A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up.
In my experience, only by grace and desperation does freelancing succeed. I wrote a piece for GQ a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what happens behind a 1,000-word article.
On July 10, my plans to meet with Karen of Peace Players International, a group in Tel Aviv that has Arab and Jewish kids play basketball together in hopes of creating a lasting bond, was cancelled. I wasn’t surprised in light of the daily rockets flying over Gaza and Israel. With a day to waste, I sent out emails to dozens of my contacts, pitching a story about how I’d witnessed Israelis rooting for the German team during the World Cup. Only an editor at GQ replied:
That’s fascinating. Why on earth do you think this is happening? Can you report out a bit tomorrow? Challenge is that we’d wanna post this tomorrow so we’re up pre-weekend/pre-final, so it’d need to be fast turnaround. Maybe 1,000 words?
I had some scribblings and memories to go by, but this required more formal reporting. I set out to find some Israelis and quotes. I knew I wasn’t going to find much in the neighborhood of Jaffa during Ramadan, the Arabic neighborhood where I was staying, so I hopped on the 25 and headed to central Tel Aviv in search of Jews who loved Germany.
I knew where my first stop would be.
I went to the Post Café, a quaint joint with a Casablanca vibe and creaky wooden chairs that I’d stumbled into a few nights earlier to watch the remaining minutes of the Netherlands-Costa Rica match. It seemed like a bar that catered to Israelis and not tourists. The owner of the bar was this gregarious guy who had alopecia and blew a plastic little horn throughout the match. I liked him. And I liked the feelings I got from the place. It was like a high-end dive bar.
I sat at the bar and ordered an espresso. The bartender was a young, lanky Israeli with sparse facial hair and a curly mop. His name was Ran.
I got right to the point. “Let me ask you a question. Who are you rooting for?”
“Germany, I suppose.”
He saw my surprise, but I had to explain to him that I didn’t expect Jews, particularly Israelis, to root for Germany. How could he so easily forgive?
“I am a human being,” he replied. “I don’t see a reason to fight Arabs, Germans, anybody. Everything is about religion now anyway.”
I spoke to a few other people and exchanged rounds of vodka (they call shots “chasers” in Israel) at the Post Café and left to canvas Israelis at other joints.
I zigzagged blocks, sticking my head into bars and asking dozens of people about their Deutsch affinities. When I felt I had enough quotes I decided to head back to the Post Café where I’d found people welcoming, but not before stopping for a little nosh. I ate some questionable Indian curry.
Back at Post Café, I met a new character. His name was Nimrod, and while that is an unfortunate title for any native English speaker, in Hebrew it is common and means rebel or hunter. Nimrod did not like sports. He was not taken with “22 sweaty guys chasing a ball around.” He did, however, have a friend who was a big German supporter. His friend’s name was Shai Golden and he is a former editor of Haaretz, Israel’s equivalent to the New York Times. In exchange, Nimrod asked me to read this piece he wrote about how a Palestinian saved his young life some 20 years ago. I told him I knew the Jerusalem correspondent for the Times and I’d run it by her. It was published in the NYT the next week.
With Nimrod was Gil, an Israeli of English descent. He was drunk beyond all medical explanation. He had been drinking since noon and showed no signs of stopping.
“You know, Isaac,” Gil slurred, “all this religion is crap. I don’t care about anybody’s god. But you know what I believe in? People [he pronounced it Pep-El]. That’s what I believe in.”
Gil repeated this sincere statement many times until someone put another chaser of vodka in my hand. I downed the shot, even though I knew I’d have to write that evening, and said my goodbyes to everyone I’d met.
It was already late. The buses stopped running after midnight so I had to catch a cab. But before I left, Gil insisted I take his number in case I needed a place to stay in the future. I sat in the back of the car and felt real joy. I felt a real connection. Yes, he was drunk, but I was elated all the same.
I arrived at Ron’s apartment and searched for the keys to the front door. They were supposed to be hidden on the ledge above the building’s entrance. I brushed my fingers from side to side, searching for the jingle of metal. They weren’t there. I thought maybe Ron had put them elsewhere, so I scoured the surrounding area. No luck. I called Ron. No answer. I called him again. Nothing. I was locked out. I waited around for 10 minutes. Maybe Ron was showering? Maybe he was on the phone?
It was two in the morning and I didn’t know where I was going to sleep. I considered the beach, a 20 minute walk from where I was. Then I remember Gil.
“Hey Gil, is that couch still available?”
“Hey man! Of course. Meet me back at Post Café.”
I walked to the street and hailed a cab. “I need to go to Post Café on King George and Bograshov.”
“OK. 60 shekels 9 (around $18).”
“No way, I just paid 30 to get here 20 minutes ago.”
He shrugged his shoulders and pursed his lips. “I can’t do that. That is impossible.”
I managed to get him down to 45 shekel, but he made me sit up front with him. His name was Omri, and he was a middle age Israeli-Morocan. For the first five minutes he just lectured me on the realities of taxi-ing and how he was a good guy, not the type to overcharge. I nodded politely. He turned the conversation to the state of things.
“So how you like all the boom in the sky?”
“Things are so crazy here. It’s good that we have Bibi (Netanyahu). No one could be better.”
“Really? No one? There are always better options.”
“Yes, you are right. We need Putin.”
I was taken aback. “Putin? You can’t be serious.”
“Yes. If we had Putin he’d just blow up all the Arabs.” He let go of the steering wheel and dusted off his hands with a little smile.
“Yeah, maybe, but then you’d have Putin.” He laughed.
“Yes, but then we’d just send him back to Russia so that he could take care of all the Georgians.”
I was done talking by then.
We arrived near the Post Café and I hopped out at an intersection and paid.
When I walked back into the Post Café, most everybody was still there. They were a little surprised to see me, but didn’t ask what I was doing back so I offered them my situation. I was given less pity than I hoped. Gil wasn’t around, so I waited for him. He returned 15 minutes later with a couple of pizzas for the bar. A real sweetheart. I ate a slice of pizza and waited for Gil to say it was time to go.
As I waited, an uncomfortable coolness crept over my body. Did I have one too many chasers of vodka? I waited for Gil and sat with the right side of my face buried in my right palm. This is what I get for almost seven hours of drinking, right? But Gil was a machine. It seemed like he could go deep into the next day. But he saw that I was in discomfort and asked if I wanted to go.
“If you want to stay, I can wait,” I lied.
“No, no, no. You are my guest. We will go.”
It took him another half an hour to say his goodbyes.
Gil and I hopped into the cab. I began to feel worse. My mind focused on where to lay my head. It was inevitable. I would fall asleep somehow, somewhere, I told myself. Tonight was going to suck. But I had to get well enough to finish the piece. I knew they’d want it by the early afternoon on the East Coast. The seven-hour time cushion gave me some reason to relax.
We got to Gil’s apartment in a northern Tel Aviv neighborhood. He forewarned me that he, his wife and baby had just begun to move in, so I shouldn’t expect a castle. All I cared about was the couch, I assured him.
Thank god it was on the first floor. Gil banged shamelessly on the front door and yelled for his wife. It was past 4 a.m. and he had what I assumed would be a sleeping baby. I did my best to cower behind Gil, but he was a good eight inches shorter than me. His wife swung the door open and spread her death stare between the two drunk assholes at her front door. Gil politely pushed her to the side and I followed suit, delivering my best apologetic smile as I passed her.
The apartment was filled with boxes and baby supplies. There were also three cats. Gil set up my couch with a pillow and blanket and asked if I wanted to have another beer with him. I politely declined and laid down on the couch. Gil finished his thirtieth beer of the night and went to bed.
The room was dark, but I could make out the stare of cats’ eyes and see faint shadows of their waving tails. I felt worse. But I wasn’t spinning. I tried to recount how many drinks I had that night. I’ve slept through worse, and I didn’t have enough drinks to be sick. Soon my arms got cold and my chest felt hollow. I knew this feeling. I had food poisoning. I couldn’t tell how bad it was at the time. I thought maybe it was just a little nausea and I’d fall asleep soon enough. But my breathing became labored and my threshold was about to be breached.
I stood up in the dark and managed to avoid the many invisible obstacles in my way. I clamored for the bathroom door but couldn’t find it. I soon realized that the only bathroom was in the bedroom where Gil, his tolerant wife and sleeping baby were. There was no time to knock so I just threw open the door. Thank god Israelis don’t own guns because I might have been shot in America. I found the bathroom and fell to my knees. The touch of the cold porcelain was enough to alert my gag reflex to let fly the evil inside me. It came with such great force that my insides launched as much through my nose as my mouth. I felt the grains of rice as they passed through the narrow passages of my nostrils. I could make out orange and yellow in the dark. Curry culprit. I heard nothing from the family outside the bathroom. I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing. After I had cleaned my stomach and the bathroom I stumbled back to the couch and fell asleep.
I woke around 10:30 a.m. with one of Gil’s cat’s paws in my mouth. I had an article to write. I gathered my things and walked out the door and into the morning sun.
Where the hell was I? I didn’t have any internet and could only faintly remember the cab ride. I picked a direction and followed my feet. I asked a young mother how I could get to Jaffa. She gave me a strange look and pointed in a general direction. I wondered how I looked, if I had crusted vomit on my face. I couldn’t feel anything out of the ordinary with my hand.
Soon I recognized a neighborhood and knew that my bus would stop nearby. I walked on the shady side of the street. Then the air raid siren went off. For a moment I couldn’t distinguish the siren from the pain in my head, but I soon saw other Israelis walk for cover in the nearest building. There was a young man with a dog, a couple jogging women and a Hassidic man with his wife and child. We all headed without too much urgency to the bomb shelter underneath the apartment’s staircase. The Hassidic family headed first. The man with the dog followed. The Hassidic woman turned to the man and yelled at him, pointing at the dog. He tried to reason with her (this was all in Hebrew, by the way, so I can only assume). The man reluctantly walked away from the Hassidic family and up the apartment stairs. This interaction was symbolic of Israel as a whole. The majority of the country is secular and progressive like the man with the dog. The most vocal and impassioned citizens are the religious. That the man with the dog had as much right to the bomb shelter as the Hassids but was turned back because of their emotional and whimsical preferences might describe the interrelations of Israel as a whole.
I chose not to join the unwelcoming religious family.
Where I waited in the hallway I met eyes with an older man who stood outside his apartment door, observing.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What’s your name?”
I pointed to the man with the dog and the bomb shelter that housed the faithful. He shrugged his shoulders.
He asked me where I came from and what I was doing.
“Ah, a writer. You know, I’ve published books myself. Come in and see.”
The sirens silenced. The explosions shook the building and everybody went on about their business as usual. Without thinking, I walked into Jonah’s apartment. It turned out to be his office. Jonah was a lecturer and a scholar of legal notary. What proceeded was a half hour lecture of the history and importance of notaries and how America does not take the profession seriously enough. Eventually I stood up and told Jonah I had a deadline I had to attend to, which was true. I wished I could have said something earlier, but sometimes I am polite as an Englishman and I fear coming off rude more than death.
I got on the bus. It was already noon. I sat in the back of the bus and felt a cold sweat. A bald 30-something Israeli sat next to me. He asked me something in Hebrew and I mumbled that I didn’t understand. He tried to start a conversation with me.
“What are you doing here? How do you like it? You’re a journalist? You used to write for the New York Times? I very much dislike the New York Times, they are anti-Israel.”
I managed to take my hand from my head and looked at him. “You are being too sensitive.”
He began to talk about how Thomas Friedman was too liberal and hated Jews. And then this came out of his mouth: “You’re not a real Jew if you don’t support Israel.”
I told him that was offensive. He said he knew it was.
I looked away from him. “I’m done talking to you.”
He stopped talking and I ended up getting off a stop too early.
Back at Ron’s apartment I showered and passed out. I woke up at 3 p.m. and called Shai Golden, the former Haaretz editor and German soccer fanatic, who Nimrod told me about the night before. Articulate and thoughtful, Golden is a reporter’s dream, and he said many beautiful things. They flowed out of him effortlessly.
We erase our future because of the past. We live our past daily, with Palestine, with Germany, with Russia. For the nation to make progress we must put it all aside. We should not forget about it, but we shouldn’t live by it. With Palestine, we can’t get over our pains, our losses. Germany is an excellent football team. I love them for what they are, not for what their fathers’ did.
I was envious of Shai’s words and wished I had the experience to say them.
My piece was published that evening.
When I was finished and feeling better, I wondered if it was appropriate to write about sports as the latest war in Gaza. But, then, maybe the grace of sports can transcend and uproot the bitter forests of history. Or maybe I just wanted a byline in a major magazine.