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A Progression on Stairs

Cassie Keller Cole


I love watching people filter up and down stairs. I love that stairs are traveled like streets, always with a direction—everyone going different ways. I love the constructive words that describe a single stair: tread and riser meeting at the nosing. Stairs stand with a sense of purpose, however distant from consciousness. Stair motion is not confined like the controlled mechanics of escalators. In public buildings, I love the surprise of each distinct level, the grimy smoothness of the handrail under my fingers. In the architecture of my dreams, the stairs are spiraled and wooden, but in reality my favorite stairs are straight and carpet worn. They are in homes, grunting softly under the steady travel of familiar feet.


The Scala Santa is a holy stairway made of twenty-eight white marble stairs. They were moved from Jerusalem to Rome by Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine. According to legend, Christ ascended these steps to talk with Pilate. In the early nineteenth century, plenary indulgences were granted to worshippers who prayed while crawling up the stairs on their knees as a sign of devotion and penitence for their sins. Similar indulgences have been granted at other stairs and times throughout history; today, people continue to kneel up sacred stairs, sometimes until their knees are bloody, to express humble repentance as they seek salvation.

The Book of Ezekiel records a revelation on the temple design, down to the number of stairs. Ancient Jericho, or Tel e-Sultan, claims the oldest known stairs which are estimated to be between seven and nine thousand years old. I like to think that stairs began as an experiment of sacred ascension, a blessing on each tread, a prayer in each riser, an angel drifting over them.

Originally stairs were built blocked within walls on both sides. Instead of shooting skyward, stairwells appear to only move down—down to dusty dungeons, to dingy subways, to cold damp holes. Narrow stairwells can seem to grow out of, or towards, hell’s custodial closets, but I prefer to think of them leading to a well of life-giving water.

I wonder about the Tower of Babel. The laborers probably did more than steady themselves on scaffolding; there must have been stairs if the intent of the structure was to reach into heaven. I imagine the stairs without a railing; they wound like a snake around the outside of the narrow column. How many wanted to find God, and how many wanted to prove that He wasn’t there?


In my childhood home, all of the kids’ bedrooms were in the basement. Two flights of stairs and a landing separated the casual living space from upstairs with the kitchen, bathrooms, formal living room, office, and dining room. Instead of being completely blocked off by a wall, over the stairs was a ledge where my mom would place our folded clothes, bags, and other items we left littering the house. Throughout the day we leaned over the railing shouting for someone to bring up toilet paper from the storage room, take the turkey roaster down, or perform another errand up or down the stairs until my parents told us to “Stop hollerin’!” Even then we just lowered our voices, or at best took one step down.

Under those stairs, the pocket space turned around a corner, and extended into my room through a waist-high door, which led into piles of books, dress-up clothes, and forts.  Most people close off the area for a closet. Some build shelves there. In home magazines, I’ve even seen the place transformed into a cozy study, complete with hanging lamps. My parents left it open for hide-and-seek. I claimed it as my refuge. Sometimes I loitered under stairs listening for hushed whispers of my family, just to hear their voices seeping through the house.


When I was in fourth grade, my family went to Washington D.C. for ten days. We stayed on the fourteenth floor of a hotel, which was actually the thirteenth level. Riding the elevator with our luggage, I stared at the numbers confused as the light moved from L/1 on up to 12 then 14. Why would the architect forget a number? “It’s to prevent bad luck,” my mom told me. I pretended to understand, but I couldn’t see the connection between bad luck and thirteen. A few nights later when the fire alarm shrieked and flashed its emergency lights just before midnight, I felt bad for the owners: they couldn’t prevent misfortune after all. Dad herded us in our pajamas to the packed stairs. Everyone in the hotel was awake and strangely calm as they slowly took each step. People wore robes, one teenager carried a boom box, I clutched a stuffed animal fearfully wondering what it would be like to burn while still mesmerized with the idea of flames licking the walls around us—it seemed too unreal. The horde of hotel guests shifted from stair to stair, comfortably crammed together. No one shoved; every movement was like a slow motion yawn. I felt safe with the people around me, almost as if no fire would dare enter the sweaty stairwell, as if somehow the area was protected. After waiting outside for ten minutes, the hotel staff informed us that we could return to our rooms. Many piled into the elevators, but my family took the stairs. I thanked each one for saving us even though I knew they had done nothing.


The French phrase, l’esprit d’escalier— spirit of the stairs—is that feeling of leaving a confrontation and later inventing the perfect response, the thing you should have said. In Yiddish, it is called trepfverter; pointing its finger at a missed opportunity, mourning the loss of an ideal retort. In junior high, I felt the anxiety of l’esprit d’escalier, but the hoped-for reply never greeted me on the stairs. The phrases taunted me while I lay in bed thinking about my stupidity, before coupling with the things I did say and shouldn’t have. Silly things—like giving the wrong time to a stranger who asked, or only half listening to a question before answering. If people could think of a witty response at the stairs, most would return and deliver the blow, however belated. Even if the feeling has nothing to do with stairs, I am grateful to at least name the frustration caused by l’esprit d’escalier; it tastes bitter, like unrefined ginger.

I think of M.C. Escher’s drawings of stairs. In precise lines the talented, but slightly cynical, artist subverts the places I rely on for direction. “Relativity” captures the motion of stairs as faceless people walk up them to cross over doors; he draws horizontal and vertical space colliding. “House of Stairs” crawls with reptiles born out of Legos. “Concave and Convex” swirl arches and stairs with ladders and lizards. I once believed that Escher’s intention for the mathematically organized art was to force his audience into cross-eyed confusion until blind, but “High and Low” assured me of Escher’s appreciation for stairs. The image of a boy clutching his knees, neck arched up toward a graceful girl leaning on a balcony is reflected below itself. The four flights of stairs are empty but for the identical boys longing for conversation. I know what it is like to wait expectantly for acknowledgement like the boy, but rarely succeed at being the charming girl. If Escher had painted me on the balcony, I’d probably be shaking a rug over a railing, oblivious to the dust drifting down.


Once I saw a wiry man carry a shallow two by three foot box full of plastic wrapped cauliflower heads. He balanced the artistically arranged vegetables up four flights of stairs. Before that, I didn’t know that cauliflower could come in a box. The elevator I rode stopped at each level; the delivery man seemed to race the machine. Riding in the metal enclosure I felt like I was a product of delivery as well, but handled with less care. The man arrived at the top level simultaneous with the elevator. Watching him walk ahead of me, I tried to figure out how he had balanced his load up the narrow stairs so fast. Perhaps his climb felt longer than my electronic ascent, though. The tension of muscles compared to the wait of technology seems to expand time allowing each moment to be captured. When people take the stairs I appreciate them more, as if by exerting a little effort to use stairs they sincerely mean to reach their destination.


Memorable stairs: The main stairway in my high school sucked at our shoes, sticky with discarded lunches and spilled soda. I loved watching people push up them then empty into classrooms. Deserted, these stairs were eerie and seemed out of place for less than a thousand students.

I read the majority of Middlemarch on my porch stairs.

My boss’s office is on the fourth level of a new building; between each floor are two flights of fourteen stairs. The steps are wide and look like the bottom of a gray hotel bathtub. Every week I use them I pretend to yawn so others won’t notice how much I like to listen to my breath thicken as I try to swallow its sound.

We built stairs in my parent’s yard for my wedding reception. We’re not landscapers; but we dug twelve holes into the hill, some a foot deep others only a couple of inches, replaced the sod with manufactured bricks, and planted moss in the remaining blank soil.

I have slept on stairs. My little sister and I would nap there hoping someone would see us and take a picture.

I climbed the temple of the moon at Teotihuacán, holding on to my friend and her crutches.

To enter our basement apartment, my husband and I walk up three crumbling cement stairs to a side door, then down eleven creaking thin-carpeted pieces of wood. These stairs whine as if haunted, but really they are just talkative.


If there was a falling stair spirit, he would be a mischievous, tussle-haired boy with sticky apple juice hands. He knows the joys of clumping down the stairs a gasp at a time until the plopping on bottom landing; he slinks around distracted stair-climbers like me, searching for the ticklish indent in their bellies or pinching their ankles to make them topple. I fall down stairs. My foot slides from edge to edge so often that I have learned to catch my balance with one foot.

I also fall up stairs, usually once a day. Rushing to class one spring semester in college, I tried to jump up some outdoor stairs two at a time, but my short legs couldn’t make it. My toe caught around the cement nosing and my body slid down three steps, skidding on my elbow. I stopped sliding when I hit a guy coming up the stairs. Looking at my bloody arm, he asked if I was okay, but I was laughing too hard to answer.


I love the stability of stairs under the indecision of my feet. Usually I stop at least once a week in my various trips up and down stairs, pausing to reconsider my destination. I forget where I am going and the reason for it. I revel in the chance to stand between space trying to recall my purpose for being there—shoes? Keys? A book? I am convinced that a person can go stairing. Unlike the idle gawking of staring—the act of stairing is kinetic, a purposeful dash up, down, and across until a direction is discovered and then dutifully followed, trusting the lead of the stairs.