Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Life in the Neighborhood

A-Plus: 1 Month, 5 Days
(Note: This was written about events yesterday.)
It's so easy to forget where we live.  While shaving this morning, I clicked open my internet browser and opened National Public Radio via live webcast, enjoying some familiar sounds from the Bay Area.  With the razor in one hand devouring my beard stubble I surfed over to the Ace Hardware Israel homepage and noticed that there was a 50% off sale.  They had just what I need, new shelves for my apartment, and I can get them for half off!  I called cousin Galila on my cell phone and she agreed to let me hitch a ride with her towards the Ace branch in Talpiot.  She swung by, I hopped in, and we were on our way.  We turned left onto the bridge from Pisgat Ze'ev to downtown Jerusalem, and only once we had passed the point of no return on the one-way onramp did we see it.  Traffic backed up solid, in all lanes.  An accident?
"It could be an accident," Galila tells me.  But even I know better.
Motorcycles buzz between the lanes on either side of us.  Black.  The straddling them wear monochrmatic uniforms.  Black.
Drivers try to pry themselves through gaps in the traffic.  One truck driver threatens to use his big-rig on the Volkswagen in front of him as a battering ram.  A few minutes later, both drivers stand staring at the Volkswagen's smashed fender while exchaning phone numbers and insurance information.  Some slither past us in the emergency lane risking a 1200 shekel fine.  Among those cars coming from behind, more and more painted army olive drab with flashing lights.  As the sun creeps across the sky, the honking eventually subsides.  It's a waste of effort, nobody is getting through.  Gas is running low so we turn off the car, and with it the air conditioner, roasting in the heat.
"It's not an accident," Galila tells me, "it's a mechabel."  A terrorist.  She switches to Galgalatz radio, with traffic every ten minutes, and the music simply bounces along as if this were just another sunny Jerusalem day.  Traffic reports nothing wrong, as if they simply missed the thousands of cars frozen in the heat.  Eventually she switches the radio off.
"They're not going to tell us there's a traffic jam."  The bridge serves not only Pisgat Ze'ev, but also the Arab villages of Shuafat, Ramallah, and the entire Shomron (Northern West Bank.)  A traffic report would alert the terrorist who is on his way to Jerusalem, who can't be allowed to escape, so we all suffer.  I've had enough, so I get out of the car head towards Jerusalem on foot.  As I come around the bend, I see the black-uniformed special police services sliding van doors open, rummaging through peoples' trunks,  jumping onto busses.  A temporary tripod-mounted reflective sign announces, "Machshom," checkpoint.  Two cars pass through every 30 seconds or so.  Meanwhile cars are backing up at the rate of one per second.  Police reinforcements can't reach the checkpoint to speed the process because the emergency lane is blocked with illegal civilian traffic.  I eventually come to the checkpoint, receive a once-over from the black-clad policemen, and am on my way through.  Eventually I reach the bus stop at French Hill.  Behind me is the checkpoint I just passed.  To my right is another roadblock out of Shuafat.  Bus 173 pulls up to the stop.
"Central bus station?" I ask.
The bus driver just stares vaguely into the distance, as if speech, indeed all forms of higher brain function, have been lost to him, and he's just just using his primitive cerebral cortex to steer the bus.  I hop on anyway.  The woman sitting next to me asks me where the bus is going.
"I don't know.  As long as it's away from where I was."  As we drive into the city we pass in the bus lane, zipping past yet another checkpoint.
But I've got to get to Talpiot.  My shelves await me!  Jumping off the 137 at the central bus station I find the stop for the 14.  My phone buzzes.  It's Moshe.
"Hey, man, are you still trying to get to the city?" he asks me.
"I'm in the city.  I'm going to catch a bus to Talpiot."
"Be careful.  My mother just told me there's an alert.  There's a mechabel out there somewhere."  Yeah, I figured that out.
"Where is he coming from?" I ask, seeing my bus coming around the corner.
I do a quick mental calculation.  Shchem is north of the city.  The road we were coming in on is in the north. It's unlikely that there will be problems going to the south to Talpiot.  If I try to catch a taxi back to Pisgat Ze'ev, I won't be able to get a ride, as the drivers know that they won't be able to get back into the city.
"Shchem is north of the city.  I'm going south.  I'll be fine."
The doors hiss open and the driver punches my bus card.  Driving through the city, the scene looks the same as any other day, but feels different.  The crowd on the bus is more subdued.  Or perhaps it only seems that way.  My eye is on everyone in that bus.  I'm not edgy or nervous, just aware.  The phone buzzes again.  The associated press is doing a story on telecommuting and wants to interview me.  No problem, just call.  Strange patches of everyday life that would come and go in an instant now leave stains on my memory.  The red shirt that the woman sitting in front of me is wearing.  The crooked nose of the crouched old man two seats down the aisle.  The flower pattern on the hijab of the Arab woman at the front of the bus.  The crinkling of her bag.  Carrying God knows what.  To hell with it.  I need shelves.
The bus spits me out in front of the Lev Talpiot mall, and there it is... ACE!  Praise the lord and pass the ammunition, I've made it. 
I call Moshe, "Moshe!  I'm HERE! I really made it."  We both chuckle.
"You don't have to worry," he tells me, "they ended the terror alert."
And suddenly the world looks like it used to, like it's supposed to.  Nothing has changed, it's all perception.  Moshe comes by Ace, we load up the shelves and zip back through the city to Pisgat Ze'ev, the checkpoints and searches a fading memory, all the way Moshe insisting I give no directions.
"No, no, don't tell me which way to turn, I need to learn the city."
"But Moshe, I need to be back at my apartment at 6 PM.  6 PM here is 8 AM there, and this is an American company.  I actually have to be there on time!"
"Don't worry, we'll be fine.  And don't tell me which way to go."
"This is no time for driving lessons, it's 5:50!"
"Don't worry, I know I made the right turn because you're smiling.  You would be yelling at me if I didn't."
We come flying through the front door in the nick of time.  I fill him up with leftover pizza and begin sending and receiving emails, phonecalls, and faxes with my calm American coworkers, and soon I'm an American again myself.  Talking with engineers about colums, beams, pumps and pipelines.  Worried about my project deadlines and design calculations.  Oblivious to the call to prayer drifting in from the Arab village of Hizma across the hills.


Yaakova said...

Evan, this is a fantastic post. It should seriously be published in a magazine or newspaper.
Happy New Year!

Evan said...

Thanks! Shanah Tovah! Perhaps someday I'll be a famous writer, but for now, I'll keep blogging.