Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jerusalem Snapshot: The Unexpected

I had a late evening yesterday - so decided to take a taxi back home.

As the cab pulled to the curb, I felt two ten shekel pieces and one five in my pocket - 'twenty-five shekels?' The driver made a face: 'it's at least 35.' 'Let's do the meter,' I responded. Best way not to be a freier, loosely translated as sucker - go with the meter.

'Anyway,' the cab driver confided, 'I've been riding around for an hour for this fare.' Whatever ambivalence I felt about my failed attempt at a deal abated - 'good I thought, let him at least have a decent start to his day' (the fare, in the end, was 29 NIS).

I never went to a proper ulpan to learn Hebrew - so I have an abiding sense of gratitude to Jerusalem cabdrivers whom I credit with my Hebrew. I learned French - oddly enough - not from the French teacher in Avignon during the summer of 1982 who taught Sartre's Huis Clos, but from the 12 year old girl with Down's Syndrome, of the family with whom I was staying.

So after the initial snarling, the driver turned more cordial: my 'ma shlom'cha' - how are you? - broke the ice. Since I'm travelling to London in a couple of days - and early in the morning - I thought I might ask him to drive me to the airport. The cost is about 225 NIS which is a big fare in a bad economy. His car, a mercedes, was clean and safe - so I was considering it.

We waited on line for the light to turn into my neighborhood - Bayit Vegan. There's a separate traffic light for the straight-ahead traffic, and another for the left-turn lane. We were behind a motorcycle: when the straight-ahead light changed, the motorcyle started forward; though the left-turn signal was still red. Because of the construction for the long-awaited light-rail on Hertzl, it's a long wide turn. My driver turned to me and said with alarm - 'he's passing the light!' He even honked twice; but the motorcyclist did not hear, or did not heed his warning. The motorcycle proceeded slowly, but determinedly along the arc of the turn; I saw the oncoming traffic. The cars coming down from the other side of Hertzl were accelerating. We both looked, watching for the unfolding of the inevitable: the loud crunch of the impact sent the motorcyclist flying into the air - the motorcycle was shattered to pieces. I gasped.

'Ata roeh?' 'You see?,' said my driver. I'm sure he was equally horrified, but he gave the appearence of calm. 'She killed him' - he said of the driver of the Mazda that had smashed into him. A crowd gathered. Miraculously, the man was stirrng. That was my first thought - he's alive.

Then I saw the woman standing by the side of her car. 'We should stop,' I said - 'he ran the light; it; it wasn't her fault!' 'No, it wasn't,' he agreed.' So let's stop,' I said - 'we have to tell the police what we saw.'

I was imagining the horror of the woman who struck the man. She had done nothing wrong, and suddenly out of nowhere, this.

'I have seen dozens of accidents,' my driver said. 'If you call - leave it,' he advised - 'you'll be dragged in for hearing. It's a tircha - a tremendous pain.'

I arrived home, called the police to tell my story. It turns out - my daughters were returning from the Jerusalem forest from the pool about an hour later - and the police were still there. The motorcyclyist had - miraculously - survived the crash, but the consensus was that the woman had run the light - after all, 'look what she had done!'

I called the police again - 'are you writing this down? Will you please tell the women who was driving the car that I saw?' I thought of course of the injured man, but also the loneliness of the woman not knowing, perhaps thinking that it was her fault, the suffering of the burden imposed on her by circumstances she had never considered. And then imagined what her her husband might be saying to her - no matter the strength of her convictions.

I don't know what lesson to learn from this, but I decided - sometimes one has an unexpected insight into the soul of someone, even a stranger - to find a different driver to take me to the airport.

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