Thursday, 8:30 a.m. The best way, so I am told, to reach the Jewish Quarter or the Western Wall is by taking bus No. 38, a smaller vehicle than the usual Egged buses,  which makes the round trip from the Jewish Quarter to Talpiot. At the bus stop near the Khan Theater, which also serves other lines, four people are waiting. Within less than five minutes the bus arrives, and we climb aboard.

The two seats behind the driver and the one to his right are occupied by three smiling Arab women. They are all wearing a lot of jewelry, and one of them is also wearing a golden cross. They seem to know the driver quite well, and the conversation continues.  Based on my poor Arabic and their extensive use of Hebrew, it seems that the topic is somebody’s recent wedding, perhaps even the driver’s.

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The bus drives past Liberty Bell Gardens, enters into King David Street, turns into Mamilla and goes into the Old City through Jaffa Gate. Two haredi men board the bus. The older one greets the driver with a big, “Nu, how was it?” 

The driver answers – by now I realize by his accent that he is an Arab – with a natural “Baruch Hashem.” 

At the entry to the Armenian Quarter, the three women get off, but not before they and the driver exchange several blessings. A middle-aged woman sitting beside me in the second row, offers some unasked-for but nonetheless valuable information: “They are all Armenians, you know. Christians. They work in our part of the city, and they prefer to use our bus service.”

I smile at her politely and look at the driver’s face in the mirror. I see that he is very patient when elderly passengers get on, taking the time to let them find a seat before driving on, lest they fall.

Once we reach Zion Gate from inside the walls, we are suddenly blocked by heavy traffic. When we finally reach the last stop at the gate of the Jewish Quarter, I realize that it has taken us seven minutes to get from the end of the Armenian Quarter to the terminal. Before I get off the bus, I ask the driver if this is a common occurrence. He replies that it is particularly difficult on Thursdays, adding, “You know, it’s the day of bar mitzvot, so many people come to the Rova [Jewish Quarter].”

A FEW days later, I take the 38 to get out of the Old City without risking taking one of the unofficial gender-segregated buses that run from the entrance to the Kotel. It is 2 p.m. and very hot. A number of vans go by, filled with small children, all residents of the Jewish Quarter, coming from school. A 38 bus is already there, but the driver can’t get to the bus stop because it is blocked by one of the vans. About 10 passengers are already waiting at the stop in the hot sun, but the driver refuses to open the doors before he can get to the stop.

The driver of the van doesn’t want to leave the spot until he is sure that all the kids he has to pick up are in. After a few minutes of arguing, the two drivers still cannot resolve the situation. But then, from inside the Jewish Quarter, an elderly man wearing a long black suit and a black hat arrives.

Before the newcomer has a chance to assess the situation, the driver greets him with a loud “Shalom, kvod harav” and miraculously no longer sees any problems letting the passengers in, even though he is still a certain distance away from the bus stop. Surprisingly enough, no one says a word, and within less than a minute the bus is ready to leave the Jewish Quarter.

The second the driver closes the doors, a man appears, wearing a yellow vest, dusty thigh-high boots  and sweating profusely. He is carrying three very long wooden beams with large, nasty-looking nails sticking out. The man steps inside, but the driver stares at him and says, “You really want to ride with me with those frightening things with you?”

”I can take out the nails if you want, but it’ll take a few seconds. Don’t leave!” answers the man. Without even waiting for a reply, he jumps onto the sidewalk and, using the low metal fence behind the bus stop as a tool, manages to  take out most of the nails and gets back on the bus before the driver even has time to respond. A woman seated behind the driver remarks, “I’m not sure it is legal” but the driver doesn’t answer. 

We leave the Jewish Quarter with less than two minutes’ delay, with one smiling man – and a board – aboard.

Bus No. 38 goes to and from the Batei Machaseh bus stop in the Jewish Quarter through Zion Gate and Mamilla to the Khan Theater bus stop every 12 minutes. There is also a  No. 38A, which goes through the city center. It comes once an hour.
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