's escalators, about the same age as the Cyclone but, as it turns out, a bit harder to find. You enter the department store on the Seventh Avenue side and follow some encouraging signs.

Your hopes rise when you glimpse the handsome wooden escalator bank, hewn from original oak and ash in the 1920s and '30s, when the moving stairs were constructed by the Otis Escalator Company. But you soon find that the treads are made of aluminum and utter hardly more than a mechanical purr.

You mount one metal escalator after another, climbing into the aerie of one of the largest stores on earth. You glide past Better Sportswear, the Fur Salon, Hosiery, Pinkberry, trailing your fingers along the wooden slopes, which still have evenly spaced bumps to catch stray handbags, packages, or small children. Cupping your hand around these worn knobs in passing offers reassurance that maybe the full handrailfanning experience is to come.

And finally, as you round the bend onto the eighth floor (Housewares, Bridal Salon, De Gustibus Cooking School), you hear it: the rattling, clattering ba-bump, ba-bump. As it turns out, there are only two wooden escalators left in the store, shuttling passengers between the eighth and ninth floors.

It's a chewy, bumpy sound, the hardwood creaking as the wooden treads slide from between the teeth of the comb plate. The stairs are bordered on each side by a length of bristles, intended to keep debris from falling through the cracks—but which also provide a shoeshine en route.

You can feel the life force in the wood of the treads beneath your soles, a warmth: it's almost calming, if an escalator can provide comfort. There's a springiness to the half-inch-wide cleats, which have been worn down by decades of shoppers' feet. At the eighth-floor landing, where the old passes its baton to the new, I noticed some repair work being done. Anyone wishing to descend to the seventh floor has to use the elevator.

A sign indicates that the metal escalator has potential hazards involving its "pinch points" and "moving equipment," and that work would be needed to help it "maintain control."

Meanwhile, the wooden escalator clatters and clunks reliably past just a few feet away.


bkatchor said...

You can hear that escalator on this Julius Knipl, Real-estate Photographer: Radio Cartoon entitled, The Escalator Rider.

Kathryn Adisman said...

I recently posted on New York City History & memories FB group about Macy’s wooden escalators and got over 500 likes. It hit a nerve but not because it was fun. Those giant teeth terrified me as a child. Thought I’d fall through the cracks. You’d have to take this escalator up to see Santa. There were so many Santa’s in the street ringing bells for the Salvation Army. But Macy’s had the only real Santa. It was a ritual I was forced to go through in order to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wished for. . But by the time I got on Santa’s lap, the only thought I had was now I have to go down on the creaky escalator with the big spaces between the teeth.

Kathryn Adisman