“You see that guy, something’s wrong with that guy,” said “Ronen” a detective from the Lev Tel Aviv police station during a ride-around I went on for a couple hours last week as part of a story on the strangely legal and highly potent drugs sold at Tel Aviv kiosks.
“Why? Is it the hat?” I asked, savoring the rare opportunity to be on the other end of the police gaze.
“No, it’s how he’s walking. He’s walking but not going anywhere. He’s at the bus stop now, but he’s not waiting for the bus. If we stop this guy right now, he’ll probably have five or six arrests on his record,” Ronen answered. Yeah, the 20-something guy didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, though to be honest, that’s likely the case for 90% of people walking around central Tel Aviv in the middle of a workday afternoon.
(Addicts shooting hagigat in a south Tel Aviv alleyway - credit: Ben Hartman)
Just a couple minutes earlier Ronen had screeched to a stop on a side street off Sheinkin, as he and his partner “Eyal” began staring out the window of their white unmarked Hyundai towards a middle-aged man walking up the street with his back to them. No explanation was given, but Ronen, a heavy-set 40-something Yemenite in a Cosby sweater whose look suggests either police detective or small-time criminal said “he’s going to turn right at the next street, if he turns around to look at us, something’s wrong, if he doesn’t turn around and look, he’s ok.”
The man continued walking, and the two partners watched in silence as he made his way to the next intersection and turned right, strolling away without looking back.
Moments like this were fascinating, giving a glimpse into how someone else from a radically different background and profession sees my city with entirely different eyes. Other moments showed that while there’s an alluring attraction to rolling through Tel Aviv in an unmarked car looking for low-lifes up to no good, it’s probably not something everyone is cut out for.
This was made clear during a stop at a drug kiosk near the central bus station. This particular kiosk was on the southern end of Menachem Begin, where Eyal and Ronen said the “hagigat” pills (a cheap bathtub crank sold for 25 shekels a pill) are different than the ones in north Tel Aviv, and are specially made for people to mix with water and shoot up.
“You and I are going to go in as cops, so let me do all the talking,” Eyal said, and I nodded, left my notepad in the car, and began doing a cowboy walk up to the kiosk, happy I wore a bubble jacket, because for some reason I thought it seemed very police-y at that moment.
Eyal then began a verbal shakedown of the Russian-Israeli kid at the counter, who looked to be no older than 17, either because he was a late bloomer, or his growth had been stunted by smoking too much synthetic weed.
“What’s this, what are you selling here,” Eyal said, as the kid handed over a pouch of “Dragon”, one of dozens of synthetic weed substitutes sold at Tel Aviv kiosks with the tag “incense, not for human consumption” on the bag.
“It’s incense, we sell this, gum too,” the kid said, visibly shaken and pointing at a single pack of gum on an empty counter.
“Do people smoke it, does it get you high?” Eyal asked, passing me the open pouch of Dragon. I leaned in and inhaled, resisting the urge to dip my pinky in it and rub it on my gums to check that it was some real primo shit, because that’s what cops do on television.
“I don’t know what it does, people buy it, I don’t know,” the kid said, before insisting that he never sells to anyone under 18.
It would be a lie to say it wasn’t awkward. The kid seemed legitimately freaked out and as we left, I caught myself about to wave goodbye or shake his hand, used to a normal human experience where my presence is not something to be feared. I also thought for a second that maybe it’s good, maybe the experience will encourage him to get a real job, go back to school, call his parents.
After we left the store we drove down to Har Zion and up Acre street, a small one-lane road and shooting gallery popular with south Tel Aviv junkies. The detectives wanted to show me proof that hagigat is not just a party drug for north Tel Aviv kids, but also a cheap alternative to heroin, popular with junkies.
We drove up the road and pulled to a stop next to four people crouched between two cars, with two syringes and a few empty pill canisters on the road in front of them.
As Eyal and Ronen got out of the car, two of the crew got up and one of them swore he had nothing on him, hadn’t shot up, and hasn’t stolen anything. Two others barely moved, and the fourth also began professed his innocence.
Eyal then began a battery of questions – asked nicely – about why they shoot hagigat, how much it costs them, and how it makes them feel.
One of them, an older man carrying a bag full of blankets and bananas the police turned down with a smile, said he stopped using ages ago, and was just there to try and show his friends the path to sobriety. He said he’d seen people he knows shoot hagigat and end up in the mental hospital, adding “this stuff makes horns grow out of your forehead; it’s much worse than heroin.”
Eyal continued to ask questions, showing what appeared to be something akin to concern, as he tried to get me user testimony for my article.
Ronen began asking one of the users, a young Russian-Israeli woman in her late twenties who was obviously much prettier in her cleaner days, how much she paid for the pills. She answered that she pays 20 shekels per pill, to which he asked “how much for a hundred.”
“It’s 20 per pill, that’s five for a hundred, do the math,” she slurred back, and Ronen answered “they don’t give you a discount if you buy five? Nothing?”
We then left and got back in the car, and continued on our spin around south Tel Aviv.
“They were a bit confused”, Eyal said of the users in the alleyway. “They’re not used to us asking them how their day’s going or how they’re doing, we don’t really have that relationship,” he added with a smile.
Around the corner, they parked outside a kiosk on Lewinsky they said was a front for a stolen property business, pointing to a man behind the counter who they said trades hagigat pills for stolen property brought in by junkies. The man came out to the pavement and smoked a cigarette, nodding to Ronen and Eyal, who glared back.
When I asked if they were going to search the store, Eyal said “no, this is the Yiftach precinct down here, and besides, there’s two detectives in that car on the corner watching the store”, pointing to a white unmarked car a block away.
“How do you know, is it the car they’re driving?” I asked.
“That, but also we all look alike,” he said.
We cruised back north as Eyal, a clean-cut, slim 40-year-old, began showing me pictures of his daughter on his cellphone. The pictures in his phone’s gallery alternated between those of his kids and of his life as a detective, to comical effect.
“Here she is on Purim, here’s this Eritrean guy who burglarized a few dozen houses in the precinct, we found him through his DNA, here’s our family on Yom Haatzmaut, here’s a weed lab we found in this guy’s basement.”
Ronen then began scrolling through pictures on his cellphone of amateur Photoshop work he’d done, editing pictures of city skylines to show he and his wife on city billboards. He then expressed a long-burning desire to take a course in photo editing and graphic design. “I just don’t have time for it, it’s something you really have to put your heart into,” he said.
We were then only a couple blocks from the precinct house, and I told the guys I had fun, to which Eyal asked, “why don’t you enlist in the police? Why don’t you join up?”
I told them I was too old to get started, 33 and with a preference to work in journalism, though it did look like fun. That’s true by the way – the officers were genuinely interesting to be around. But there’s still an uneasy feeling, that they’re actually quite different than you, (especially the teenage or 20-something you) and if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be in this profession to begin with. They aren’t from your world, and you’re probably not really from theirs, and there’s a limit to how much they could be your friends or to the extent to which you want them to know where you hang out.
Still, for a few hours on a weekday afternoon, they’re a pretty good crew to roll with.