Looking for zero

I handed her my shekels, and she pushed them back at me. 'Is toy money,' she sniffed as she shoved it under the thick Plexiglass window.

spending money cartoon 8 (photo credit: )
spending money cartoon 8
(photo credit: )
Living here has taught me a lesson I never wanted to learn: how to live on the other side of zero - living in a state of continuous overdraft, always hoping to catch up and overtake the elusive other side of the bottom line. I'm the one who used to balance to the penny, who saved regularly, who gave generously. In my other life, that is. The idea of 25 payments for a toaster never crossed my mind, but now it's an undeniable luxury. Coffee with the girls on a debit card? A nice dinner with the old man? The perfect purse for travel? Whipping out the card becomes easier and easier, and zero is a benchmark. It's another bit of the welcome-to-Israel revelation that makes me appreciate what is inviting, maybe forgiving about being at home, part of that final shedding of the concept that home is anyplace else but here. Israel, with all its flaws, is home, which includes the crazy banking, from the hours they keep to the inevitable overdraft that everyone has but no one notices. If I get too far below the line, my personal banker calls with a polite reminder. Once when she called, I cried, and know what? She did too. Only in Israel. I can't imagine Helen at the Bank of America giving me the time of day, let alone shedding a tear over my finances. My job as a court reporter takes me to far-flung places, so I need to have a little jingle in my pocket. Last summer, I found myself stranded at the airport in Odessa, Ukraine, with several hundred shekels and only Israeli credit cards. The job had come up so suddenly, I barely had time to get to Ben-Gurion before takeoff. Not a problem, I thought, heading straight for the currency exchange desk. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. I handed her my shekels, and she pushed them back at me. "Is toy money," she sniffed as she shoved it under the thick Plexiglass window. It was the kindness of a stranger and my solemn promise that NIS 100 was worth "about $20" that got me to the five-star hotel where I was booked. He wasn't even a taxi driver, just Vladimir Citizen, helping a damsel in distress. It was almost the same story last week in Milan. My client paid for my airfare and my hotel room, even for a limo. This just goes with the job. The little girl at reception was two-thirds my age, and as friendly as the woman in Odessa. She insisted that I leave my credit card to charge my incidentals. I explained that my employer had arranged payment for all my fees. "No," she insisted, "madam might use the minibar or the telephone." "No," I insisted back, "madam will not use the minibar or the telephone, and madam's fees are all paid, regardless." With a demeaning tone she said, "Surely madam has a credit card that works." "Nope." I smiled. Before I left Israel my family had foraged through their wallets and handed over about NIS 700. It bought me 113 euros at the airport currency exchange. And this officious young woman wasn't about to let me check in without a deposit. "If madam has 100 euros..." I was unhappy, but handed it over, grateful that the family had helped me out; otherwise, I would have been there with nothing. It's been one of those summers, you see, where everyone owes me, but no one is paying. The room was five star right down to the bathrobe and slippers. I crashed for a while, but then realized how hungry I was. I looked at the room service menu. Hmm, well, I did give that girl my money, but an egg salad for 30 euros? Gimme a break. I reverted to the hunter-gatherer mode and decided to scavenge dinner with my 13 euros. From this perspective, I'm glad I had no money that day. Or none to speak of. To the right of my hotel was the Galleria, a magnificent pedestrian way that is covered by a glass roof in two directions. I began taking pictures of the piazza and the ornate statues that support the roof. People were gathering in the center where the two roads cross. A man was pushing a grand piano into the center, and others were setting up chairs. I walked through the Galleria and into the grand piazza on the other side, to the magnificent Duomo cathedral. It was turning a twilight pink as the sun began to set. I eased into an appreciation of my funny predicament. I was at least out in the evening air rather than dining alone with CNN. I spotted the ultimate Micky D's in the center of the Galleria. A salad and frescos! When I left a young girl in a black evening dress was bowing deeply to the crowd of old folks sitting around the piano. She sat down and played the first few bars of a classical piece, and suddenly the Galleria was transformed from a busy walkway full of hustle and bustle to a hushed concert hall. I decided to sit a spell and give it a listen. Amazing! Chances are if I'd had that credit card, I would have stayed in the hotel, had a meal, worked a bit before bed. Instead I was able to catch a glimpse of the local color, tourists, Sunday afternoon walkers and diners, stylish restaurants, souvenir shops and even Chinese students hawking little helicopters that really fly. Oh, if only I had some money. Still, the MasterCard ad used to finish with the word "priceless." Well, I got all that and more for seven euros - priceless indeed.