Night Moves

Bus 418 looks like a party on wheels, while the 405 carries only the driver, the security guard and a Haaretz correspondent

I missed the midnight bus from Tel Aviv's Reading bus terminal to entertainment spots around the city. The next one wasn't for another hour. At 12:20 A.M. a small, red, open-roofed bus, pulled up. It was decorated with colorful balloons and filled with around 20 excited young men: a bachelor party or a military-discharge party. Friends lease a bus and they all cruise the city, loudly lauding the party boy to passersby. A year ago, a bachelor party ended in a violent rape, not far from here, in the bushes.

Tel Aviv night
Daniel Tchetchik

Several teenage boys, about 15 years old, sit on a nearby curb. They are waiting for the bus to Modi'in. When will it come? Maybe at 1 A.M., maybe never. Really? Yes, it's happened several times. A gaggle of girls, stumbling in their high heels, lean on each other for support and squeal with joy.

The sheaf of papers I carry elicit some interest: printouts of routes I downloaded from the Kavei Lila (night routes ) website. I'm surrounded. They try to look at the routes, they ask me how to get to Ramat Aviv or if there's a bus to Holon. I'm used to this by now. People ask me where the zucchini is in the supermarket, and where the bathroom is at the swimming pool. Now I'm doing a public service. I run between the platforms, followed by a small crowd, looking for the night routes. Buses arrive and tired drivers emerge. With a broad sweep of a hand they tell me the night bus should be here, or here: Check it out, what have you got to lose.

The 405 pulls in at 1 A.M., and I'm invited to board. The driver is Jackie Levant. He's short and bespectacled, with sparse hair and a projecting jaw. He is deferential, aware of the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. He knows how to deal with the media; just yesterday he showed his route to hizzoner the deputy mayor. He chooses his words carefully in an attempt to be officious, authoritative. He's been a bus driver for nine years. Before that, he worked at Champion Motors until he was fired. The best and the brightest are always fired, everyone knows that. He's very proud of the new night service. He speaks as if he created it himself.

Levant is generous and friendly, chock-full of useful and less-than-useful information. He is the bus rider's advocate. Sometimes he even stops at bus stops to ask partyers who are just resting on the benches where they want to go. To increase awareness of the night bus, he gives me a colorful postcard on which the seductive lights of the big city shine. The Tel Aviv Municipality and the Transportation Ministry, it says, are launching a new service that brings young partyers from the Tel Aviv Port to entertainment spots in the city. I'm neither young nor a partyer, and neither are the eight riders who board after me.

Levant's bus seats 50, but at night there are between five and 10, sometimes, he says, as many as 15. Are they young people out for a night on the town? No, he doesn't think so. There are waiters who have finished their shifts, foreign workers. Young people drown themselves in alcohol and then drive their parents' cars. In response to a question about drunks on the bus, Levant sits up straight: It's no joke. One must be careful! This is a potentially dangerous question. He wants to answer it carefully and responsibly, to avoid any blunders in the newspaper. After all, drunk passengers scare away the sober ones. On the other hand, the goal of the night buses is to have "fewer private cars driven by inebriated young drivers," as a spokesman for the Dan bus company explained to me.

If you ask him, Levant prefers "inebriated" to "drunk," and there are few if any on the night buses. He thinks it's best not to get involved in the topic at all. At the end of the day, an inebriated passenger is a passenger; the main thing is that they don't disturb others. Afterward he searches my face for signs of fright. And who's going to take care of this giant annoyance? What's the question? Security!

Behind the driver, jammed into a small, narrow seat, is an overweight young man in bright yellow overalls. "Security." Security wears a yarmulke. He is bearded, gentle and bespectacled. He is the one who will repel violent drunks with a single glance. Two weeks ago an Egged driver in Haifa was arrested on suspicion of harassing a female passenger on a night bus. The matter is under investigation and the accusation might prove to be groundless.

Perhaps, or perhaps security needs to protect passengers from the drivers as well as from each other.

Meanwhile, at around 3 A.M. Levant has just one passenger, who is taking notes about him and the overalled security guy protecting both of them. Tel Aviv before dawn is a secure, dark city. On Allenby Street, a group crowds a lit entrance, just another bar. At another popular joint cats divide the spoils on a pile of fresh garbage. On Ibn Gabirol Street, one cafe is brightly lit, and the business of entertainment within flourishes.

Types like me think that the genuinely beautiful life takes place at such entertainment spots; afterward one crawls toward the 405 bus and it all fades.

As if in answer to these thoughts, the 418 passes, the night bus from Reading to Bat Yam. Now that's a route! That's fun! Those people know how to have a good time. The 418 is full, some people are even standing, apparently trading stories of wild experience. The 418, what can I say, is an explosion of joyful energy. Levant, the passenger and the security guard on the 405 follow the 418 with sad looks. Story of my life: The real party never happens on my bus, it's always on the one that passes by.

The night bus project began four years ago and is a great success according to the transportation minister, who has even called it "lifesaving." Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is toying with the idea of expanding the service to Friday night. He already has a night bus; now he should start working on the city's nightlife.