A Shoulder to Lean on

Of mishaps and cast-offs − both human and otherwise.

One day when I was around 4-years-old, my mother sent me to wake up my father for what I used to call “Kabbalat Shabbat.” I must have been hungry, for as I zoomed toward the bed where my father was sleeping, I collided with the sharp edge of the metal box where we stored linens under the bed, fell and broke my right shoulder. It hurt like hell.

That Friday night, not for the first time in my life – and despite my tender age – I ended up in the emergency room at Rambam Medical Center. There, they put a cast on my shoulder. The following Sunday, my mother took me by bus to Herzl Street in Hadar Hacarmel, to look for a shirt that would be big enough to cover my huge new shoulder span.

Neri Livneh - Avi Ofer - March 30, 2012

Because I absolutely insisted on a yellow shirt, we went to a number of stores before we finally found one − with little black-and-yellow checks − at the Dan Gavrieli men’s clothing shop, size 42. At the time, this was the most expensive item of clothing ever purchased for anyone in my family. A good-quality flannel shirt with pearl buttons, “imported from England,” as the salesman told us.
Two years later, I was skipping along the side of the goldfish pond at the playground in Merkaz Hacarmel, near the home of my aunt who’d gone into labor and been rushed to the hospital by my mother. I had been left under my brother’s supervision.

“Look at me, I’m not falling! Look, I’m not falling!” I shouted with glee, in time with my skipping − and then promptly fell into the pool with a big splash. Soaked to the bone, my clothes were stinking from the water and my hair was strewn with slimy black plant life. I was taken by my brother to my aunt’s house to wait for my father, who was supposed to pick us up. In the meantime, we searched the closets for something for me to change into. And out of all the clothes in the world, it was that same black-and-yellow checked flannel shirt that my brother chose for me.

“Did you break your shoulder again?” the neighbor asked when she saw me climbing the stairs in that huge men’s shirt.

That shirt is long gone now. So I couldn’t give it to my friend A., who slipped at home two weeks ago and broke her right shoulder, making nearly every daily activity impossible. She can’t get dressed alone, shower alone or cook anything. And since she’s an artist, she can’t do her art. Plus, she also needed an operation.
In a normal country, the national insurance institute − into whose coffers she has been paying a fortune over the years as a self-employed person − would provide her with immediate assistance. But A. has a problem. In our own institute’s eyes, she’s not old enough or poor enough for this. Somehow, a person seems to have a hard time meeting the mysterious criteria for obtaining the assistance she needs from this institution just when she needs it the most − and not, say, six months later, when the tasks of filling out all the forms, being interviewed by committees and waiting in long lines have finally been accomplished.

It soon became clear that by the time help arrived, it would be too late. M., one of A.’s friends − a very kind and generous fellow − suggested that the two of us, he and I, go to the area of the old bus station in Tel Aviv to look for a caregiver − someone who goes by the generic name of “Filipina” − for A.

“You know we have Filipinas from many different countries,” a woman from an agency once told me when I was searching for someone to help look after my mother. “We have Filipinas from India, Poland and even Morocco. You said your mother is Moroccan, right?”

Anyway, neither M. nor I was about to be very picky about which country the assistance would come from. And so, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves in the midst of the bustling old bus station.

The first thing that came to mind was my first encounter with the bazaar in New Delhi, and not just because of the abundance of colors and merchandise, and the clothes and the smells. This must be the liveliest place in all of Israel on a Saturday. What sounded like a very simple idea at first − to ask passersby if they knew of anyone who was between jobs at the moment − all of a sudden seemed quite awkward. Mostly I was afraid, as I explained to M., that someone would suspect we were spies for the Immigration Police’s Oz unit.

“I know how to put on a typical Jewish-woman face at the checkpoints on Highway 443 or during the security checks at the airport. But how do you put on the face of somebody who is not a member of the Immigration Police and views all those who do the bidding of the interior minister as emissaries of the evil empire? Just a regular Ashkenazi face won’t cut it here,” I told M., who didn’t really hear me because, just at that moment, he’d stopped to check out all the exotic foodstuffs at a shop that was bursting with customers.

“Or maybe,” I continued my dialogue with myself, “somebody might mistakenly think I’m from an employment agency?” But I had to interrupt my musings to join M., who’d started asking women passersby if they happened to know of anyone who was available to work as a caregiver for two weeks.

One fellow who noticed us searching advised us just to go into one of the shops on the next street, where we could find “the boss of the whole street.”

Apparently, at the old central bus station, there is a shadow government that looks after all those whom the real government of this country – which they came to with a proper permit, as immigrants or refugees – turns its back on.

“Where in Russia are you from?” I asked the friendly fellow who spoke fluent Hebrew with a heavy accent. “From Cairo,” he answered me. But alas, he couldn’t help us.

As we were walking back to M.’s car to hurry back to A., we passed through a busy secondhand market. Tons of stuff, tons of people. And suddenly I spotted someone − a Sudanese or perhaps an Eritrean − wearing a black-and-yellow checked shirt.