The man on the corner

A day in the life of Lotto vendor Martin Blatt.

By LAUREN GELFOND FELDINGER
October 3, 2007 20:48
The man on the corner

lotto 224. (photo credit: Lauren Gelfond Feldinger )

 
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Martin Blatt, 49, leans on his hand and stares out the window of his one- by one-and-a-half-meter office. The sound of traffic from Jerusalem's Rehov Aza seeps in, a hushed back and forth whoosh. Blatt's eyes inadvertently dart around, soaking in the sights and happenings on the corner. Students, immigrants and Rehavia old-timers wander to and from the neighboring bus stops, cafes, banks and shops that surround his Lotto booth. Some don't see him, his presence no different from the other street fixtures. A few dangle their fingers into a wave without breaking their pace. Others stop for tickets, jokes, idle chatter or tips. A man with white hair knocks on the window. Blatt shakes his hand, smiles, and addresses him by his first name. The man shows him a form, and 10 minutes pass in intimate conversation. Blatt waves his pen in the air, but never lowers his fingers to the cash register. There is no transaction. "People come every day just for advice or for a favor," he says, but does not elaborate. "It doesn't matter." Seven years into the job, Blatt only explains that life in his tiny, freestanding booth includes being part salesman, part psychologist, part dreamer and part witness to the small details of everyday life. "The people of the neighborhood suit me," he says. "Put me in any other Lotto booth, and I'll die." The Rehavia residents, he explains, live in Israel, but are European in their roots, behavior or their fondness for academic repartee. "Just like me," he says. The revelation that Blatt sees himself as a European intellectual surprises those who come to know him. "People presume when you sit in a Lotto booth that you are an uneducated, unskilled, blue-collar Israeli," he says, raising his eyebrows. "Do you know how many Israelis are as educated as me? Come on." He laughs but shakes his head. When Blatt's intellectual pediatrician mother took him in tow as she immigrated from Romania in 1970, when he was 12, the plan was to join other intellectual European Zionists who wanted to be part of the unfolding drama of rebuilding a Jewish commonwealth. Escaping what Blatt describes as mild anti-Semitism was secondary, he says. That narrative started the year he was born. From 1958, his mother planned the aliya and waited for government approval. As a divorced pediatrician who had been educated in the state's socialist schools, she would only be granted a visa if she paid back the worth of all the state services they had used. It wasn't until 1970 that the Jewish Agency got involved, says Blatt, and paid some $5,000 to the Romanian government for her education and services, and another $3,000 for her only son, to help the pair make their long dreamed of journey. Once here, Blatt was raised in elite ulpanim, schools and camps. He went on to serve as an IDF officer, and later graduated from Hebrew University with a BA in Far East and Russian studies, with a special concentration in China and Chinese language, after spending an academic year abroad in Taipei. He also studied for, but did not complete his master's degree in the same subjects. At the time, he was conversationally fluent in Mandarin, Romanian, Hebrew and English. He also had working knowledge of Russian. His mother, meanwhile, continued her work as a pediatrician, employed at health fund clinics and mother and child centers. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. BUT SOME two decades after arriving, with the army and his studies behind him, the younger Blatt found there was no work in his field. At first he took it in stride that it was because he had studied abstract subjects and that Israel did not at the time have diplomatic relations with China or the Soviet Union. Until he could find something more appropriate, he kept studying. "There are dreams and there are realities. So I tried to find a way to combine both, but it was impossible. In Israel everything has to be a tangible reality," he says. "So I made a U-turn to start something else." The employment agency suggested a one-year accounting certificate or studies in practical engineering and electricity. Blatt did both, juggling small jobs and night school. By the time he graduated, he was in his early 30s. For the following six years, he worked as a building electrician. Then, as foreign workers began to arrive, he found a job translating for Romanian and Chinese workers in a construction company. "But eventually, because of overtime - I worked about 350 hours a month, no days or nights or holidays off - I quit," he says. "But I couldn't find work, so I became a part-time attendant for the elderly and helped out local buildings, fixing things, and sometimes guarding students during high-school exams. For four and a half years it was all very part time and I earned about $150 a month. I lived with my mother, of course. Who could afford anything else?" "Why wasn't there other work?" he muses. "I am more educated and have more practical skills than many Israelis. But everywhere I turned, they told me, or implied, that I was too fat, I was too old, I talked funny, I was overqualified, I wasn't suitable. I don't know." He shrugs and looks away. Blatt has a speech impediment. He doesn't exactly lisp. He doesn't stutter. There is no name for it, he says. It sounds and looks like he talks out of the side of his mouth, perhaps like a person after a stroke or one who talks slowly and with great effort, though you can understand every word he says. "Does it matter how I sound if I am doing someone's books or doing research? Does it matter more how I look and sound and what are my connections?" he asks. "Or is it my skills and education that should matter?" Blatt doesn't deny that he is bitter. Even the Lotto officials rejected him for the clerk position the first year he applied. BUT THE LOTTO booth has afforded him a new life and some connections he may have never made. Alone with his newspapers, crossword puzzles, a radio, and an endless stream of daydreaming between customers, Blatt says that at least he is self-sufficient. "I like it here, it's a business, I am independent and I make a living. I have even bought my own apartment." A freelancer employed by Lotto, he buys the tickets in advance, pays rent for the booth and lives solely off commissions. He decides his hours and approach. In his booth, Blatt met his wife-to-be, a homecare attendant to the elderly, who was helping someone buy a Lotto ticket four years ago. Married for two and a half years, they have a 18-month-old daughter, Ayala. On the days when Ayala is not being watched by her mother or other family members, Blatt brings her into the booth for a few hours, where she plays with the tickets, pens and papers, flirts with customers and watches the world go by with her dad. Amid the jumble of receipts and papers, Blatt keeps a short story called "I Am a Winner" that a customer recently wrote about the Lotto system, which mentions Blatt: "Martin is my local ticket vendor. Martin speaks with a defect that causes his speech to sound as if he's speaking with his mouth closed and gritting his teeth. He says that the only time he can tell he has a defect is when he listens to a tape of himself speaking, otherwise he sounds 'normal' to his own ears. Martin is a witty, personable guy. I imagine that his speech defect is at least part of the reason he doesn't have a job commensurate with his education and language skills. "Winning numbers are printed in the newspapers. I could easily check my tickets at home, but it's more pleasant to take them to Martin. With Martin I get some social contact and light humor. And I can talk politics with him. Actually I mostly listen to his views. "One day, shortly after I had become a regular, I walked up to the booth and as I pushed my ticket toward Martin I asked, 'Am I a winner?' I paraphrase his answer: 'You got out of bed this morning under your own power, you walked into the bathroom and relieved yourself, you fed yourself while reading the morning paper in your own apartment in a nice section of Jerusalem and then you walked over here under your own power without the aid of a walker. And besides, you have a beautiful wife that I see you with almost every day. Of course you're a winner. Unfortunately the ticket is not.' "Of course I'm a winner. Thanks Martin." The story is signed by the author, Gerry Mandell, "with great appreciation for sharing your stories and wisdom." Blatt says he wasn't trying to comfort his customer. "There are ways to ease the bitterness of life just by telling the truth," he says. "All I do is tell the truth." He describes himself as a grouchy, calculating, sharp-tongued cynic. He rarely shows his soft side, but sometimes it just comes out. "When I read that story my eyes filled with tears," he admits. But there is not much time for melancholy. With every tap on the window, he snaps back into his friendly, neighborly role. Albert Suissa, one of the family owners of Sigmund Café across the street, lumbers over laughing and knocks on the window to say hello. "There is a known argument about this corner place," he quips. "Is the intersection booth with the Shin Bet, the Mossad, the tax authorities or with the state? What's under the tall roof? What's Martin really doing here?" "We always think of Lotto workers as down and out, but on the other side, Martin sees what's going on - and he makes people talk," says Suissa. "And he guards the intersection, documents it, is its memory." Blatt laughs out loud, but remains fairly mum. He won't say who needs advice, what time Binyamin Netanyahu's, the prime minister's residence staff or the president's men do their security sweeps, which couples have just had a fight on the corner or who is lonely for someone to talk to, though he sees it all. As for what's under his tall roof, he just shrugs. Suissa heads back to work and Blatt's smile slowly unfolds. He leans on his hand and stares out the window of the orange-and-blue booth.

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