Sunday, July 31, 2005

Taking Things into Account

This disturbing report from the Jerusalem Post, about an alleged mobster who wouldn’t take no for an answer, reminded me of something that happened to me several years ago.

I went to a hair salon downtown for a haircut. Since I had no appointment, I was told I would have to wait about a half hour. No problem, I thought to myself; I’ll just head over to the market and do some shopping, and I’ll be back in plenty of time.

As I was preparing to leave, a man walked into the salon and struck up a conversation with the proprietor. He was an older man, his hair black and slicked back, and he had an air of importance about him. It seemed he knew the proprietor well. As I gathered my things, the man began telling the proprietor a story.

“A man from up north called me,” he said, “and told me that he was having some trouble with the local municipality. Seems he’d put an addition on his home without the required permits. I told him: Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. And I did. When the supervisor from the municipality came to his house to tell him that the addition would have to be demolished, I happened to be there. I told him my name and said that the addition could stay. The municipality guy was this little fellow, really tiny, and when he heard my name he shook all over. Really! He trembled like a leaf. And then he fell all over himself trying to get out of there. No, he said, of course everything was all right, it was all a mistake. He sure left in a hurry! What a little guy he was. And so scared!”

I had heard enough, and I was headed out the door. I’d only gone a few feet when I heard the man’s voice behind me calling: “Hey, lady, wait up!”

This is how my inner dialogue went at that moment:

Voice 1: Oh, no. He’s noticed me. What do I do now?

Voice 2: Turn around and answer politely. This is a crowded area, and it’s broad daylight. Nothing’s going to happen. It might be more dangerous to ignore him.

Voice 1: Can’t I just pretend I didn’t hear him? Broad daylight or not, I’d really rather not have anything to do with him if I can possibly avoid it.

Voice 2: Didn’t I just say that ignoring this guy might be dangerous? You have nothing to lose by being polite.

Voice 1: Oh, come off it. Do you really think this guy’s going to kill me for not talking to him? Maybe that whole story never even happened. Maybe he was just bragging.

Voice 2: Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t. But you got a good look at him, didn’t you? You have to admit he looks the part. And you don’t want to find out for sure if he really is who he says he is, do you?

I turned around.

He got right down to business. “Where do you live?” he asked me.

“In the city,” I said, which could mean either “Downtown” or “In Jerusalem.” While I might have had nothing to lose by being polite, I wasn’t going to be stupid.

We were headed towards the market, and he remarked: “Soda is so expensive these days. Imagine—I have to pay six shekels for a liter of soda. You have to keep such a close eye on everything! Tell me”—and he turned to me with a serious expression—“do you keep a close eye on everything you do?”

The Hebrew phrase he used was la’asot heshbon, which can also mean to make an accounting, to consider well. But of course I knew what he was really asking. So I faced him straight on, looked him in the eye and said in my clearest, coldest voice: “Absolutely. I keep a close account of what I do every moment.”

He accepted my answer and didn’t press further.

And the haircutting appointment? I kept it. But after that day, I never went back.

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