Doron Rosenblum - Eran Wolkowsky - April 20, 2012
Illustration by Eran Wolkowsky.
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You know how yet another minimarket opens where before there was only a small store − more accurately, a tiny niche − that housed a watchmaker? Well, now they are squeezing into that same place shelves upon shelves of products that keep shifting their location to allow another half-meter for a cottage-cheese display. Or they squash another meat refrigerator into the space, but still don’t add a centimeter to the store because of municipal taxes. You know how it is.

You know how when you bend over to look for a bag of mini-croutons and you get a bump on your rear end from the juice bottles on the opposite shelf. You know how it is.

You know these big supermarkets where every year they chop off another 20 square meters − because they suddenly discover they can get along without square meters, who needs them anyway? − to make room for a store that sells dwarf plants, a veterinary clinic that specializes in miniature Chihuahuas, and a fusion restaurant where diners can eat only if they all coordinate the movement of their jaws and elbows, so if you go to the john everyone has to get up? Or you know how they open shops or set up book fairs in a space that used to be a changing room in a clothing store, and where now you can’t open a book without first engaging in territorial negotiations with the other customers? You know how it is.

Then you certainly know this, too: You’re standing in a place like that, when suddenly you feel something pushing you with tremendous force, like a tsunami, almost lifting you off the ground − maybe like a cement truck whose brakes have failed and you are the empty plastic bag lying on the road. You know that feeling? Then you certainly know what I’m talking about: people who insist on walking through narrow spaces with huge backpacks. Like they’re oblivious. Like the Iranian defense minister didn’t illustrate with his fingers how narrow this country is. Like this country isn’t crowded enough.

The nerve of some people: to expand themselves so they take up at least twice the tiny space that’s allotted to each of us, and then to push their way through like ninja turtles. The lack of consideration for the square-meter shortage, the lack of minimal sensitivity for the sheer presence of others and for the scale of the damage caused in the absence of any sort of sensors on the damn backpack − that representative of the id, that Mr. Hyde side of the carrier’s personality.

You know how you wonder what they could possibly be lugging in there, in that gargantuan hump: mountain-climbing equipment? An inflatable rubber dinghy? Or just old newspapers folded into balls, for the sheer volume of it? You know about that? What ... you don’t?
from a stand-up act in the itsy-bitsy hall of the Tzavtaleh-7 club in the London Mini-store, before an audience of 200 people in four square meters

“When you get to Hefer Valley and Samaria, you begin to become aware of the narrow dimensions of this strip of land between the sea and the border with Jordan ... The width of the strip nowhere exceeds 15 kilometers, though to the naked eye on a clear autumn day it looks even narrower. It seems as though it’s possible to touch the blue hills in the Arab Triangle ... The Jewish villages are very close to one another and when one enters the Sharon region, there is hardly any space between one village and the next ... Cars and trucks clog the roads.”
− from letters of the essayist Shlomo Grodzensky, written after he immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1949, recently published in the Culture and Literature Supplement of Haaretz in Hebrew

In the early, somewhat innocent years, the term “traffic jam” still embodied a feeling of dissatisfaction, accompanied even by the aura of a vague threat − as though such a phenomenon were some sort of hitch, a temporary disruption of the regular, desirable and average state of affairs. In other words, it was as if a thrombosis was occurring next to Hadera, say. But in the end “the congestion was released,” as they say in Hebrew − like the passing of a kidney stone. The “traffic,” as they say, is moving steadily.

Over the years, as these random jams grew more frequent, the myth arose of the niche radio stations, which were ostensibly established to provide “traffic reports.” That is, to warn you about congestion and delay − two hours after you’d already entered or left it. And even if you knew up front about the situation, there wasn’t much you could do about it ‏(because, how else are you going to drive to Jerusalem: on the Peripherique, the turnpike or the M1?‏).

Concurrently, and interrelatedly, the legend of “reports from Israel Radio’s light aircraft” was born. In other words, the driver was supposed to believe that a broadcaster was perched in the heavens in some sort of two-winged plane, leather hat on his head, earphones in his ears and reporting via a large microphone directly to the studio.

The truth is that it was a very light plane indeed, a stealth aircraft, as no driver ever saw it with his own eyes nor heard the rumble of its engine. But the sheer belief in it and in its existence afforded consolation and infused the heart with quasi-religious faith. As though there were some supreme force up there, an eye supposedly looking in real time at the traffic. Truth − or legend? Plane − or plain pretense?

At that stage, the question was no longer important. The airtime of the niche radio stations filled up with reflections and whispers and songs and personal programs, and the only transportation-related element that remained was the program’s name: a variation on “wheels,” “rolling along,” or Army Radio’s Galgalatz, with its evocation of wheels and Zahal ‏(the Israel Defense Forces‏).

There were also those proudly presented programs: “Bumper to Bumper: Music to Cruise By”; “Back Trunk,” a program of golden oldies; and “On the Road: The Show that Beats the Traffic.” The traffic reports themselves were marginalized, and rightly so. After all, every kid could recite the report of traffic jams at Sakharov Gardens and on Geha Road, or “the overload at the southern and northern exits from Ayalon” in the morning and the afternoon. What’s to “report”? These are ongoing, unchanging data − maybe the most static in the country.

Ironically, the GPS and other navigation instruments were made available to drivers just as movement on Israel’s roads ground to an almost complete halt. No more traffic jams at certain times of the day, or in certain seasons: Now they’re around the clock. And thus, our drivers, hunched over the little screens, can see themselves and their comrades-in-congestion in a smart app like small, merry bubbles, reproducing and accumulating in a glass of beer.
− from the still unwritten history of the Israeli traffic jam down the generations

“I do now know what was here 30 years ago, but now, despite all the calculations of kilometers and square millimeters, there is room only for emigration from here and not for emigration to here. True, every ship either removes unknown elements from here or brings in tourists and worshipers. Perhaps this small land is hardly waiting merely for more people. This small land may be desolate, poor, its culture ludicrous, its natives half wild, its leaders leeches in tortoise armor, but it is not a barren desert.”
− Y.H. Brenner, “From Here and There” ‏(1911‏)

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
− Urban American saying of unknown origin