Hawaii’s only elevator operator hopes to lift the spirit of others

It’s part of a lost era.

Nestled in the old Blaisdell Hotel building on Fort Street Mall is Hawaii’s last human-operated elevator.

“They say it’s a birdcage elevator,” elevator operator Javier Fombellida said.

And at the helm of the wheel is 75-year-old Fombellida, who close to 50 years ago immigrated to America from Cuba.

The former machinist and maintenance worker has spent the last 12 years listening to his own elevator music as he goes up and down the four-story building.

“I was retired already and I was tired of going to the beach every day I said, ‘I gotta do something.’ So, I looked in the newspapers and I saw, ‘Oh elevator operator. I will try that,’” Fombellida said.

On Wednesday, the Punahou resident and father of three is celebrating his birthday. He’s the state’s only commercial manual elevator operator.

“Pull that thing, the lever, and they engage and pull the cable up or down,” Fombellida said.

With an average of 400 trips a day, the building — which was originally built in 1912 — now serves as office space and houses offices for Hawaii Pacific University.

“Oh, talking with people. I love the kids. They are different race and different countries. Sometimes they need somebody to talk to because they feel lonely sometimes,” Fombellida said.

Known as the adopted uncle to the students, staff, and other tenants, Fombellida says his job is much more than operating the lift, it’s to literally lift the spirits of others.

“I talk to them, make them laugh. Life is beautiful,” Fombellida said.

Fombellida says he gets paid, but…

“I don’t care much for the pay. I care because we are active. So many people, it’s like my family here. Another part of my family,” Fombellida said.

And what better way to spend your birthday than doing what you love with your extended family.

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