I was always embarrassed by three things during my (otherwise happy ) childhood: that I didn't know how to dive, that I couldn't whistle with my fingers and that I couldn't ride a bicycle. One of these three defects has since been corrected, however: Some years ago, on my 50th birthday, a good friend arranged a surprise bicycle lesson. And ever since, I've been cycling all over the place.
I was therefore glad when my editors proposed that I write about the Tel-Ofan - a new bike-sharing project sponsored by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. Indeed, within the next few weeks, Tel Aviv will join cities such as Paris on the list of places where you can rent a terrific, German-made bicycle for a modest payment.
Judging by the admiration and curiosity of pedestrians during the trial run in which I participated, large numbers of the spanking-new, green bikes will soon be seen zooming around the city.
It was a hot, dusty day before the Passover holiday. I invested 40 minutes and NIS 40 in the taxi ride to Rabin Square, where the virgin vehicles were waiting. Tables and chairs were set up near the newly renovated fish pool in the plaza. African-born sanitation workers were resting under the shade of a tree of the sort that served us years ago as goalposts in Friday afternoon soccer games.
I had just returned from the city of bicycles, Amsterdam, where the worst danger facing a pedestrian involves crossing bike paths. Tel Aviv still lacks such paths, but we'll overlook this kind of small detail.
Anyway, like a moth to the flame, my comfortable, easy-to-peddle bike found its way to my childhood streets. This is a form of vindication, a way of showing everyone I can balance myself on two wheels, just like any other kid on the block. Of course, lamentably, nobody from the old days has lived to witness this miracle - neither Meir nor Shaul from the two corner groceries; neither the local cantor nor the carpenter; neither the builder nor the violin teacher; neither the cab driver who used to cover his motor with a blanket on cold days nor the vendors who brought ice and watermelons and milk to the neighborhood. None of these unforgettable characters from my childhood street were around.
"Are congratulations in order? So how is it?" asks a pedestrian who is new to the neighborhood. Apparently his question pertains to the new bicycle, not to its rider. I stop between the No. 8 and 9 bicycle stands, near where I lived as a small boy and teenager; the air conditioner purchased by my parents is still stuck outside. I wait, in vain, for somebody to come out and have a look at me atop a bicycle. Nobody comes out. This is my first time on a bike here, about 50 years too late.
How will this project work? Annual membership costs NIS 240. It provides riders with a half-hour rental period for free, after which they must pay an additional fee. Using an electronic key fob, you pick up and drop off the bikes at 150 stations across the city. The fleet will contain 1,500 bikes.
I take a short ice-coffee break at Masaryk Cafe. I read in the newspaper about the eulogy Sharon Tamari gave for her husband, Guy, a champion cyclist who had been killed a day earlier while out riding.
There is a great bicycle path along Chen Boulevard, one of the roads renovated by Mayor Ron Huldai, and I pass by my old nursery school on the way. The villa on the corner of Chen and Nevi'im Street is gone; the only thing left there is a fence. Also gone, of course, is the Valiant with license plate No. 1000, which belonged to then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Motta Gur. The car would be parked near the house where, I was told, Gur's wife's parents lived.
I ride on to Gan Ya'akov, one of the city's most pleasant spots, another venue that underwent an excellent renovation. Two splendid sycamores stand by the path, and there is a fountain and a sparkling reflecting pool nearby. I proceed southward, toward the Mann Auditorium, which is also undergoing a promising face-lift. It is hard to believe that here on the corner of Dizengoff Street, now so tumultuous and noisy, a small boy would stand, a little wooden stop sign in hand, and halt traffic so schoolchildren could cross the road. I was that boy.
A few years later that same boy was called to the Torah for his bar mitzvah, at the Bilu synagogue on Rothschild Boulevard, which I am now crossing. I stop at the goldfish pool. "Is that one of the city's new bicycles? Are they already available for rent?" asks a curious passerby.
I reach the old train station on Yehuda Halevy Street, from which we would depart to visit our Jerusalem aunts and uncles, after packing sandwiches. The area was converted a long time ago into a parking lot.
I pass a soldier near Beit Dizengoff and notice that where Beit Zim burned down one traumatic Friday in my childhood, there now stands an office tower. Broken glass from beer bottles twinkle in the light, scattered on the bronze statue of legendary Tel Aviv Mayor Meir Dizengoff.
As at the beginning of the ride, my bicycle seems to be moving on its own, as I head toward Jaffa Road. This is where my father worked; he would bring me here during school holidays, so that I could punch holes in paper on his desk. I park my Tel-Ofan bicycle and enter the building, which once was the Histadrut labor federation headquarters and now houses a small sewing workshop, among other things. I climb the staircase, which hasn't changed, and try to sneak into the office where my father worked. The smell of chocolate that once wafted from a nearby factory and mesmerized me as a child is gone. And the door to my father's office is locked.