Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Taxi Politics - short story

“So, what do you say about our country? Staging elections for the third time this year! Where else in the world do you have a country like this? And we call ourselves a democracy! Is it a democracy when we can’t elect a stable government? What do you say about that?”

The man in the backseat looked up from his phone, surprised that the driver had spoken to him.


“Elections! They’re coming around the corner again and I wondered what is your opinion?”

“My opinion?”

“Yes, your opinion. Every citizen is entitled to have an opinion. I meet many people every day and let me tell you. Everyone has an opinion. What’s yours?”

The driver adjusted his rearview mirror and glanced at his passenger. The man must be in his mid-thirties, the driver assumed, and sported a pointed, curly beard, just like Herzl in the famous balcony photograph. There was no kippah on the man’s head but the driver immediately classified him as an observant Sephardic Jew, the kind who upheld tradition but would never miss the Friday night television news.

“We need to keep this government in power. Vote for them again.”

“But what about the prime minister?” the driver asked, returning his eyes to the traffic. “They say he’s corrupt. Indictments on three charges, no less!”

“The media and the Left indicted him. The left-wing judges, too.”

“So, you don’t think he’s guilty?”

“No, how could he be guilty?”

“With all those indictments, will you vote for his party?”

“Of course, I’ll vote for his party. I always do.”

“And if he goes to jail?”

“He won’t go to jail. Sorry, this is my stop.” The man glanced at the meter, handed the driver two twenties, and stepped out of the car without bothering to ask for change.

The driver smiled, always pleased to engage with his passengers. He never knew, when starting his shift, whether they would be pleasant, willing to talk. Some were so absorbed in their personal lives that they didn’t want to discuss the country’s drawn-out political deadlock at all. The situation. It affected all of them, the driver included. How could you not talk about it?

Someone flagged him down around the next corner. The driver classified the man as an Ashkenazic Jew. A university student most likely, judging from the backpack. When the passenger asked to be driven to the Mount Scopus campus, the driver’s assumption turned out to be correct.

“So, what do you say about our country? Staging elections for the third time this year! Where else in the world do you have a country like this?”

The student looked up from his phone with a quizzical look on his face. “We wouldn’t be having elections again if the prime minister would resign. He should be held accountable for what he’s done.”

“You don’t think the media is biased against him? And the courts?”

“He is corrupt. Several of the ministers are corrupt. They’re all corrupt! They should all go on trial so that we can return to a sense of normalcy.”

“And the opposition – they should form the next government?”

“Anyone but the prime minister,” the student replied without skipping a beat.

“What do you think about a unity government?”

“I’m in favor. As long as the prime minister is not part of it.” And with that, the student got out of the car and hurried to his classes.

The driver had never gone to university. It had been three years of service in the Armored Corps and then straight into the job market. First there had been a stint as a night guard at an insurance agency, and then he flipped burgers in a fast food joint on Ben Yehuda Street. Next, he worked in a pizza restaurant for several months before leaving it for early morning deliveries of fruits and vegetable for a chain of supermarkets. During those years of moving from job to job, he had married his high school sweetheart. Fortunately for the two of them, her parents had provided a three-room apartment on French Hill. At least they didn’t have a mortgage hanging over their heads! Two years into the marriage, and with their first child on the way, he found steady employment at last. He didn’t mind the day shifts and only worked nights and on Shabbat when he found it difficult to make ends meet. This was happening more and more lately.

A young, religious couple was waiting near the hospital. The husband held open the door politely for his wife. The driver smiled when he saw her head cover, a raised turban-like mark of modesty that would make a Sikh proud! When the husband closed the door behind him, the driver asked their destination.

“Romema,” the man replied before whispering something to his wife. She ignored him and stared out the window. She was upset, the driver saw. Maybe she had visited a sick relative at the hospital. The husband adjusted his black kippah and looked away.

“So, what do you say about our country? Staging elections for the third time this year! Where else in the world do you have a country like this?”

The husband met his eyes in the mirror and smiled. “God willing, this will be the last time we have elections.”

“And if God is not willing?”

“God willing, we will have a Torah-loving, tradition-respecting, Jewish government.”

“Who will you be voting for?” the driver asked.

“For our party, as the rabbis determined. This is the only way to safeguard Israel and to protect our faith.”

The driver considered asking the husband why he voted blindly according to the rabbis’ directives but raising the question could lead to an argument. Looking back in the mirror he saw the man trying to comfort his wife. Perhaps the relative they had visited was very sick. The driver felt sorry for them.

The driver and his wife were only religious on Shabbat and holidays. They kept a kosher kitchen but didn’t adhere to dietary restrictions when they ate out. Not that they ate out. With three children now, and their challenging financial situation, they couldn’t afford the luxury of dining in restaurants. Still, he did go to tefillot when he could. His father and three religious brothers were always pleased when he joined their minyan. He hoped they understood his need to work on Shabbat and holidays in order to support the family.

A young woman at the bus station waved for him to stop. She had very dark skin and was quite attractive, although he would never admit to his wife that he looked at other women from time to time. Only window shopping, he told himself. Never following up on anything. He stopped the car and the good-looking woman got in.

“So, what do you say about our country?” the driver asked.

“Are you talking to me?” she asked, keeping her eyes focused on her phone.

“Yes, I wanted to know what you think about the fact that we are staging elections for the third time this year. Where else in the world do you have a country like this?”

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“Yes, to both of those.”

“Do you have an opinion about the situation? Everyone has an opinion.”

“The government is not the greatest,” she said with a sigh. “We are not represented.”

Who was not represented? the driver wondered. Ethiopians? Women? New immigrants? The young? But before he had a chance to ask, they had reached her stop. “How much?” she asked before handing him the exact change for the fare.

Near the Mahane Yehuda market he stopped for a tall, thin man who announced his destination before even closing the door.

“Beit Safafa. You do go there, don’t you?” The passenger spoke Hebrew with a thick Arab accent.

“I go everywhere in Jerusalem,” the driver replied. He had nothing against Arabs. Arabs, Haredim, Habadnikim, religious Zionists, secular leftniks—Jerusalem had all types. As long as his customers paid for their ride, he was fine with it.

“So, what do you say about our country? Staging elections for the third time this year. I assume you’ll be voting in the elections?”

“Yes, of course. This is our country, too, you know. Even though you don’t relate to us as equals.”

“You are equals!” He wanted to say that if Israeli Arabs wanted to be regarded as true equals, they should serve the country in some way. National service, if not service in the military. But stating this could lead to an argument and there wouldn’t be enough time to have a civil argument before they reached Beit Safafa.

“What do you think about our prime minister?” the driver asked instead.

“Racist,” was the one-word response. “The government is racist. It’s an apartheid state, you know.”

Oh, no, the driver sighed. We’re going down that road after all. “How do you propose to solve the situation?” he asked, glancing again at the mirror. His passenger avoided his eyes, as if somewhat embarrassed to be having a civil conversation with a Jew.

“If you would treat us as equals, it would solve the problem. All of us—the Palestinians who live on this side of the Green Line and the Palestinians who live on the other side of the Green Line.”

“One state?”

“One state. Equality for all.”

That would be the end of the Jewish state, the driver thought, but what did he know? He listened to the television news and read Yediot Aharonot every day. The situation wasn’t good; he knew that much for sure. But he loved Israel just the same.

An elderly couple was waiting near the Malha Mall and they seemed quite relieved when he stopped for them. Tourists! The driver spoke some English but at times he found it a challenge to find the most appropriate words to use in his speech.

“What do you say about Israel?” he asked the couple. “You know, we’re having elections again this year. It’s the third time! For sure, in America things are better!”

“Ha!” the grey-haired tourist said with a laugh. “You think you have tsuris? We have tsuris! We have a real schmuck as president but at least he’s a mensch who supports Israel. That’s all that’s important!”

The driver didn’t know any Yiddish and he wasn’t fully aware of American politics, so he didn’t know how to reply. The tourists were nice enough and left a big tip. At noon, the driver enjoyed grilled chicken steak and fries instead of his usual falafel.

“Why do you always talk to your passengers?” his wife had asked him once.

“I love talking,” he admitted. Maybe he viewed his travels as therapy, a way to voice what concerned him. Despite her feigned interest in what he did at work, his wife couldn’t bother with meaningful conversations, and certainly not discussions of Israeli politics. Talking with the total strangers traveling with him, on the other hand, not only offered a fascinating glimpse into their lives but also helped relieve the monotony of long hours parked on Jerusalem’s streets waiting for a fare. His wife never understood any of this. But he loved her just the same.

Later, he stopped for his last passenger of the day. The driver asked what he thought about the upcoming elections but the passenger barely acknowledged him. From a quick glance in the mirror, the driver assumed that the man with a closely-shaved head was relatively well-off, someone who would never consider traveling on the city’s crowded buses.

“Who will you be voting for in the elections?” the driver repeated. He expected the question to be ignored but a minute later, the passenger spoke up.

“I won’t be voting.”

“What do you mean you won’t be voting?”

“I’ve voted in elections twice this year already. Why should I vote again? It won’t make a difference.”

“It will make a difference!” the driver argued. “You have an opinion, and that opinion counts.”

“No, whatever happens, whoever wins, nothing will change.”

“How can you say that? As an Israeli citizen, you have a right to vote. No, you have an obligation to vote! Everyone must vote!”

The passenger didn’t argue with him because he was too busy getting out at his stop. The driver wasn’t surprised when he didn’t receive a tip.

He parked in the lot near his building. Election posters marked with the letters of the different parties hung from the balconies. Discarded propaganda pamphlets littered the pavement. He hoped his wife had prepared schnitzel for dinner. That was his favorite and it didn’t matter that he had eaten chicken steak for lunch. But he knew that his wife had probably been too busy all day with the children to even think about cooking. No matter. He would whip up some shakshuka and that would be a great meal, anyway.

What do you say about our country? he asked himself. Staging elections for the third time this year! Where else in the world do you have a country like this?

He didn’t have the answers. After all, he was just a taxi driver.

Originally posted on The Times of Israel.

Taxis on Jerusalem streets - image by Yoninah, shared on Wikimedia Commons.