Thoughts on 13th Floors

On a recent trip to Cleveland I happened to visit several tall buildings and noticed they have the unusual trait of possessing thirteenth floors. Coincidentally, both my hotel room and the meeting I was there to attend were both on the thirteenth floor of their respective buildings. It’s such a rarity, isn’t it? Cleveland must be a very unlucky city indeed. Considering how many buildings in this world do not have thirteenth floors, I wonder, is there a far unluckier city somewhere that has its buildings made up entirely of thirteenth floors? (That would make for some odd looking buildings, not to mention the difficulty in delivering the mail.) I’m sure there is and it’s simply populated by non-superstitious types who are happy to have their buildings constructed for free from the unwanted thirteenth floors of other municipalities.

Now, I’m no fool. I know everyone’s just kidding themselves about this whole thirteenth floor nonsense. Obviously, it’s still there; they just refer to it as the “fourteenth” floor. I once had a debate about this very thing with a man in my building who somehow manages to eek out an existence in that ethereal space between the twelfth and fifteenth floors. He joined me in an elevator and pushed the button marked “14”.
“Don’t kid yourself”, I said to him, “You know you’re actually living on the thirteenth floor, doncha?”
“Well, I like to think that, because of the basement, I actually live on the fourteenth floor.”
He sounded irritated but I prodded away anyway, “Then what’s on the twelfth floor? Do you suppose they know they’re actually on the thirteenth? Have you told them? Or are they still the twelfth floor?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them!” He snapped.
The doors opened and he got out without saying goodbye, and possessing the confidence, no doubt, of living on one of the lucky floors. But I knew better. And it seemed odd to for him to be annoyed by such a thing rather than sharing in my amusement. I wondered if he was the sort of person for which buildings lacking thirteenth floors are constructed and, perhaps, there had been some sort of brouhaha over which apartment he’d been assigned when he’d arrived on move-in day. Clearly, it was a sore subject for him.

I wonder, though – since buildings don’t collapse all that often – isn’t it sort of odd that we’ve reserved this particular superstition for that and not applied it elsewhere? What of other things? I mean there’s always the chance yours will be the thirteenth life insurance policy to be taken out. What might happen on a thirteenth date? Doesn’t the, poor, thirteenth kid to enter the petting zoo always get bitten by the goat? And, oh-my, what about the thirteenth piece of sushi! I, for one, wouldn’t want to eat the thirteenth in a bag of organic peanuts. (If I were the superstitious sort, that is.)

In my research for this article (yes, I researched it) I discovered that they apply this to airport terminals (there are no 13th gates) but not to the airplane seats themselves. I suppose that makes sense.

So, am I wrong about this being a very limited superstition? Is it far more widespread and insidious? Is this why so many things come in twelves? Because you might choke on that thirteenth doughnut? A thirteenth egg will always be broken? And watch out for that thirteenth condom in the package! But if I were assigning unluckiness to numbers, I’d certainly make the unlucky ones much higher than the usual portioning of things: the one hundred and eleventh doughnut – I can see how that would be unlucky. And shouldn’t the unlucky number be different depending on what it referred to. Take the old woman who lived in a shoe, for example. Shouldn’t more research have gone into finding out exactly how many children she actually had? I mean, for the purpose of warning others. Well, it’s too long ago now.

It’s just that the building thing seems so arbitrary. What’s going to happen to the thirteenth floor that’s not going to happen to other floors? A fire? A pest control problem? Is a burglar going to climb past twelve floors only to carry your freshly stolen stuff back down all those stairs?

I once saw a film where a group of people aspired to bungee jump from the roof of a tall building. They weighed the jumper, calculated the height to determine the proper length of cord, and tied it to a man’s heels who promptly jumped to his death because they forgot there was no thirteenth floor. Ironic, don’t you think? I’d be interested to know if they were from Cleveland.

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