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The Bialik of the Taxi Stand

Prof. Roee Ozeri of the Physics of Complex Systems Department received a third place award in the Haaretz short story competition for this work
30.09.2015

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In the fifth decade of his life, Yehuda began to write poems. “A poet I got,” said Sara. “He still hasn’t learned to earn living. But to write poetry? That he can do. Write some lyrics for the bank manager. Maybe he’ll extend the overdraft.” His taxi would stand on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Mapo, and the words would flow through his head. In pairs, like animals entering Noah’s Ark. He would lean a page on the steering wheel and let them pour out. The drivers behind him honked in time with the flashing of the broken traffic light at the corner. Raindrops drummed on the Skoda’s windshield, running down and turning into long, soft sentences. A red-headed man with a soaking wet jacket looks through the taxi window: “Are you on duty?” Yehuda doesn’t even lift his head. “On duty?” The rain pelts the redhead; his forehead is shiny, his eyes light up. “What was your mother thinking? You’re a maniac!” the man yells, punching the roof of the Skoda before going on his way.


“You’ll see,” he says to Sara. “They’ll be putting my words to music on the Caesarea stage.” “Caesarea, no less,” she replies. “Once upon a time you only dreamt at night; now you’re dreaming in the daytime.” “If you’d only read them.” But she refused, and the pages piled up inside the taxi. At first he placed them in the car’s trunk, leaving room for passengers in the car. Afterwards he stopped bothering; in any case he had no time for driving anywhere. After a week had gone by, Moshiko who ran the kiosk on the corner understood that the taxi that parked every morning at seven-thirty right behind the bus stop was to be a permanent fixture. At first he was annoyed: The taxi was blocking paying customers from parking. But after a couple of days, he relaxed. It wasn’t really in his character to get uptight. He tried to befriend Yehuda, bringing coffee out to the taxi in the morning. “Why not come out and write your poetry in the kiosk, on the counter where people fill out their lottery forms?” he suggested. But Yehuda refused to get out of the car. Except for two or three times a day when he went to pee under the ficus tree in the yard of the building next door, he did not leave the car. He said that the taxi summoned his muse. “What are you writing? Poems about taxis?” “No,” said Yehuda, “but after twenty years in a taxi, the meter is wired to my soul.”  After a month, the kiosk regulars began to ask Moshiko what was with the taxi. “It’s a poet in there,” he would answer. “A regular Bialik of the taxi stand.”

The Skoda was already full. Sara would not let him bring the pages into the house, and he did not have the heart to throw them away. “These are pieces of my heart on these pages,” he told Moshiko.

“Why don’t you sell your poems? How much is a piece of your heart worth?”

“Who would want to buy one?”

“Let’s hear a poem,” said Moshiko. “I don’t understand poetry, but I do understand people. I’ll tell you if people will buy your poems.” Yehuda looked at Moshiko through the Skoda’s window. “For you? For free? I have written these poems with my blood. No one but Sara will get one of my poems for free. And she – even for free – does not want them.”

“How much do you want for one poem?”
 
After twenty years in a taxi, the meter is wired to my soul.” 

Yehuda thought for a minute. “The fare from here to Yafo,” he said as he pulled a sheet from the back seat. Moshiko took the page and began reading. The words washed through his body, swirled in his veins and melted his heart. “You’re killing me, Yehuda,” he said with tears in his eyes. “Even to Hadera, I’d pay. Of course they’ll buy them. But for them to buy, they first need to hear.” 

They wrote a sign on a piece of paper and hung it in the entrance to the kiosk: “Today at four – A poetry reading from the heart.” At four, Yehuda took a seat behind the counter with ten pages retrieved from the taxi. He sat there looking sadly at the drinks fridge on the opposite wall. “I got out of the car for nothing,” he said to Moshiko, who was smoking a cigarette next to the cash register. Moskiko glanced silently at the wet street outside.


At four fifteen, three girls walked into the kiosk. One was tall with a yellow raincoat and wet hair, one, darker, held an umbrella and wore a miniskirt, and there was a third girl, as well. The tall one asked Moskiko for long menthol cigarettes. Moshiko gave her a pack. “We have a poetry reading. Do you want to hear?” We’re in a hurry,” said the dark-skinned one. “Stay for one poem,” said Moshiko. “If you stay, the cigarettes are on me.” The tall one picked up the lighter that was chained to the change tray on the counter, lighting a cigarette. She gave Yehuda a critical once-over: “Nu, what are you waiting for?” she said. “Start your poem already.” Yehuda looked over at Moshiko. “Go on, Yehuda,” said Moshiko. “Do you want to read it or not?” Yehuda looked at the piece of paper in his hand and back again to the girl in yellow. She glared at him impatiently. “Waste of time. I’ll pay for the cigarettes.”   

 

“Wait a sec,” said Yehuda. He returned his focus to the page and began reading aloud. At first hesitantly, and after that at a steady pace, line after line; and as he read, he saw how the words metamorphosed on the page, flying off like butterflies in the little room, eddying up to the ceiling of the kiosk, stained from the exhaust of the no. 5 buses that stopped there, and those that touched the ceiling exploded, showering the support columns of the kiosk like a rain of tears and honey. When he finished, Yehuda looked up. Silence in the kiosk. The tall one was  leaning on the drinks fridge, weeping silently, tears and makeup coursing down her cheeks, long menthol cigarette smoldering on the floor by her foot. The third girl sat on the floor, dumbstruck. Even Moshiko had sat, momentarily, in a chair. Only the dark one continued standing next to the counter as if nothing had happened. The tall one wiped a tear with her hand. “Read it again,” she asked. “Each poem is one time only,” said Yehuda, “but if you want, you can buy it. Then it will be your private poem.” “The original text,” added Moshiko. “No copies.”

The next day at four, the three came back to the kiosk with three boyfriends. “We heard you can ruin your health here by listening to songs without music,” said the one who was holding the tall girl’s hand. “I made a bet with her that it wouldn’t move me,” he added. “Come in,” said Moshiko, and they took up positions around the counter. Yehuda looked over his pages, shuffled them and pulled one out. “What is the poem about?” asked the yellow one. “All my poems are on the same subject,” answered Yehuda, and he began to read. By five o’clock, Yehuda had sold seven of the poems. And Moshiko, seven beers and a pack of gum. The next day, thirty people came, and Moshiko set chairs out on the sidewalk. Dani from the pizzeria added plastic chairs and sold slices of olive pizza to anyone who wanted to sit. By the weekend, Yehuda had already sold all of the poems stored in the Skoda. He would sit in the morning writing dozens of poems, selling all of them in the evenings. Each evening, people would assemble across from the kiosk, first sitting, then standing, on the sidewalk and finally spilling into the street. “We can’t hear,” they shouted to Yehuda, so Moshiko arranged a microphone and amp. Yehuda stood on the roof of the Skoda, in his sweatpants and button-down shirt, and read his poems to the street. “It’s better when I’m standing outside,” he told Moshiko. “The words have more room to fly away.”

“What are you talking about? Isn’t it about time you changed your clothes to something a bit more dignified?”

“What’s the difference? The poems will remain the same.”

Indeed, Yehuda’s worn sweatpants did not prevent people from streaming to the corner of Ben-Yehuda and Mapo each evening to drink from the well of poetry, and to perfume themselves in the bittersweet scent of its words. The upstairs neighbors across the way sold seats on their balcony, like boxes at the opera, and Yehuda sold his poems at auction to the highest bidder – calculated by the fare to a distant city.  


It went on that way all winter. Yehuda would read his poems to crowds of people gathered at the entrance to Moshiko’s kiosk. Even in the rain and wind they would warm up to the heat of the words written in the blood of his heart. Famous people came too, wanting him to move his show to the “Tzavta” theater; they wanted television, but Yehuda refused. He was comfortable on his corner, with the smell of the sea rising on the breeze up from Yarkon Street.
 
It’s better when I’m standing outside. The words have more room to fly away

One evening, a famous singer who had been in the Eurovision song contest came and asked him to write her a song. She stood face to face with him, straight-backed, her breast looking him straight in the eye as if saying in defiance: “Won’t you write for me?”

“I’m going on a world tour, and I need a new song,” she said. “Something that will touch people’s souls.” Yehuda thought for a moment, rifled through the stack of papers in his hand and pulled out a crumpled sheet. “This one’s for you,” he said, “150 shekels – the fare from here to the airport.”
 
When spring came, Yehuda was already prospering. He would clear thousands without any outlays for gas, without having to change his tires, without receipts, just straight from the heart to the pocketbook. He took the money and bought Sara a new car. A yellow BMW like in the movies, with all the options, a stereo system, GPS and heated seats. On the rear-view mirror, instead of a pine-tree air freshener, he hung a gold chain he had bought in a fancy jewelry store he knew over in Kikar Hamedina. In his taxi-driving days he would drop rich women there, breathing the scent of wealth, their jewelry quietly clinking. Now he took a taxi there himself. Went in with his faded sweatpants, went straight to bright the display case in the center of the store and examined the chains, pendants and bracelets arranged in golden furrows. The saleslady did not even look up as she asked: “Do you need assistance?” Yehuda took a roll of cash from his pocket, pointing at the heavy chain in the middle of the display. “That one,” he said. “That will go with the yellow of the car.” Sara looked at the new car with tears in her eyes. “Why do we need it?” she asked. “First your heart was only mine, now you sell it in pieces to the highest bidder.”

With the approach of summer, the days lengthened and the nights shortened and with them, Yehudas poems got shorter. Because all the poems in the world are written on the same subject, Yehuda began to express himself in fewer words. And the more they were cut, the greater their precision, for hurting and sweetening. He would write poems that were just one stanza long. Twenty words that pierced, like a sharpshooter’s bullet, straight to the heart and left a bleeding hole. When evening came, Yehuda would read a poem in a quarter of a minute and afterward the gathered crowd would break out in crying and laughter. At the beginning of June, Yehuda was already writing poems just one line long. That night, four people fainted and had to be taken by ambulance, sirens wailing, to the hospital.  

“Have mercy, Yehuda,” said Moshiko. “You’ll kill someone here if you keep this up.”

“It’s not me writing the poems,” said Yehuda with pain in his voice. “They write themselves.”
“At least let’s move the readings to later at night, so there are no children. And without the balcony crowd, so that no one jumps.”
 
On the morning of the twenty-first of June, Yehuda wrote a poem that was one word long. One Hebrew word that enwrapped all the pain, all the happiness, the entire void and emptiness of existence. He wrote it, got out of the taxi, and brought the folded page to Moshiko in the kiosk.

“What is this? A poem one word long?”

“One,” Yehuda said to him. “You don’t need more than that – this one says everything.”

Moshiko looked at Yehuda, and at the folded sheet of paper in his hand. “I’m afraid to open the page,” he said.

“You have nothing to fear,” said Yehuda. “You already know the word. But if you want, you can wait for the reading until nighttime.”

“Are you sure that you want to read it?"
 
What is this? A poem one word long?

They moved the reading to one minute after midnight, so that only the most insomniac would come. Only those who were truly addicted to the readings. The hospital was prepared, ambulances readied and the ER alerted. During the day, rumors of the reading flew through the city. When the appointed hour came, hundreds of people assembled outside the kiosk. They stood in the road past the traffic light. Yehuda climbed up to the roof of the taxi, and looked south to the sea of people that extended to Bograshov Street, to the faces upturned in anticipation, to the ambulance drivers that, like him, stood on the roofs of their vehicles, to the cops that blocked traffic on Ben-Yehuda Street. He closed his eyes and inhaled summer and salt into his nostrils. He opened his eyes; he moved the microphone to his mouth.

The next morning, it rained. Heavy drops soaked in smog. Yehuda arrived at his taxi, once again. He looked at the road, cars rushing urgently north. Drivers changing lanes, honking, cursing. Nothing in the clamor of the road hinted at what had happened here just a few hours earlier. Unlike normal summer rains, which are light and short, this was an unusually heavy rain. Raindrops exploded hard against the Skoda’s windows, washing away the dust that had clung to it all those months that it had not moved from its place. Yehuda looked at the rain silently. The hour was still early, and Moshiko had not yet opened the kiosk. He started the taxi. The motor, which had not worked for a while, coughed and stalled before finally being coaxed into turning over. Yehuda pressed the gas pedal and listened to the rumble of the motor. After he was satisfied, he signaled and began to drive. He turned left, toward the ocean. At the corner stood a woman; she was holding her purse over her head trying to fend off the pounding drops of rain. She waved her hand frantically when she saw the taxi approaching. Yehuda stopped next to her. She opened the door and jumped in quickly.

“What luck that you came. I’m already soaking wet.”

“Where to?” asked Yehuda.

“The train,” she answered.

Yehuda signaled and turned the steering wheel to the left.

“Meter?” he asked before starting to drive.

 
        

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