I’m a Tourist Here

So many novel things here, Nearly everything here different, odd, fresh, unexpected.

Seated in the tram I can see a leaf, pea-green, curving across the right rear of the neck of a young man. Beneath the leaf’s stem a scarlet circle the size of a florin encloses a second red circle, the size of a shilling. The man’s bronze skin is tight around his skeleton. On his bony chin curling black whiskers struggle for a quorum.

People on the tram wear small ear appliances as for the deaf. The hearing aids connect by fine white wires to shallow cuboids of steel or of plastic. Some travellers’ fingers tap the flat upper surface of the flat cuboids, some speak to the appliance, some nod and sway as to music. Is this tram a conveyance for the deaf? Or for devotees of some religion which is new to me in this place where I travel as a visitor?

Few are those who read books or newspapers. Few converse with a neighbour. I hear Mandarin, Spanish, German, Japanese. English too is heard. Most of the speakers address unseen interlocutors. Strange, very strange to me, the ways of this place.

From the open front of a young woman’s blouse two breasts swell and fall as she leans forward to tap a plastic card against device attached to the tram’s interior. No-one looks, no-one remarks, no-one warns the lady of her deshabille. Many are those who tap plastic cards against the fixture. Truly and devoutly observed are the rituals of the tram ride.

The headline on the discarded newspaper reads: GEN Y SHORT ATTENTION SPAN. This message, written in lettering I recognize, refers to nothing I know. Elsewhere I read of GEN X. Another hieroglyph: is there an alphabet of GENs?

Legs, arms, faces everywhere, inked in black, sienna, greens, pinks, yellows and magenta. Skin with calligraphy, with illustrations, with In Memoriams. Human integument as art gallery.

Springtime, announced by recognisable blossoms, by my itching eyes and my sneezing, yet confuses me. One day cold, bleak, blustery with rain, the next day hot. Really hot. Exposed breasts greet the sun. The weather changes mood with a violence new to me.

People pass me in the street but few eyes meet mine. Instead the eyes regard those same flat rectangular devices that the hearing-assisted cultists watched on the tram. People pass in haste. Few smile. Haste and flat devices deprive me – deprive all of us – of communion. In this springtime, the flower of community fails.

So much new, strange, odd. Fast, brief, solipsic. The new poverty. In my own country I ride and I pass, fascinated, a tourist.

John Bracks Collins St 5pm

On the Night Train to Jerusalem

Saturday night. The late train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is sparsely filled and comfortable. Passengers sit and read and stare out at the darkness. They travel in private cocoons of quiet. The small world of the carriage snuggles into the bedtime dark. Children, slumped against parent bodies, rocked and clickclacked, fall asleep.

Tel Aviv, Lod, Ramle. The train climbs, winds, climbs again. Stations materialize in the unsuspecting dark. Doors open, passengers melt away, doors close and the dark swallows all.

A brief stop at Ramle, now the train resumes its smooth motion. A sudden hubbub. Fast footfalls tripping along the corridor, a young woman, fair, slight, twentyish, races, crying, protesting, her voice shrill. She comes to a stop before the closed carriage door. Indignantly, she demands the train go back to Ramle. She missed her stop.
Others follow her – mothers with children, one pushing a pram. All protest, all join in the demand that the train retrace its path. Remorselessly the train picks up speed.

A new arrival, a tall young woman, dark haired, wearing black, makes her voice heard. It is an impressive voice, strong, pitched a little lower than the others’, a voice that rings. Like the others, this woman is unhappy, like them indignant. The younger blonde lady is eclipsed, she and her group are anaemic in comparison; they lack her force, her intensity, her perseverance.

The collector arrives, a small man in a grey jacket, slight, inoffensive. The women batter him with their clamour, their remonstrances. He explains that it is impossible to return, unsafe.
The young woman in black assumes leadership. Decibelling her anger, she details the group’s grievances: the doors in their compartment failed to open; the women and their children were unable to disembark. It was not their fault but the railways’; they had paid for their tickets, there were small children who needed their beds, the night was cold, the train would dump them at Beth Shemesh, leaving them stranded.
The collector offers no defence. He melts away.

The train climbs towards Beth Shemesh where it will arrive in fourteen minutes. The leading lady performs through the fullness of this time. Her face is strong, passionate, her dark lipstick an exclamation mark, her muscular features mobile with the pulse and rhythm of her thundering.

She maintains her rage, augmenting it minute by minute, until it reaches a pitch where violence can be its only resolution. Roaring now, she silences her party members. Nessun dorma: all in the train attend or pretend not to attend to the woman and await a climax that must immediately follow.

The train slows. Women corral their young, hoist their luggage, prepare their escape. The train stops, the carriage door duly opens and the unwilling visitors to Beth Shemesh debouch into the dark.

Their leader makes her final address to the invisible collector, to the entire railway system. Continuing travellers brace themselves for her final explosion. With withering sarcasm she delivers her line: Thank you for kindly opening the door –
Last of all to exit, she stops in the doorway, turns back to face the interior and screams – Darling!

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 29 March, 2013.