One Winter Sunday morning in 1990, riding the subway from the Upper West side to Brooklyn Heights, two guys obviously hopped up on crack or coke approached me. They put on clowning grins: the absurd friendliness, all too familiar to me from living in Trenton as a boy; a way to get close enough to the white kid to threaten. I knew better, but my curiosity often let me down, which I paid for with my pocket change.
Now, on the train, as we rocked along the tunnel under the East River, there was nowhere to go. I sat on the long bench and these guys occupied positions on either side of me, one of them producing a box cutter out of the pocket of his sweatpants. They asked me meaningless questions, and laughed back and forth between themselves. I said nothing, which I was good at. The blade of that box cutter floated inches from my face; I could smell their sour breath. A couple sitting toward the front of the car took no notice.
When the guys finally asked me for my wallet I was relieved, and offered it up quickly. This at least gave form to the encounter—a robbery. But just then the train emerged from the tunnel, the doors opened in Brooklyn, and still laughing, the two guys jumped off not even taking the wallet.
I stayed on the train one more stop, crossed the platform and trained right back to my apartment. As shock receded, terror took hold. I knew these formulas for fear and ran through them in my mind. If you’re afraid of flying, you say statistically it’s safer than driving. If you’re afraid of a terrorist attack, you say you’re more likely to be murdered in a major American city. If you’re afraid of being murdered in a major American city, you say you’re more likely to hit your head in the shower. And you’re not going to stop taking showers right?
But no mental exercise in probability would quiet the quaking in my body. I found myself praying, as I hadn’t done in years, if ever. I acted exactly like those faithless characters in the Bible who only turned to God in extreme need. Like the classic sinner, I even went so far as to promise devotion in exchange for safe passage through this world. I will be a better Jew. As the adrenaline flooding my body subsided, I already knew I would fulfill none of it.
I told people about the occurrence, but not of my true terror. Withholding this took little effort on my part; selective silence was my standard. It had started in high school and only gotten worse in college. Shyness conspired with time and intelligence to form a desperate aloofness, so that even when I tried to emerge, an inner editor constantly seemed to talk me out of it. This subjected the few utterances I did produce to an extreme scrutiny, which only discouraged such further indulgence.
Most terrifying of all was that I had no real reason for being on that train. If I’d gotten my face sliced open it would have been for no purpose whatsoever. I was going to see friends, but just to hang out. As if I hadn’t hung out enough after four years of liberal arts college and a rudderless year in New York City. I’d come to the City vaguely hoping for some sort of salvation from myself. You’re either safe or your not; I was not.
A few months later, I left New York for Israel. My family had moved to Jerusalem when I was two, returning when I was six. Since then, I considered Israel my Plan B, an alternative reality I could go to when my own became too untenable. I chose Tel Aviv over Jerusalem, where I’d lived. I knew I needed to lighten up, and Jerusalem was hardly the place.
In Tel Aviv, Hebrew, which I’d learned as an infant, came rushing back, opening a slit in the chrysalis of silence I’d stitched myself up in. Because I had to practice it, Hebrew gave me license to exercise my muscles of small talk. The tyrant of importance and originality I’d enthroned to justify my isolation was held at bay, while I practiced just talking.
Israelis encouraged this, being forward by nature. And perhaps as a coping mechanism for their chaotic existence, they are rather ironically endowed with the confidence that, in any given situation, they know better. So I had to speak up for myself or be steamrolled.
I found work as a bartender — Israelis were such novice drinkers, that I knew any drink they ordered simply by virtue of having gone to college in the States. I started working for the Stern Catering Company, which served a class of wealth I didn’t know existed there, having been raised on pioneering stories of Zionist service and sacrifice.
Michael Stern, a New York émigré and apostle of the Studio 54 disco scene, was known for designing outrageous parties. He spoke Hebrew with an absurdly effeminate American accent, with all the hard consonants washed out–a noodle-limp language all his own. To my surprise, Israelis adored him.
Michael hired guys and girls in their early twenties, just after their army service, saving up to travel abroad to Europe and Thailand and America. Expected to entertain as well as to serve, we were something of a circus troupe, bonded by the bizarre outfits we were dolled up in, (for New Years Eve: black sarongs with vests of glittering aqua lamé) drinking on the job, and the intense physical labor of setting up parties for hundreds from scratch, doing the party, then breaking it all down hours later.
We served the rich and powerful of Israel. At one much more staid garden party (black slacks, black turtleneck), I poured the then former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin several Chivas, neat. Out of office and rumored to be drinking heavily at the time, he would later return to be Prime Minister again, only to be assassinated by a right-wing fanatic maddened by the peace process Rabin was advancing.
Shortly after I started the catering job, Iraq invaded Kuwait. A UN Coalition, including Arab nations, was organized to attack Iraqi. In an attempt to disengage Arabs from the coalition, Iraq threated to launch missiles against Israel, to provoke Israel into retaliation, and force the Arabs to choose between fighting a temporary enemy, Iraq, or an eternal one, Israel.
I lived downtown in an old bungalow on Rashi Street, with a friend from DC, Benjy, who was either breaking up with his Israeli girlfriend, Daphi, or marrying her. The bungalow, cheaply finished, was little more than a shack. But it came with a parking spot, invaluable in Tel Aviv, and he had a car, which he drove to see her in her suburban apartment.
The closer the UN deadline came, the more time Benjy spent with Daphi. I’d picked up my gas mask in case of chemical or germ warfare. But residents were also instructed to prepare a room sealed with plastic sheeting in which to wait out attacks. This I didn’t do.
The night after the UN deadline expired, the sirens woke me out of a sound sleep, the rising and falling wail like an assault on the nervous system in and of itself. Addled by the alarm, I pulled on my gas mask. I ran to the kitchen for some wet towels to at least stuff under the bedroom door and against the windows. But the bungalow was a junk heap with nothing built flush; I was in no way sealed.
I heard a crash and felt the concussion of an explosion nearby. The radio reported the obvious, the state of Israel is under attack . . . I heard choppers circling overhead, no doubt probing for signs of chemical or germ agents released from the scud missile that had hit. The utter, and potentially lethal, absurdity of that moment stunned me. If I’d lost my life it would have been through sheer carelessness.
The phone rang. It was not in the bedroom, but out in the hall. It rang again. At least in the bedroom I’d stuffed wet towels around the door. Plus, how could I talk on the phone without breaking the seal of my gas mask? But habit won out over common sense and on the third ring, I pushed out the door, yanked off my gas mask and answered.
It was Benjy’s mother, calling from Bethesda, Maryland looking for him—they were watching the war on CNN. I suggested they try Daphi’s number and yanked my mask back on. Finally, some time later, the level, all-clear siren sounded.
In the morning, I invited myself to go stay with family friends who lived in a northern suburb and had a bomb shelter built on to their house. Gregarious by nature, Yehuda was a trader up all hours of the night working the markets in New York, London and Tokyo. When the air raid sirens woke the rest of us — his wife, his daughter, and me — he sometimes just trotted from his desk to the shelter, and seemed happy to have the company. The speed of the attacks often rendered this race to the shelter a mere exercise. On one occasion, the windows of the house already rattled with the concussion of a Scud hitting nearby before we even reached the shelter, pulled the hinged concrete door shut and taped the plastic across the crack at the floor.
One night after an attack, too wired to sleep, Yehuda took me out to try to find where a Scud had hit. The news never revealed precise locations for fear of assisting the enemy in calibrating his next shot. But the footage showed parts of town that seemed recognizable.
We sleuthed around nighttime Tel Aviv in his Citroen, following his hunches from one neighborhood to another, the streets deserted. We didn’t find any missile hits, but never mind. Yehuda shifted into tour guide mode. Here was the downtown neighborhood near Allenby Street where he grew up, within range of Arab rifles from Jaffa, at that time in Egyptian hands. Here was a building on the corner of Dizengoff and King George, which he and some partners were considering purchasing. (They would put in a mini market downstairs – would I be interested in managing it?) Here was the café on Shenken Street where S.Y. Agnon and his literary circle used to meet.
The mayor of Tel Aviv made an ass of himself by labeling “deserters” the many Tel Avivians who’d fled the scuds for ski trips in Europe, shopping in New York, or just hotels out of town. As if it would somehow help to have more people populating the bomb shelters. But to me, Israelis had solicitously suggested that this would be a good time to go home. I never seriously considered it; I didn’t know where home was.
It eventually became clear that the scuds were only conventionally armed, poorly deployed, and more people would be hurt in domestic disputes from being cooped up inside together than by Iraqi armament.
Conscious of not overstaying my welcome, I moved around among acquaintances.
In Jerusalem, for once the safer of the two cities because of its Arab population, where I stayed with my uncle and aunt, people sometimes ignored the sirens entirely. One night out in a bar, which had set up a sealed area, the siren went off. Some of the patrons dutifully moved to it and some, including me, did not. We looked at one another through the plastic sheeting, waiting for the all-clear to sound. It was a distinctly Jerusalem moment; Jews in close quarters practicing acutely varying degrees of observance.
After the war, the party circuit kicked into high gear, celebrating not victory, but normality, which for Tel Aviv was the real triumph. Perhaps like all such cosmopolitan experiments, Tel Aviv is a bubble, a city sufficiently distracted by commerce and culture and cappuccino to continue being itself in denial of the troubled ground it stands on.
I worked with a few Palestinian guys and occasionally heard them disparaged, but not as often as I heard prejudices toward other nationalities of Jew; that the Georgians were all hairy pimps, the Germans snotty perfectionists, the Persians cheap, the Yemenites stoners, the Moroccans uptight, and the Polish women the bitchiest in the world. For the most part, discourse on “the situation”, the catchall phrase for the moral, ethnic and geopolitical quandary that is Israel, was left to Jerusalem, where, it was widely held, people really didn’t know how to have a good time anyway.
Seeing I had stayed through the war, two of the senior guys at the catering company adopted me as their buddy. Yaya, slender but wiry strong, had boyish good looks, and a twinkle in his eye, despite some unnamed trouble with drugs in the past. Udi, more heavyset and somber, wore a perpetual expression of wide-eyed skeptical surprise, and spoke English with a pronounced British accent.
We would meet at Café Frishman, a couple blocks from the beach, an older place, where we sat at small, square Formica topped tables, and they would vigorously educate me on why Israel held no opportunity — the exorbitantly over-priced real estate, all the danger of the Middle East/none of the oil, the minuscule market for goods and services, and on and on. To which I would respond that I just liked being there, an answer that delighted them into redoubling their arguments.
One Saturday afternoon, sitting on a bench on Shenkin Street, at the height of its café and boutique chic, I saw Shahar, from the catering company, a pretty, hippy-ish, brown-skinned Yemenite girl, walking barefoot up the street. I called out hello and she sat with me and bemoaned her massive bank overdraft, a favorite topic among Tel Avivians, and told me about a trip to Sinai and smoking hash there with the Bedouin for a week—mabsut and mastul (slang from Arabic for happy and stoned). As she walked away, I sensed an air of loneliness about her, which I’d never been able to detect in others, being too clouded myself.
My exercise in extroversion went so far as an attempt at matchmaking. Udi was married to a redheaded model, to whom he assured us: “I give it to her good every night.” But Yaya was on his own, so I suggested he go for Shahar. Yaya smiled knowingly. Shahar was a sweetheart, he said, but not for him. Later, I heard she’d spent a night with a regular client of the catering who was deeply infatuated with her–a plump Canadian with corporate interests –to settle her overdraft.
When parties lagged, Michael made us dance. I despised him for it at first, but soon enough, I was dancing as if it was the most normal thing in the world. At a one party, I ran into a girl I’d known in Jewish high school in Rockville, Maryland – where the Israeli diplomatic corp sent its kids to mix awkwardly with our suburban American Jewishness. When Michael told me to get out of my bar and dance, I went and found her.
In school she’d been attractive, but also bold and interesting. Once, on a trip, I’d sat up all night with her, too shy to make a move. Now, she looked sad, older and self-consciously subdued, as if knowing she didn’t live up to her previous self.
I had been noticing myself differently for some time, a crustacean coming out of his shell, but had been careful not to pay too much attention and spook myself back in. Now as we danced, I could plainly see she didn’t know who the hell I was, and even without the safety of that familiarity, I kept dancing.
Joe Bardin is a writer and communications strategist. His work is upcoming in JMWW and has appeared in Eclectica, Burrow Press Review, Toad Suck Review, Dignified Devil, Phoenix New Times, the Arizona Republic and the futurist magazine, Immortal Life, among others. His plays have been performed at Theatre Artists Studio (Phoenix), and at the Herberger Theater. Joe operates a copywriting and ghostwriting firm called Relativity Writing. http://www.joebardin.com/.