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I decided to take a phone call the other day from some guy asking to speak to "Herbert." Generally I don't take the Herbert calls. Indeed, one of the only benefits of bearing a name that went out of fashion about 90 years ago is that it serves as a built in call-screener. Herbert is the name that appears on my driver's license, on my passports and in the phone book. But nobody alive calls me Herbert.
So when someone calls the home and asks for Herbert, I know they're either trying to sell me insurance, survey me about a new yogurt or solicit funds. A Herbert call means someone has just randomly searched the phone book and come across that name. I owe them nothing.
"Herbert is in Paris for the next two months," I replied about a month ago to an unwanted caller, as my youngest son looked on in disbelief while his father told a bald and naked lie.
"Herbert doesn't live here any more," I said a couple days later as that same ubiquitous son ("Don't you have homework to do?") was at my heels again and downright ashen that I told another untruth. He then lectured me about the corrosive nature of telling fabrications.
His lecture had an impact, because last week I took one of those calls. And on the other end of the phone was a downright chipper sounding fellow from Bezeq International asking how "Herbert" was doing, and whether everything was okay.
"I think so," I replied. "Why do you ask?"
"Because you have an international calling plan with us, and we notice that in the last few months you haven't made many calls? Are you sure everything is okay, Herbert."
"Yep, everything is fine," I said, touched by his concern, but annoyed that he kept trying to butter me up by repeating what he thought - wrongly - was the name I would like to hear. "Thanks for asking."
I hung up the phone, and then felt overcome by guilt. No, this time I didn't lie and say Herbert didn't live here anymore. But I also didn't tell the whole truth. I felt guilty about not telling the Bezeq International guy his company's services were no longer needed in my home, that I bought a computer-linked gizmo in the US which - for a $20 purchase price, and another $20 yearly subscription fee - allows me to make unlimited calls to the US.
I DIDN'T tell the Bezeq man this because - in my insecurity - I feared that if I did, someone would show up at the door and take my new toy away; that this device was too good to be true, maybe even illegal. In fact, when I first hooked it up to the computer for that maiden phone call, I unplugged all the phone lines in the house to make sure this thing really was legitimate, and that I was indeed calling through the computer. My fear was that I would call to my heart's content, only to get an outlandish bill at the end of the month from Bezeq.
When I related my guilt feelings to The Wife, she was markedly unmoved. Generally a very forgiving soul, to me and to others, she has a nasty streak when it comes to Bezeq. The Wife bears Bezeq scars, deep and more than 20 years old.
These scars were born of waiting weeks for Bezeq to install a phone line in our first flat in Jerusalem more than 23 years ago; scars born of being charged for years more for a five-minute call to the US than I now pay for about 50 calls; scars born of dreading that something would happen to the phone line back in the '80s, which would then take the phone monopoly weeks, even months, to fix.
Having Bezeq call us to solicit for our business was, to a certain extent, sweet revenge, not something to feel guilty about. It was also a sign of how far this country has progressed over the years in those day-to-day matters that used to be so maddening.
Now there are numbers to facilitate queuing up at the Post Office; a plethora of ATMs, which means one rarely has to go stand in line at the bank; and the possibility to pay all bills by phone. Even getting a passport renewed is efficient and streamlined. You walk in with an old passport and - presto - 20 minutes later you walk out with a new one.
Now try renewing an American passport. The Wife and I went to the US Consulate a few weeks back to renew a US passport for one of our children, an experience dreaded in our house as much as a visit to the mechanic. You go to the consulate in east Jerusalem, stand in four different lines for more than an hour - and that after making an appointment - and then walk away not with a passport, but rather with a promise that one will be sent in a couple of weeks.
Plus there is always something about that place that makes me feel guilty, like I did something wrong. Maybe it's the three different security checks, or the guards who motion for you to sit down in the waiting area as if you are in kindergarten, or the clerks mumbling through the multiplated bullet proof windows. A visit to the consulate always transports me back to the principal's office.
Not The Wife. She doesn't feel guilty, rather Israeli smug. "I can't believe this place," she said as we left. Then, in a sign of how much things here have changed over the years, she uttered something that would have been unimaginable 23-years ago: "Why can't the Americans do a simple thing like this the way they do in Israel?"