The cab driver’s clothing smells of cigarette smoke. He looks about seventy but I tell him he is too young to smoke. He asks, ‘You are doctor?’His throaty voice is the ashtray of a thousand smokes.
I confess I am a doctor and the driver changes the subject. He drives with dash and confidence, like the tank commander he used to be, a few wars ago.
He detects my foreigner’s accent in his own language and asks: ‘From which country you come?’
‘Here. Born here, in this city. Only here.’
‘Here’ is Jerusalem.
The driver starts to sing a love song to his city, the song of a faithful son sung to a mother.
I listen to the words and as the singer’s voice thickens I take a peek. Tears glisten on the driver’s cheeks as he sings his song.
‘All my life in this city. I live in the house I born. Never leave, never change address. This my one home.’
The song ends as we approach our destination, the fruit and produce market. ‘You maybe visit other places, maybe Tel Aviv?’
‘Yes, we’re going there in a couple of days.’
‘I take you. Only 260 shekel.’
The price is fair. We agree. I give him the address and he will pick us up at 8.30 am.
‘I am best taxi in Jerusalem. My mother tell me I am best. Not my wife say this.’ A hoarse smoker’s laugh.
Eight-twenty we sit at the kerbside, two old tourists and two thirteen-year old grandchildren and four suitcases and sundry packages. Eight-thirty, still sitting. Eight-forty, a bit restless. I call the best taxi driver in Jerusalem. The recorded voice invites me to leave a voicemail. I do so. Eight-fifty, no driver, a new voicemail with a bit of an edge to it. At nine, no driver and my voicemail is choicemail. I end with, ‘Would your mother be proud of you this morning?’
A man pulls up in a brand new cab, a squat little vehicle with a raised ceiling, a sort of minimaxicab. Yes, the driver will take us to Tel Aviv. His price? ‘Two hundred forty. Is OK?’ Is more than OK. The cab smells of new car. The driver hums with the pleasure of his new vehicle and the vehicle hums up and down the great hills that surround the city and the driver tells us what we are seeing. Hill follows hill, hills unfolds into yet more hills and every hillside is dotted with dwellings and farmland. Yaakov – that’s our driver’s name – gives a quick history of every community. ‘This one settled by Hasidim from Rumania, that one is collective, built by kibbutzniks, you know, communists? This one – you see minaret? – a Muslim community. That one a “moshav”, cooperative farm, Palestinians and Zionists together, in one community. Down there, old tank, burned out, from the first war.’ And so the drive goes on, every hill telling a story, the same old stories, sad stories of conflict, stories of hardship, of failure, of success.
Yaakov’s phone rings, a woman’s voice. He listens and answers: ‘Yes, we arrive soon. I meet you at the beach. Yes, I drop customers, I come and we meet.’ Yaakov smiling, the smile a grandfather smiles on his way to a picnic on the beach with his daughter and the grandchildren.
The land flattens, the traffic slows and thickens, green gives way to cement, here is Tel Aviv, sparkling by its beaches, the light a blaze. We alight and pay and take Yaakov’s card. We will ride with him again.
The best driver in Jerusalem is forgotten. Two days later my phone rings. A voice thick with smoke says, ‘I miss your call. You want me?’ It takes me a moment to recognise the voice of the lachrymose singer of Jerusalem, his mother’s pride. Not his wife’s. I remind him of our arrangement.
’O yes, something happen. Family…’
I remind him of my family. I remind him he has a phone and our number.
‘Yes. Sorry for that.’
I ask, ‘Would your mother be proud of you this morning?’
The man’s voice, softer now, says, ‘No.’
I tell him he has shamed his city. ‘Do better next time.’