Shabbat Goy: The guy on the bench

Age, cynicism and a hefty mortgage eventually wear down even the most irrepressible impulses to set the world to rights.

Cartoon (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There’s a guy who’s been sleeping on a bench at the end of my street. He’s been there for a week or so. Well, I think he’s been there for a week or so. I’d only vaguely noticed him when I cycled past each morning taking the Small Noisy One to nursery school: a battered pair of boots, a shopping bag stuffed with his belongings. The detritus of a modest meal, a puddle of congealing vomit on the ground.
As it happens, it was this last that forced me to acknowledge his presence. Speeding along on my bicycle one morning (yes, on the pavement – smack me across the wrist and get it over with), I swerved sharply to avoid skidding through the mess.
The Small Noisy One – singing patriotic Zionist songs in his seat behind me in preparation for Independence Day – paused to look at the interruption, amid “We built the country together / We planted the trees together...
“Daddy, why doesn’t that man have a proper bed?” he asked.
I imagine because he doesn’t have a home, I replied airily.
“Why doesn’t he have a home?” Ah. Perhaps he can’t afford to live in one, I answered. I suppose he hasn’t any money.
“Why doesn’t he work like you, to get money?” My son can be sweet like that, pretending to believe that surfing Twitter and Facebook all day long in the name of “research” constitutes gainful employment.
But that’s besides the point.
I took a deep breath and tried a little harder to answer his question. It could be ill health, I suggested. Or perhaps he can’t find anyone willing to offer him a job. There were other possibilities, of course, like drug use or alcoholism. But it was way too early in the morning to try and break these down for the child...
“But if he’s too ill to work, then why can’t someone help him?” I closed my eyes and slowly counted to 10. The only thing worse than a socialist, I suspect, is a four-year-old socialist. I suggested, through gritted teeth, that he return to his patriotic cheerleading and cycled a little quicker to be rid of the child before he asked any more awkward questions.
There’s an old adage: “If you’re not Left at 20, you have no heart. If you’re still Left at 40, you have no head.” It’s not entirely accurate, but one appreciates the sentiment.
Age, cynicism and a hefty mortgage eventually wear down even the most irrepressible impulses to set the world to rights. With time, all one desires is to simply make it through the end of the month.
Working on this premise, one might assume that dear Israel, at the grand age of (muffled cough – one never mentions a lady’s age in polite company, after all) would long ago have outgrown any notions of erasing social inequality and other tree-hugging hippie stuff like that. Certainly, before I started to get to know Israel reasonably well, I’d always assumed that in one important respect, Israel was indeed just like any other regular Western country in its wholehearted embrace of capitalism and all its discontents.
But this take on social relations in Israel wasn’t entirely fair, I discovered.
For one thing, the debate in Israel about social inequality was carried on in the mainstream, rather than at the margins. People were still lamenting the death of that socialist experiment in communal living called the kibbutz; and I think it was during my first or second holiday here that Vicki Knafo marched from Mitzpe Ramon to the Knesset demanding the restitution of child allowances for impoverished families.
These are complicated issues, of course, and there are no simple answers; but it was a pleasant surprise to discover that here, there still remained space to debate the relationship between the haves and have-nots.
But that was then.
Call me cynical, but you could say the guy on the bench was lucky. He had a bench to sleep on, after all. Most of the benches in central Tel Aviv have been replaced by those ugly single-facing seats, after all. You know, the ones that prevent homeless people from stretching out and sleeping on them at night.
I guess that’s one way of dealing with the problem.
Call me self-righteous, but... OK, I am being self-righteous. After all, I didn’t do anything about the guy on the bench, either. I just rode past him each day. But at the same time, it’s hard not to be a little self-righteous about stuff like this.
Going off at a slight tangent – two stories I read on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The first reminded Jews, Israelis and the world to “never forget”; the second was a more modest reminder of Shoah survivors in Israel who live in abject poverty.
The devil is in the details, as they say.
Call me naive; perhaps I have this romantic idea of an Israel that never did exist.
I dunno. But I don’t think I’m quite that deluded. It does seem to me that things have changed a lot over the last few years; and, on the whole, for the worse. I think that people, and the government, used to care much more about unfortunates like that guy on the bench.
I rode past it again the other day. The guy wasn’t there. The ground had been scrubbed clean, the bench painted over. Pretty bunting and a couple of flags had been put up above and around, ahead of Independence Day. It was if he hadn’t been there at all.
But the Small Noisy One was having none of this.
“Do you think he’s got a home now, Daddy?” he asked.
I hope so, I replied. And I hope you keep on thinking with your heart rather than your head, I murmured, half to myself.
“Daddy, you’re funny,” he replied. Then he went back to his singing. “We built the country together / We planted the trees together....”