APARTMENT HUNTING IN TEL AVIV
The facade is always unfathomable,
a united front of blinds closed to the street,
at least at midday when we arrive to weigh
the possibility of living on the inside, to be
part of the scene
When you walk round the side
you can see it clearly—
rubbish and laundry—
of the life within.
Like a urologist
I try to gauge the neighbors
from their street productions,
Once inside, it is much easier.
From each window we can view
a different family, busy with their lives
and ours. Friday afternoon and the mother
of the soldier is hanging his weekend fatigues
to be ready for ironing in the morning. She leans
a bit further over the clothes lines than she needs to
so she can see us evaluating the empty bedroom.
Friday afternoon and the young man in the opposite living room
is playing at seducing a girl who says she’s just come by to hang out.
We hear her giggles, amplified by the knowledge of an audience.
Friday afternoon and it is the end of a long, hard week
for the school children whose kitchen is opposite.
Mother warns them to hush but they are thrilled by the company,
strangers who may well become very
“And how do you like it,” the agent asks eagerly,
having given up his afternoon sleep for the chance
of a sale. “It’s what you asked for, an old house
“It’s an interactive museum!”
“Yes, that’s Tel Aviv, all right.”
II ANOTHER INFATHOMABLE HOUSE
and your eyes slink through the darkness
down the long hall through the tall parlor doors
past the plush sofa the highboy
the miscellaneous Grandmother
brought with her from Hungary, or Father
traveled from Carlsbad to order,
too big, too pretentious
for the immigrant space in little Israel—
and out to the balcony,
where the bougainvillea kisses all your senses
at once. Forget the parched earth below, the
stained walls and rusted railing. Remember
the moment you emerged into the sun.
The bed is still there, but the mattress
is gone. You know what that
means. The old lady, they say
has just moved to a Home. Look
how sweet she keeps this apartment.
She must have been a fine woman,
I think, but I am sure she died,
in this shelter she created
from the storm of Europe,
with as much travail as childbirth.
Some people don’t even bother to dress
when we come to call, sure, after years
of living in Tel Aviv, they are invisible.
Even on the street they wear slippers,
so when they sell their home, underwear is fine.
And if you have a problem with it,
live somewhere else
V THE CUSTOMER AND THE BATHROOM
We all have our roles –
mine is to look and not
form any connection with the property
until I take out my wallet.
And really what can I say—
a lady who has not peed all day,
who does not dare pretend
even for a moment she is a friend
who’s only stopped by to say hello
and incidentally would appreciate
powdering her nose
VI THE HOUSE ON SHOLOM ALEICHEM STREET
No matter how many flats we see
my heart keeps going back
to the house on Sholom Aleichem.
It doesn’t belong in this country, the old
noble building on a hill
with a round balcony fit
for a princess waiting
to be rescued. I see her long wheat braids
calling his name into the sea breeze.
So what if the walls have holes so big
a man could walk through. So what
if the plumbing precedes the Mandate.
So what if the gangsters selling the place
will renege on all their promises to renovate.
“Go back and make them another offer,”
a voice calls, waking me at night from a deep sleep,
“When does convenience come
before character? I thought
you were a zionist not
a venture capitalist…”
VII BUYING PROPERTY
It hits me that we’re seeing all of Tel Aviv
from within. The family portraits on the dresser,
neglected by the children, show the history
of a people—staged portraits of new immigrants
in 1905 for the folks back in Cracow—
seated by a nargilah and wearing tarbush or kaffiyeh.
Look, Ma, I fit in here in Palestine. Next to these men,
a seated suited husband and standing wife
in starched shirtwaist and posed posture. The man
appears in another photo on the other dresser,
this time with a different woman but
the same suit.
Then the next generation – the children
now in the elaborate costumes of glittering weddings
— the same faces as the seated man and standing woman—
but this time laughing and tanned.
And then their children first in Purim costumes and then in fatigues…
Sketches on the wall
by this dead woman’s bed
are dedicated to her by artists
I’ve seen in museums.
The scenes are local, three women
selling produce in the Carmel Market,
The old water tower from Maze Street,
children waving from the train that used to stop
on Herzl Street, families exiled during the first world war.
No one wants to sell
except the desperate. Prices
must go up sometime. For now,
everyone in this business pretends
all is as it was.
“Fools!” The man in the Tel Aviv land auction
of 1909 screamed out to the crowd
aching to be part of the new city.
“There’s no water here!”
This picture, framed in narrow dark wood,
stands behind an mahogany desk, pushed to the wall,
in what was once someone’s office on Rothschild Boulevard.
We decide to keep looking, sure
we will find an apartment that fulfills
our limited funds and our enormous dream.
A Palestinian and an Israeli are talking.
The Palestinian complains: “Oy
I’ve got so many problems coming up—
we’re going to have a state so we have to start
paying taxes, fines, all those burdens we’ve managed to escape.”
“You’ve got problems? We’ve been facing them for years!”
“Yes, but with you the end is in sight!”
X TABULA RASA
Even a truly empty flat is not tabula rasa.
Even if the furnishing and photos have been cleared,
The windows and shades drawn
from the Tel Aviv hum, and the cats are asleep
for the day, under the jasmine, under the bougainvillea,
on the other side of the date tree,
there is still
something of the sand of the beach, the red clay
from beneath the sidewalks, the earth
that first created the human form.
XI THE AGENT
Even the ceilings look like they’ve been beaten down.
The dust of plaster long gone stills fills the air,
and everything metal has been gnawed green by the sea.
We glide gingerly through the rooms
careful not to touch the knobs, the jams,
the window hanging on one creaky hinge
to the booming voice of the Indian-accented Agent.
“Look how much you can do here, knock down this wall,
close that balcony, replacing the lighting, change the door
and you’ve got a palace!”
It’s his usual shtik, but today I listen.
For some reason it seems possible.
Maybe because he’s fasting
in memory of the destruction of the Temple
and the exile of the Jews and his voice is clearer
I want to hear.
To see Sali Ariel's moving drawings of Tel Aviv click here
To go back to Alkalay-Gut's home page click here