Along for the Ride
Blaisdell Hotel elevator man Javier Fombellida has had his fair share of ups and downs
Text by Travis Hancock || Images by John Hook
Step off the Fort Street promenade into the old Blaisdell Hotel any time Monday through Friday during daylight hours, and you’ll find Javier “Javi” Fombellida lurking in or around the classic birdcage elevator in the lobby.
Maybe you’ve heard about this guy, a mischievous ghost from a bygone era manning the cranks and levers of the last public hand-operated elevator in state. The Blaisdell Hotel was built in 1912, and Cuban-born Javi, 77, has been ferrying people up and down the building’s four floors for 15 of the 32 years he has been in Hawai‘i. He’s had a lot of time to make friends and tell his story. Even so, there’s a lot you might not know.
What originally brought you to Hawai‘i from Cuba?
Castro brought you here? Directly?
He wanna kill me, I wanna kill him.
So you had to go somewhere far away?
To save my ass. I went to America, to Miami in 1967. Then I stayed with my family in Connecticut from ’67 to ’85. I worked as a machinist there. But we used to come here on vacation, my three daughters and my wife. Then we said, ‘Why don’t we stay in Hawai‘i?’ Why not? I had to leave my country, now I don’t care where I go.
Do you have any opinions about the recent change in relations with Cuba?
I don’t care about Cuba. If I could kill [Fidel] Castro there, or Raul [Castro], I will go. Yeah, I will. I hate communists so much, man. Eee, you won’t believe it. I get shaking when I talk about those things. So I don’t want to talk about politics.
Does it ever feel like you’re stepping into a time machine with the elevator?
Always. I think how this used to be in the ’20s or ’30s when they were busy, they had a restaurant up there, different people, different things. I have a newspaper, the Advertiser, from 1902. I’ve seen what was going on here, selling harnesses, fixing carriages. I had a girl from Germany interview me and put it in a newspaper in Germany, and she sent me two or three. I cannot read them but it’s fun.
So you’re world famous?
Well, not too many people can do this because you have to have patience, a lot of patience. This year I have read about 40 or 50 books.
Do you think that as a result of new technology, services like this are gone, and people don’t talk to each other enough anymore?
That’s true. When you go in the new elevators, everybody looks down. Here, you are looking outside. They say “Oh, look at this.” It’s real.
How’s the elevator doing?
103 years already. Going strong. Once in a while, it gets an issue, and they fix it up. It keeps going.
Do you do any of the mechanical work?
No, no. It’s the company. They gotta rebuild most of the time, the new parts. They don’t have them anymore.
And you do something like 100 rides a day?
Yeah. Now it’s slower since school is out, the students went away. In the afternoon, like this, it’s slower; it’s busier in the morning. Now it’s only office people.
Have you ever been stuck?
Oh yeah [laughs]. One time the elevator died, well a couple times, between floors, and one day with a lady inside. I had to use the stool and push her out to the third floor right there. So I pushed her up.
She wasn’t pregnant was she?
Oh no, no, no. She was petite. I could handle it.
Is there anybody that you have to refuse service to?
Oh, a bunch of people. I kick ’em out!
What kind of people?
Crazy people, drunk people, schizophrenics. ‘Get outta here!’ We have crazy people every day here. Before we had a psychologist on the second floor, and people come for that. But sometimes the people are so dirty I say ‘Take the stairs, man.’ I can’t handle it. I’m bold. That’s the way I am. That’s why I am so far away from Cuba.
So the building goes back to 1912. Do you hear anything about ghost stories?
Oh, yeah. I hear.
Have you experienced any encounters, given a ghost a ride?
No. I wish. Sometimes I see ... things, but I don’t believe in ghosts. So I always say it’s a shadow, or the light, or somebody’s probably there. Sometimes I want to see something, to make me a believer, you know?
You have a lot of friends around here?
From all over the world—Thailand, Italy, Russia, all over the place. I talk to them all the time, and they remember me. They email me, Facebook me.
You’re all connected to stay in touch.
Yeah. They tell me “I’m going to be married,” “I have a baby,” “I miss you, Javi.” I love that.
So you have a smartphone?
Yeah, I have my little thing here. So I’m gossiping all over [laughs].
New technology in such an old place.
Yeah. Three steps: elevator, me, and this [phone] is new. I’m right in the middle.
Has anybody ever confessed anything to you?
Oh, they love confessing to me.
I cannot even say. I’d be lynched here. That’s why I say to people, if I could write a book when I leave this place, oh boy, it would be an encyclopedia already.
After our chat, I follow Javier into his cage. “You’ve already gone back in time,” he says, yanking on the levers a bit harder than usual, to show me what his baby can do, I suspect. We jerk up to the fourth floor, then he shifts the levers again and we plummet back down. Passing each mid-floor section of the elevator shaft exposes a different colorful mural, a blur of birds and tropical landscapes. Then suddenly we are in a dim yellow wash of old fluorescent lighting, the basement. There’s a rattrap set on the floor, and perched right outside the door is Javier’s fake stuffed rat. We poke around the musty corridors, and he points out an inconspicuous plumbing pipe running along the ceiling. “That’s where the old building manager hanged himself,” he says. Incidentally, it’s also where Javier rigged up a witch costume on a pulley system to tow it into the faces of visitors last Halloween. It didn’t really work, but there’s always next year.