A Celebrity in Tel Aviv (And Other People No Less Important)

The painter Nahum Gutman spent plenty of "moon-nights in sandy wilderness" (a quote from his book "A little city and a few men within it"). If the moon ever hovered over Amos Gutman, it wasn't invited to join the party. Nor did the wilderness of sands appear in the Tel Aviv depicted in Amos Gutman's films - only the crammed dimness of bars and clubs for those in the know. In the sandy wilderness of Petah Tikva, on moonlit nights in the eighties, it was obvious that of the two Gutmans from Tel Aviv, it was Amos to whom I howled.

The 66 bus line took us from nowhere to somewhere. The point of departure for the 66 line was the central bus station in Petah Tikva. Its final destination was the Carmelit terminal in western Tel Aviv. What didn't go by, in the scenes staring out from behind the window of the heavy bus, laboring along through Petah Tikva, Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan to its far-off destination? Views of steak joints, yeshivas, garages, wedding halls and shabby balconies piled one atop the other like a spine-tingling gothic mosaic. On account of all these, in a satanic gesture to honor this bus line, we renamed it Line 666. We already see the towers of Pinkas Street and in a few minutes we will hop off on Hakovshim. We will descend into the wonderful urban netherworld.

When I was 12 years old, I saw a picture of a woman in the gossip column of one of the newspapers. She had a prominent double chin and a tall, elegant blond wig. Underneath the picture, the caption read: "Zalman Shoshi in work clothes." He was a well-known transvestite sex worker. I asked my father who this woman was and how she made a living. I inferred from his sheepish smile that despite her elegant dress, her work was not something to be proud of. "This is an important personality in Tel Aviv," my father said before putting the matter to rest. Years later, I saw Zalman Winder, a.k.a. Zalman Shoshi, sprawling on the steps of the Dan movie theater. He asked me for a cigarette. He had a few white hairs on his head.

It is said that natives of Tel Aviv move away from the city center when they get older, preferring instead the quiet and cleanliness of the northern part of town. They are not particularly enamored of it, they've already seen all it has to offer, they've done everything there is to do there. Take Roni Milo, himself born in Tel Aviv, who even became mayor here. From his home in the Sea and Sun complex north of the city, he most certainly does not get too excited by Tel Aviv in general, and Tel Avivism in particular.

We would wait for sunrise to catch the first bus back to Petah Tikva. We spent hours walking along the promenade and back, waiting for something to happen. In the late night hours, we would take a nap, sit down on the beach in a circle, and lay our heads down on one another. Until the first bus left. God knows what those two real Tel Avivians did there on that night. After all, Tel Avivians like them usually do not set foot on the promenade or the beach. But they approached us and gazed at us from up high, at an angle, spraying sand into our eyes. Exasperated, they took a moment to reflect on our inner circle of nappers. Then they asked if we had money to lend them for a beer. If they were looking for a fight, then we'd unsheathe our skilled suburban fists. But they got out of there a few minutes later, blurting out a few words, the last one particularly terrible, that sounded like, "Go back home - you tourists."

Like right-wing new immigrants, like Anglo-Saxon supporters of the Greater Land of Israel, Tel Aviv's immigrants are also fanatically devoted to the city. Tel Avivism is an extreme, fanatic ideology. A Tel Aviv immigrant knows full well what a native of Tel Aviv does not know. The immigrant has a suburb phobia. A suburbanite knows that a ceiling of silence descends on his city at 8 P.M. The suburbanite is familiar with the small talk with his neighbors during the joint ride on the elevator. The suburbanite is horrified by the suburbs, so he will prefer the noise, the filth, the crowding and the anonymity of the city. It is not the chirping of birds he wants to hear in the morning. It is the screeching garbage truck that confirms to him that everything is normal.

Two weeks before I was discharged from the army, I waited to hear from my girlfriend, who had completed her army service just before she began searching for an apartment in Tel Aviv. One day I returned to my desk and saw that someone had left me a message from her. "M. said she is going to live with Haverim shel Natasha" (a rock group in the nineties, led by singer-songwriter and composer Arkady Duchin). I lifted my eyes from the note. Officers in uniform walked back and forth, the base commander opened the door momentarily and beamed a cold stare at my hollow, frozen face. Who are you people? I wondered to myself. As if I were dreaming, I saw men filled with importance, men of whom I was always a little bit afraid. Who are you, you little, gray people you? Damn it, I said from a distance, you do not scare me one iota. I, your little servant soldier, am going to Tel Aviv. I'm going to meet Haverim shel Natasha there.

The immigrant to Tel Aviv always stood out a bit in the town where he was born. They never completely understood him there. He waited for the day when he'd take the baggage of his otherness to Tel Aviv, and unleash from it all the special talents that had been suppressed in his youth. He will be a film director, a theater director, a television director, a radio director, an advertising director. And if not, then he will settle for a career as a journalist or an author. And then he will learn that if he wishes to really stand out, it would be preferable for him to be a mail clerk. Here in Tel Aviv, it's a really special job.

When did it really hit me that I am a real Tel Avivian, a clear embodiment of Tel Avivianism? Neve Tzedek in August is one big, sweaty traffic jam of brides, grooms, bridesmaids and photographers. Just before the wedding, they jostle for the privilege of having their picture taken against the backdrop of a mixture of worn-out shacks and exquisite palaces. Coming back home from work, I tried to plow my way through the giant dresses and the rented dress suits. "Hey! You with the hat!" I heard one of them issue me an order. "Come here and stand next to them for a moment!" This was a wedding photographer who filmed his clients against the photo-authentic backdrop of the city. He signaled to me with a spirited wave of the hand and appealed to my emotions. "Please! I'll take a picture of them with you and it will take one second and that's it!" Like a stubborn cowboy, I pulled the hat down over my forehead in silence and rode on with my back to the sunset.

Sometimes I see Galit Gutman, Israel's top model and TV celebrity, strolling in my neighborhood. Height, hair, dress, the sunglasses she adorns in order to conceal her identity, and yet there is no room for doubt: that really is Gutman, with a capital G. All these paint a wonderous picture like no other. For one brief moment, I feel like I'm in Manhattan.