Coping with callous clerks

Given the plethora of bureaucratic shortcomings that this country has, I think that a change of attitude on the part of the clerks is one small difference that if implemented, could actually make a huge difference.

Callous Clerks 521 (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Callous Clerks 521
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
My homeless man, Yossi, has moved on and I’m sad. It’s my fault, really, because I was the one who told him it was time for him to go.
Still, when I went downstairs to my zula (the “chilling area” in the courtyard of my building) last week and discovered that he’d finally taken heed and abandoned my couch, I was left with rather a hollow feeling.
For a couple of months, Yossi had occupied the couch that I had found on the street and dragged to my building earlier this year. At first, he had promised it would only be for a few days, so I let him be. But when the days stretched into weeks, I started getting nervous that my couch would end up suffering the same fate as my previous one – dumped in some junkyard by the municipality on the grounds that it was “trash in a public area.”
My old zula had also attracted members of Tel Aviv’s down-and-out community as a comfortable napping area; at least that was the case until one of the building’s residents apparently grew fed up with offering free accommodations for bums and telephoned the municipality to deal with it.
But stubborn as he was, Yossi didn’t come off as a bum. He didn’t smell rancid and neither did he seem to be battling a drug or alcohol problem from what I could tell. He just seemed to be a guy who had been dealt a harsher deck of cards in life, and as a result he was a bit bitter around the edges.
In one of our arguments, I told Yossi that unfortunately not everyone takes too kindly to sleeping bodies on their property, to which he retorted, “Look at this place, full of trash and papers. Someone ought to sweep up here once in a while.”
Exasperated that Yossi actually had the chutzpah to complain about the state of his accommodations, I suggested that perhaps he move to the tent city in the park across the road. “I don’t belong there,” he said. “I’m not a part of them. They don’t accept me. Why do people have a problem with me staying here for a while? You know me, Devorah, I keep myself to myself and don’t disturb anyone.”
Problem was, I didn’t know Yossi. Other than his first name and the fact that he originally hails from Beersheba, I don’t know anything about him. It is much to my journalistic chagrin that I never asked Yossi to tell me his story, and how he might have come to end up on my couch as a homeless man. And now he’s gone.
Yesterday, I visited the tent city with the vague hope of seeing Yossi there. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t there. I noticed that the tent-dwellers had become much more sophisticated since my last visit, which was the day before the social-justice protest in which Moshe Silman set himself on fire. They now had televisions, computers, microwaves and various other electrical appliances. I wondered how they hooked up to electricity and if the high cost of my own electric bill had anything to do with it.
I got talking to Eli, a social-justice veteran who had camped out on Rothschild Boulevard back in the movement’s golden era last summer. I told him that I had become jaded with the direction that the movement had taken this summer, and I felt that martyrizing Silman or turning him into some sort of hero-symbol for the movement was almost as tragic as the act of self-immolation itself.
Taking deep drags of his cigarette, Eli answered that the extreme acts of a few desperate people should not tarnish the movement’s real agenda. He insisted that those that now carried the social justice banner wanted to free themselves from partisan political agendas and anarchy. “We don’t care about those crazy people. They just make the headlines. If I wanted to bring the media here, it wouldn’t be a problem – all I’d need to do is light a big fire.”
“But,” he continued, “that’s not the right way of doing things. We want to get our message out in a non-violent way.”
However, despite their best efforts, the denizens of the tent city, like Yossi, will also be moving on. The municipality has declared that on September 1, tent city will officially be shut down.
I told Eli – perhaps misguidedly – that I would be meeting the mayor this week. Ron Huldai is due to address a bunch of us “young international professionals” in an initiative called Project TA (which I’m sure I’ll find occasion to write about some other time).
Eli had a wishlist ready that he requested I pass onto the mayor. “What we want is very simple: education and public housing.” Echoing Yossi-the-homeless-man, Eli continued, “We don’t disturb anyone here. We’ve not had a single complaint from a neighbor. Tell Mr. Huldai to extend our time here.”
I promised I would pass the message on. After all, Eli was right – as their neighbor, they don’t bother me in the least, and while I can’t say I’m ready to jump on the social-justice bandwagon again, I won’t stop those who seek change.
Even if we can’t change policies, perhaps we can impact attitudes – in particular, the attitudes of government institutions such as the National Insurance Institute. The sad thing about the whole Silman episode is that anyone who’s ever had to deal with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of this country can somewhat relate to the levels of frustration that Silman experienced following a small debt he owed to the government.
Such was the level of my own frustration on a recent trip to bureaucracy hell, that I ashamedly found myself resorting to threats of self-immolation in a desperate attempt to get some answers. A while ago, the vehicle licensing bureau informed me that my car had an “ikul” on it – that is to say, a lien had been issued on it that prevented me from selling it (something I’d been meaning to do, since owning a car in Tel Aviv is far more effort and expense than I care to involve myself with).
But the vehicle licensing bureau couldn’t tell me which authority had issued the lien. “I don’t have that information on my screen,” the perma-frown clerk had barked at me. “Try the bailiff’s office.”
I schlepped to the bailiff’s office and was told that in order to receive any information, I first needed to purchase what are called “bulei hachnasa” from the post office. I complied and after returning with the stamps, was told that bailiff’s office has no information about the lien.
Then, last week, I received a letter from the vehicle licensing bureau telling me that my driver’s license had been suspended and I was required to take a driving course in order to reinstate it. This was the first I’d heard about this and I called the office to find out why. Another clerk from the perma-frown ilk that screamed I-wish-I-was-in-another-job informed me that I could not find out why my license was suspended until I signed up for the course.
Easier said than done. Over three days, I must have called the number given for the Open University’s driving course about 45 times. Their manpower simply can’t deal with the high volume of people in the same position as me, so most of the calls get forwarded to an external human answering service. The latter admitted that of all the companies they take messages for, this was the worst.
Indeed, if you’re lucky, they might return your call within 48 hours as promised, but they’ll do it at 7:30 in the morning and hang up after two rings – which is what happened in my case.
It was then that I wrote the damning email in which I threatened to either sue or self-immolate. But predictably, it had no effect.
Finally, I called up the Open University’s Public Relations Department and spilled out my woes to the unassuming woman on the other end of the phone. How could they trap me like this? How could they put a lien on my car and take away my license and not even have the decency to tell me why? And when I try to go through the steps of finding out, they don’t even answer the phone?
It was only when I said I was a journalist and that I would make a stink out of this whole sorry ordeal that she promised to have the people in charge of the course contact me. After duly signing up, I made my way to the vehicle licensing bureau and following a couple of hours of waiting – while babies yelled and clerks yelled louder – my turn finally came.
I approached the clerk and in the most sugary tones I could muster, begged of her the following: “I’d like your help today, but on behalf of my mental health, I ask you in the nicest way possible to please refrain from yelling at me. I simply don’t think I can take it if one more person shouts at me.”
Apparently, my license was suspended due to points that I was hitherto unaware of. This was explained to me in tones you would use when addressing a slow fiveyear- old, but I’m grateful that at least she didn’t shout.
Why it even has to come to that is beyond me. For the plethora of bureaucratic shortcomings that this country has, I think that a change of attitude on the part of the clerks is one small difference that if implemented, could actually make a huge difference.