yael mansour 88 224.
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
The voice of the dispatcher crackles over the speaker in Yael Mansour's taxi cab. "Can someone pick up a fare at Rehov Herzl 92, traveling to Tel Aviv? Old lady, waiting in the lobby..."
Mansour switches off the loudspeaker. She's just come back from a tiring journey to Holon, it's 37 degrees outside the cab and the last thing she feels like is another long journey. Maybe something around Kfar Saba. A quick hop over the Ra'anana junction wouldn't bother her, but Tel Aviv? Someone else can do it.
She glances at her GPS to see if anything more attractive is on offer. A heavenly silence reigns in the cab now that she's switched off her receiver - and there's time to think - about this new career, about the poetry that she writes, about her large extended family and the beloved sister she lost 14 years before. About living alone and trying to keep smiling even in the hard times, of which there have been plenty.
Mansour's is a well-known face in Kfar Saba, the town her Iraqi-born parents arrived in when she was a baby. For years she had a popular ice-cream parlor on one of the main streets, not least because she has a phenomenal memory and could recall every kid's name and what they liked.
Twenty years ago I used to pass there every day with my two little boys, and Yael would give them a warm welcome.
"Hi Zvika, hi David, how are you today?" she would say with her big smile. "You want caramel again, or chocolate and vanilla?"
Considering she had thousands of customers, remembering names and preferences was no small feat. She had her share of nudniks too, people who drove her crazy trying to decide what flavor to choose for their five shekels. She dealt with them with heavy irony.
"Where would you like the Jacuzzi?" she used to ask. "You've expended enough energy to build a five-room house." If a kid dropped his ice cream as happened frequently, he would get a refill, no questions asked. And she always insisted on a "please" and "thank you" from her young customers.
"In those days they used to laugh at me but they learned," she says.
Before that she ran a children's clothing store and considered herself a good saleswoman, although she was scrupulously honest and if something didn't look right she would say so. In both jobs she loved the interplay with the public, especially the children, and found something almost creative in being good at selling.
Becoming a taxi driver was an unexpected development. In many ways it is a continuation of the aspects of her two previous careers - dealing with people and interacting with a large range of ages and types. Whenever she picks up a fare, she never knows who is going to step into her cab. It's been a great opportunity to polish up her English, Arabic and even Yiddish, which she picked up from elderly neighbors and speaks with a rich Polish intonation. She also knows a few words of Spanish, French and Russian.
"I get by," she says.
HOW DO you become a cab driver at 50?
"A friend of mine thought I was in a bit of a rut and suggested that I take out a license even if I never work in it. It's quite a process," explains Mansour. The first hurdle is to undergo some kind of psychoanalysis at the Licensing Bureau to decide if you have the right personality. Only if you pass that are you allowed to take the course.
"I've no idea what they were looking for, but I passed that anyway," she says.
The course lasts for one and a half months. In that time the aspiring cabbie will learn defensive driving, a bit of English of the "I am your driver" variety and some knowledge of the country and how to read maps. (It's knowledge, not "The Knowledge," an intensive 18-month course that London cabbies have to complete before they can get their license.) There's also some superficial mechanics - what goes on inside the engine, how to change a flat tire. At the end of the course and the exam, a fully-fledged qualified cab driver emerges.
Being a lady driver has its up side and its down side. "I go to pick up a fare and the person peeks inside and says, 'A lady driver, lovely,' but sometimes they don't look so pleased. Those old wives' tales about women drivers die hard. It's really ridiculous in these days when women instruct how to drive tanks. But thank heavens, I've never had any problems, but there's no question, people do react. I see them nudging and pointing at me when I'm waiting at traffic lights.
"Sometimes someone gets in the cab and recognizes me from the ice-cream parlor and greets me warmly. Then I have to use all my powers of imagination to visualize them as they were at age six. I feel like Michelangelo."
And of course she likes to keep up with current affairs, knowing that on long drives many passengers like to discuss the political situation.
"When I pick up someone at the airport and they ask what's been going on in their absence, I have to be able to fill them in. More often than not they give me an earful of their strongly held opinions. I have my own opinions, but I try to keep them out of the conversation and not upset the passenger if they are diametrically opposed to his. So I make bland comments on this or that politician until I see which way the wind is blowing."
The only bad experience she can recall is taking a fare from Ra'anana to Tel Aviv and being told at the end of the journey by the passenger that she had forgotten her purse. They exchanged addresses and the passenger promised the money would arrive by mail.
"It's still out there floating somewhere between Ra'anana and Kfar Saba," she laughs. "Most people are honest. Just because there's one bad apple occasionally, it doesn't stop the majority from being okay."
Every so often she gets a call to Tira and Taiba, the two Arab villages nearby. "I've never had a problem, except one passenger from there wanted to smoke, but of course I wouldn't allow it - not in my cab."
In fact the cab belongs to the company and goes back to it when the day's work is over. To buy her own cab is an expense she can't even consider at the moment.
AFTER THE day's work, she returns to her home, a room with kitchen in an old house in one of the early immigrant neighborhoods of the town. Here she writes her poetry and once a week meets with other artists in a group which has been meeting for 10 years - the Creative Artists Circle.
"It began with three women who write and paint - I was a founding member - and today there are between 60 and 80 people who meet on a regular basis, and read or show their work.
"I don't know how to write happy poetry. Perhaps life has embittered me a little. Out of six siblings, only four are left and I was extremely close to my sister who died. Her children are like my own. No I never married; I never found the right one. It's hard sometimes being alone, but you can sit and be miserable or you can try to be happy - and that's what I do. My mother used to say, 'Let's look for the reasons to laugh; to cry there are plenty of reasons.'"
She points up to the ceiling. "He took a lot," she says, "but He gave me a sense of humor."
What you need to know about taxis
Everyone has a taxi horror story - the driver who took you from Ramat Gan to Jaffa with a non-guided tour of Bat Yam thrown in, the one with the radio playing Reshet Gimmel at full volume, the cabs that stink of cigarette smoke with windows that don't open and seat belts that don't work - but at least it's better than it used to be.
Many visitors have their first encounter with taxis at Ben-Gurion Airport. This is now well organized, with dispatchers sending passengers to their destination in an orderly fashion with no line-jumping or an undignified scramble to get into the taxi first.
The driver will still offer you the choice of having the meter on or a fixed price. While strictly speaking it's illegal to ride without the meter, it's one of those rules that depend on common sense. If you think it's a fair price and he obviously prefers it, then go for it - but make absolutely sure you've established the amount before you get into the cab. From experience it works out pretty much the same. And don't automatically assume you are being cheated. The meter will register you getting in, a starting fare of about NIS 9 - and if it's nighttime, Shabbat or a festival, it's 25 percent more. You also pay a bit more if you order a cab from the station as opposed to flagging one down in the street.
Should you tip the driver? Yael Mansour says that Israelis don't tip but immigrants, especially Anglos, do and the drivers have come to expect it. "You come from a different culture," she says, "but frankly it embarrasses me a bit. But I think most drivers aren't like me."
Some drivers are also qualified as guides and will take you for a fixed price on tours around the country. Beware of those who aren't qualified but think they know everything. An official guide will have a photo ID attached to his dashboard with a Ministry of Tourism logo. This doesn't mean that many drivers aren't very knowledgeable about the country, just that they are not officially qualified to pontificate about historic sites and the like.
The worst taxi ride we ever took was from Ben-Gurion airport to our Kfar Saba home. The young driver wove in and out of traffic, never gave a signal and finally lurched to a stop outside our home 15 minutes later. During the ride there wasn't much to be done except pray, but once on terra firma we both gave him a piece of our mind - my husband by telling him about his many years experience in hospital emergency rooms dealing with the results of driving like that, and I, always more direct, telling him he was the worst driver I'd ever encountered. He had the grace to look quite sheepish and drove off, signaling furiously.
As many visitors have noticed, cab drivers here are a garrulous lot. It's very rare to sit in stony silence when driving in a cab. There are no glass partitions and Israelis like to have their say - about everything.