My father, charitably, labels it being a homebody. The Wife, less charitably,
refers to it as getting old and crotchety. My kids just call it being
Whatever the tag, I find myself more and more just wanting to
It’s not that I’m a misanthrope or antisocial. It’s just that
at home I’m able to control the environment, keeping it relatively
aggravation-free. This ability, by the way, is much greater in the
I love the winter. It’s cold outside, cozy inside. And the best
part is, you can close the windows, keeping all those outside noises outside:
radios blaring, buses hurtling, babies crying, passersby talking, dogs barking,
cats fighting, birds chirping, doves cooing, jackhammers pounding. And I
live in a quiet neighborhood.
Shutting out those noises means, obviously,
that sleep comes easier in the frosty months. But come springtime and – boom –
we open the windows and are back in New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of
the 20th century: everyone’s life, along with the pollen, seeping uninvited into
Still, even with the windows open, the aggravation level
at home is much lower than on the street. You go out – to dinner, a reception, a
wedding, a movie, or even to the opera – and nine times out of 10 something is
going to annoy you.
It could be the traffic, the lines, the unbalanced
restaurant table missing that little black thing on the bottom of a leg, the kid
crunching popcorn at the movie, the synagogue prayer-leader singing too long,
the gal on the bus talking too loudly on her cellphone.
cellphone, that modern bane to public space. Cellphones are the new
You remember smokers – they used to be everywhere. On the
buses, in the coffee shops, in your face – everywhere. Puffing away at
restaurants, they ensured an aggravated meal. If you didn’t say something to ask
them to stop, you would both gag on their smoke and kick yourself for not saying
anything. If you did say something, chances were an unpleasant exchange would
ensue that would ruin your dinner. Either way, you lose.
So during this
Independence Day period when we note the many miracles that make up Israel, one
other tiny wonder should get noticed: People no longer smoke on buses. Who would
have thought two decades ago that a day would arrive when you could get off an
inter-city bus without your clothes smelling like smoke?
When the country first
banned smoking on public transportation, those of little faith thought it could
never be done, never be enforced. They thought it would be impossible to
get Israelis to stop smoking on buses. For that matter, they thought it would be
impossible to get the bus drivers to stop smoking on buses.
Yet, it was
done. The smoking stopped... only to be followed by
Obviously, there is no comparison between the health hazards
of second-hand smoke and the annoyance level of someone engaged in a loud
cellular phone conversation. But still.
“Just ignore him,” The
Wife said recently, noticing my face tense up as someone in a restaurant the
table over from us conducted business on his phone.
But that’s like
telling someone un-relaxed to relax; someone upset to calm down. Once you home
in on that conversation, you can’t detach, even if you want to. The mind
says stop, but the ear says listen.
My dad has a novel approach. Faced
with the inconsiderate caller, he will pretend to be talking on his own phone
and say noisily that he can’t hear because some guy next to him is talking too
loudly. That’s the modern version of a friend who, faced with smokers refusing
to douse their cigarettes in his presence, would simply take out a small bottle
of air freshener and spray it in their direction.
Me, I’m made of gentler
stuff. My kids, actually, would call it wimpier stuff, unless I actually pulled
out the bottle and started spraying the air myself.
Then their mortified
reaction would be, “How could you do that? You are so Ashkenazi!”
I love that
insult from the mouths of my kids – “You are so Ashkenazi.” What exactly does
that mean? Right, I’m Ashkenazi. My ancestors came from Russia and
Germany. Where’s the rub?
But in the mouths of babes, or at least in the
mouths of my children, this is the ultimate putdown. “You’re Ashkenazi” means
you’re uptight, tense, square, don’t know how to mangal (barbecue) or properly
spice your food.
And then it happened: In an act of total acculturation,
I made that imprecation my own.
There we were, The Wife and I, at the
opera in Tel Aviv for a big night out. We were very excited, the windows in the
beautiful hall were all closed, and we were ready to hear some glorious
Just before the curtain was raised, the PA announcer asked the
audience to shut off cellphones. I quickly went to turn mine off. As I did,
however, the screen lit up for a millisecond and the fellow behind me loudly
admonished me to turn off my phone.
“That’s what I’m doing,” I
“Good,” he said, “because it’s bothering me.”
seconds later, he’s yelling at another guy sitting in his row doing the same
thing. Clearly, as the kids would say, this fellow had “issues.”
about 20 minutes into the performance, a phone goes off. Not a few aisles down,
not over in another section, but right smack dab next to the guy with the
issues. I don’t dare turn around but sense a woman, probably petrified about
what her neighbor is going to do, scramble for her purse in a frantic effort to
stop the ringing.
The guy next to me, whom I had not spoken to up until
then, tapped my knee, winked, and motioned behind us with his thumb, as if to
say, “poetic justice.”
Well, almost. Poetic justice would have been if
the culprit were the guy’s wife or daughter. It wasn’t. It was some poor woman
who, innocently, just forgot.
At intermission the neurotic fellow
“Serves him right,” I told the woman. I was restrained. What
I really wanted to say was, “That guy is so Ashkenazi!”