A Cab Driver's Lament

I rush out of my office, laptop in hand, to take the pulse of Israeli society in the most time-honored way known to journalists in this country. A cab driver, we all know, is the archetypical everyman - streetwise, down-to-earth, gruff but hardworking, in touch with the mood of the times. The cars with the numbers on top are the bellwethers of the commonwealth, consulted in times of crisis and before elections. As the cab driver goes, so goes the nation. The macroeconomic news is good. Unemployment is at its lowest level in two decades. The shekel is strong. Despite Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran, despite a scandal-riven and shaky government in Jerusalem, business confidence is high. Yet as I climb into the passenger seat, I'm expecting bad microeconomic news. True, the taxi, a typical white sedan, looks well-tended and relatively new. But I know that doesn't reflect most folks' lives, and I'll hear all about it in the hour I'm spending in the cab as it plies its trade. We head west out of Baka to the café and shopping strip on Emek Refa'im Street in the German Colony, a good place to get flagged down. "Even at the discount I get, diesel costs me NIS 7.30 a liter [$8.65/gallon], and I fill up a 50-liter tank every day and a half. It comes out to about NIS 7,000 [$2,280] a month just for gas. It's hard to make a living today." We pick up a tall, gray-haired American, a psychology professor from Yeshiva University and take him to the Sheraton Plaza hotel. "But doesn't the Ministry of Transportation raise the rates each time fuel prices rise?" I ask. "Yes, but it's always a month later, so we never catch up. And each time the meter goes up, people stop taking cabs for a week. I drive around all day and there's no work." And it's a long day. She - yes, she's a she - leaves home in the new southern neighborhood of Har Homa at 4:20 each morning, while those of her children (she has six, one married, the youngest bar-mitzvah age) who live with her are still sleeping. She works with the taxi stand operated by the Egged bus cooperative - this means, it's her cab, and she works with Egged just like other cabbies work with the other cab stands and companies. She has regular gigs each morning. First she picks up bus drivers and takes them to work. Then she picks up a couple of groups of children who live in moshavim and settlements outside Jerusalem and brings them to their schools in the city. These trips bring in more than half of her daily take. At 8:45 a.m. she heads home for half an hour to see that all is in order and then goes out again to cruise for fares until about 4 p.m. Her name is Bat Sheva Yungrais and she's been a cabbie for six years. She's been driving for 26 years, although she didn't actually take out a driver's license until 1999. Growing up in an Orthodox Zionist farming community near Rehovot, she developed a passion for the wheel at a young age. Within the confines of her moshav (and maybe a little outside of it), no one asked whether she was certified. Bat Sheva is calm and confident at the wheel. In a conservative black dress with striped short sleeves, she radiates respectability - not the kind of thing that most of her male colleagues project. After leaving the hotel, she finds no more fares. She told me in advance that people don't flag down cabs when they see someone inside, but the truth is that we don't see very many people looking for cabs at all. Soon we're in heavy traffic in Rehavia, the kind that sends most Israeli drivers into paroxysms of frustration, fury, and foul language. Bat Sheva is no one's fool - she takes advantage of the daydreamer in the vehicle ahead of her to swerve around and improve her position in the file of cars on Ramban Street, and knows the shortcuts that get you out of the jam. But she keeps her cool and is unflappably courteous. A lot of her regulars, she says, patronize her and the city's seven other women cab drivers because of that conduct. (But I've ridden with a couple of the others, and I can testify that the gender stereotype doesn't hold in all cases.) When I last rode with her, a few months ago, Bat Sheva was trying to set up an all-women cab stand. She thinks there's a demand for it - including among ultra-Orthodox women who aren't willing to get into a cab alone with a male driver. The others weren't interested, though. One of them told me she feared it would pigeonhole her as a driver just for women. Competition is fierce, Bat Sheva says. She tells me that there are about 3,000 cab drivers in the Jerusalem metropolitan area, half of them Arabs, driving a total of 2,000 cabs (most cab owners employ at least one other driver for afternoon and evening hours, although Bat Sheva does not - she says the profit's not worth the wear and tear on the car). That's a lot of cars cruising the streets looking for work, at a time when people are taking taxis less and less, as fares spiral skyward. Even carless I, who used to never think twice about calling a taxi, have lately gone back to waiting for buses. A year ago, a trip downtown cost maybe twelve shekels, as compared to five and a half for the bus. The bus fare remains the same, but the cost of the cab ride has doubled. So it's not an easy way for a single mother to make a living - especially one who's going through a complicated life transition. When Bat Sheva embarked on her current career, she was a wife and mom living in ultra-Orthodox Telz Stone, a 20-minute drive west of Jerusalem. Being a cab driver didn't go over well in that community nor did her divorce. "People wouldn't talk to me, as if they were afraid it was infectious." With bitterness in her voice, she calls the town, "Sin City." After the divorce, she sold her house, paid off debts, bought a cab license and the car (no loan) and moved into a rented apartment in Har Homa, where rents are low. Her brother Uri calls her on her cell phone. "How much does it cost to go to Bar-Ilan University and back with a wait of half an hour or an hour?" he asks her. She checks her fare chart. "Three hundred shekels," she says. "But if it's for you, 250. When do you need to go?" "Now," he says. "I can't right now, I have a passenger. Call me in fifteen minutes. Or if you want I'll send you another driver." She does not have kind things to say about ultra-Orthodox life, which she found insular and unforgiving. "It's a way of life that didn't prove itself" is how she sums it up. Now she's moving closer to the modern religious community, the world from which her boyfriend, who works at a bakery, comes. Her brothers, like her married sons, were educated in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and maintain that lifestyle. Her younger children are also in ultra-Orthodox institutions, but she wants to transfer them to religious Zionist schools. "In our family we've all got very open minds. When we lived in Telz Stone I sent my children to schools in Jerusalem. They went by bus, they heard about murders and rapes on the radio, saw immodestly dressed girls. They know what the world is like." Lately, Bat Sheva has been running a deficit of about NIS 1,000 a month, and she's starting to wonder whether the cab is viable in the long run. She's studied alternative medicine and maybe she should go into that, she thinks. Or maybe not. "A while back I had knee pains and an orthopaedist told me that I had to have an operation and afterwards I wouldn't be able to drive for two weeks. I said - no way!" After long holidays, like last year's three-day Rosh Hashana weekend, Bat Sheva says, she's desperate to get back behind the wheel. She deals with the knee pains with physiotherapy. Times may be tough for single moms, and many others, but when times are tough, the cab drivers keep on driving. For Bat Sheva, it's not just a job, it's a passion. • Haim Watzman is author of 'Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel' and 'A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley.' He blogs at http://southjerusalem.com click here.