The Sorrows of Young Neri

No, I am not experiencing a nervous breakdown, a stroke or clinical depression. I’m just writing a book.

Frequenters of Cafe Arlosoroff probably think I'm currently in the throes of a serious crisis, maybe even a tragedy. I look around and ask myself what they are thinking: Do they think I'm in the grip of heartbreak, or that I've been diagnosed with a disease that will kill me? If any of them observe me for more than an hour, they probably think I'm in the midst of a nervous breakdown. The homeless people who pass by behind the fence of bushes that separates the yard of the cafe from Arlosoroff Street identify me as a future member of their ranks. They come in and stop next to my table; various beggars have also spotted the potential.

The reason for behavior that, at the least, could get me classified as “eccentric” is that I am close to the end of a book I am writing. I’ve been ensconced in the cafe for the past month at least eight hours a day. There’s always a cool breeze in the garden, even on the hot days. It’s a rare climatic phenomenon in Tel Aviv during July, and I don’t know the reason for it.

Maybe the explanation for the delightful phenomenon is that city planners haven’t yet got it into their heads to block access to the sea with a monster like Atarim Square. Until I got to this cafe, I believed that a “sea breeze” was an invention of real estate agents, in the same category as “small but feels spacious.” Possibly, if we were to erase from view the over-vigorous construction projects along the seaside boulevard − architectural monstrosities whose designer was awarded the Israel Prize − Tel Aviv would be a city where the strollers along the avenues that lead to the water could enjoy a pleasant wind that would cool off their perspiration and ease the broiling heat of July and August.

As I sit in the cafe, I sometimes discover, to my surprise, that I have been crying for a few minutes − a sort of unaesthetic weeping that includes stifled gasps. I go up to the bathroom and wash my face, and then sit down again before I catch myself singing or talking to myself or whatever.

One day, a homeless person-in-the-making who saw me from the street when I was enjoying a moment of composure − a man who was somewhere between 60 and 600 years old, whose age I couldn’t figure out because he was totally toothless ‏(which could become a problem for CSI Tel Aviv when John Doe is brought to the city morgue‏), and was dressed in a not-entirely-clean shirt but wearing good shoes − came over to my table, bent down over me and shouted in my ear, “Let’s go be the life of the town.”

“I’ve already had a life,” I told him, and immediately called Anat’eleh.

“I've hit the bottom of the barrel,” I told her.

“What do you think he meant?” Anat’eleh asked.

“Maybe he wanted to take me to a ‘club in Nahariya,’ as my father used to say. Maybe to a concert by Aris San. But I think he had something else in mind,” I replied, irritated.

The reason I prefer to write the book in a cafe and not only at night in my apartment − as I do with my columns and articles − is that the sounds of the people sitting on the balcony, compounded by the roar of the buses, become white noise for me, which helps me go on concentrating for a long time. Meaningless external noise helps me listen to myself and to conduct inner dialogues, monologues and group discussions. It’s pleasant to feel that even though I'm sitting alone and developing pressure sores, I'm not really alone, and when I lift my hands from the keyboard and stare into space, I sometimes discover friendly faces around me and a conversation begins by itself.

One day, for example, I spoke with two extremely well-groomed and well-dressed women who are far older than they looked. Two Tel Aviv sisters, aged 90 and 88. Whenever I hear older women speaking fluent sabra Hebrew, I immediately attach myself to them, because they remind me of my mother, and I have to find out immediately if they were classmates with her at Levinsky Teachers’ College.

I learned from them what Allenby Road looked like 85 years ago and when the east-west avenues that run to the sea were built. Yes, they confirmed my feeling: It used to be that even on the hottest days a breeze could be felt on all the avenues, even on Keren Kayemet Boulevard ‏(now called David Ben-Gurion Boulevard‏).

A woman sitting at a table adjacent to mine conversed loudly with the occupants of three tables that had been joined together in honor of the eight people who were sitting at them, among them four men whom she characterized as gays, and two women, to one of whom she said, “It’s obvious you are single.”

“Do you mean to say that she looks bitter and despairing to you?” I intervened at this stage of the conversation. But the woman said, “I have sensors. I'm a
family coach and I am never wrong.”

Another thing that’s happening to me because of the book is that I visit all kinds of places for research. A week ago, I took the train to Modi’in. The train trip turned out to be extremely pleasant, and the train even left on time and didn’t break down midway. But the feeling of pleasantness and adventurous tourism vanished the moment I arrived at the meeting place: Cup ‘o’ Joe, a cafe in the Modi’in mall. The noise in the dark, ugly place was horrible, so we went out to the sun-battered terrace, which offered a panoramic view of the ugly city.

Holyland-style buildings, no less ugly than the ones in Jerusalem, were also built in Modi’in − without anyone being able to claim that Ehud Olmert is responsible for the blunder or for the scandalous building permit that allowed the chain of ugliness to come into being and squat like evidence of a felony, atop the densely built hill of Modi’in, which recently declared itself a “green city.”

It turns out that anyone can declare the city he heads a “green city,” as it’s a title that is not based on any basic criteria; above all there is no need for any sign of the color green, as it usually manifests itself in the leaves of trees as a result of photosynthesis. Modi’in has the beige color of stone facing and the grayness of largely empty asphalt streets. Modi’in is a “green city” in the same way that an acquaintance of mine “almost faints” all the time, or just as I say “I almost won the lottery,” except that I never bought a ticket.

Yearnings for Tel Aviv took me back to the Arlosoroff train station. Outside it I inhaled deeply, sucking into my lungs hot, sticky air like chicken soup, which this time also seemed to be equally
comforting.