An excerpt from the novel of the same name, translated from Hebrew by the author. Published in Israel by Zmora-Bitan, 2003. Will be published in Germany by Random House, 2010.
Chapter 1: New York, Spring 1998
The spring of 1998 was not a real spring. In New York, for example, it was snowing on Sunday (Izzy was waiting for Shlomi in the Bronx, 125th and Park, at 7 a.m., the snow falling on his face, the chill penetrating his bones,) and the following Friday it was 85 degrees and sunny (Jonesy and Izzy sweating like foxes as they loaded huge paintings by a mad artist in Brooklyn).
Working as movers, you see changes all the time. You are part of them. You see people at the moment of change, the moment of moving, of packing up the whole life they had in one place…
The spring of 1998 was particularly crazy because of El Niño: tornadoes, heat waves, snowstorms, floods, and merciless sun—all in the same week, in the same place, or a few hours drive away in the next state. And yet it was spring, and there was one sentence that stuck in Izzy’s mind. He’d heard it in Nebraska, at a truck stop, waiting in line to pay for two large coffees, a bag of sunflower seeds, some Hershey chocolate kisses, and a screwdriver. The woman behind the counter was saying to a fat truck driver in front of him that it was a lovely day, and the driver had answered, “It’s Spring, a time for change.”
Working as movers, you see changes all the time. You are part of them. You see people at the moment of change, the moment of moving, of packing up the whole life they had in one place, work, friends, neighbors, the experiences that happened between these walls and in this air, and you take them to a different place, where everything is new and unfamiliar and exciting and scary. Or it can be the opposite: you bring them back to the home to which they have been waiting to return for years. Sometimes they are fed up, or have lost everything, or earned a fortune, and it’s not only the place and the air and the office that they are replacing, it is everything: their status, their grasp on the world, and their way of life. And you are there, capturing this moment from the inside. You enter people’s lives through the back door, for one day, or for a few. You handle their underwear, pack their bedding, and at the end of the day you have made a bond with them.
You get into places that their closest friends have never seen—not even their kids, not even their families: private rooms, private belongings that they can show only to themselves. You become a friend for one day, an outside observer, who sees and hears everything: the little arguments between husband and wife, the special glances between the husband and the wife’s sister, the little fears that pinch their hearts. You are part of the clean new slate, of the adventure: the radar that picks up the feelings, the interior decorator responsible for the new arrangement of the furniture, the middleman helping them to meet the new neighbors for the first time.
As a mover, you have many roles. You calm them down, laugh with them, console them, listen to their stories about Vietnam and New York, about the money they make and the drugs they take, about their children or grandparents, the countries they came back from, the jobs they are about to start. You look at pictures showing them at their best, decades ago; you pet their pets. You tell them: “It’s Spring, a time for change.” You say: “This armchair? It’s beautiful.” You say: “For an apartment like this I’d leave Los Angeles too.” For one day, or a few, you are the child who stopped noticing them twenty years ago; you are the husband who left home.
True, you do all this mainly for the tip, but also for the experience: seeing America, its soft under-belly, from within the people’s fragile lives.
The three most traumatic things that happen to people are bereavement, divorce, and moving—more than accidents, more than sickness. It’s a known fact. When you lose someone, you have family and friends who come to console you, who won’t leave you, won’t let you mourn alone. In a divorce each party has its own side: the family, a lawyer. When moving, they have you, the mover.
Your jeans may be dirty, you may have been on the road three straight days with the furniture, didn’t shower, didn’t shave. You may be a simple Mediterranean guy who just brought his muscles for a day to carry the bed, but you are actually much more than that: you sweated for them, drove long days for them, crossed the continent, passed through time zones and climates—all to deliver their belongings. You are a shoulder to lean on and to cry on. You are the friendly smile for the person who has no family smiling at him. You are the best friend at a time in life when there are hardly any friends left.
Chapter 2: The Qatari
Tomer Gonick, or Jonesy, as he is known to most people, or Johnson, as his boss Haim calls him, or Tomer—yes, there are still a few who call him Tomer (his girlfriend Nili, his mother)—so this guy, whatever you call him, thought for a long time about the plan.
In short, Jonesy’s plan was to “just do it.” To make a killing. Hit and run. Earn a bundle that would take care of him for a few good years, that would buy him a nice apartment in Jerusalem, trips all over the world, a huge plasma screen in a spacious living room. And on top of that, if possible, it would be nice to see Haim Galil, his boss and the boss of Sababa Moving and Storage, fall on his face, because that bastard Haim Galil had been annoying him for a long time now.
They are sitting in Francesca’s, on First Avenue and 99th Street—Jonesy, Shlomi, and Izzy—eating lunch. Sababa Moving and Storage’s blue truck is parked outside. Shlomi is eating a sandwich he brought from home. Jonesy is holding a slice of pizza, and telling one of his stories. From time to time a mover walks by and says, “Hi.” Jonesy replies with a nod, continues his story.
“This fat Arab opens the door, wearing only underpants and pom-pom slippers. A prince from the Gulf. He has six Indian servants who do whatever he says, and an amazing wife with enormous tits. It’s a huge apartment in the Upper West side. After years in moving, you can tell by looking at the stuff. You can tell what it’s worth, if it’s cheap or valuable. And this guy—his stuff is worth billions, you see it immediately. Everything is as expensive as it gets, the furniture, the pictures, and the kitchen.
“I learnt something,” Jonesy continues. “The richer people get, the more they care about their stuff. The simple ones have an ordinary fridge, they don’t mind if it gets a scratch. But the rich are petty about everything. They will warn you five times not to scratch, God forbid, some old armchair. You can say it doesn’t make sense, that they’re loaded so why should they care? But it doesn’t work like that. The rich are the meanest. That’s because the rich don’t have more important things to worry about. Ordinary people do, see?
“But this guy, the Saudi, sorry, the Qatari, with the pom-poms, he didn’t mind. He said, ‘Come on, load everything on the truck.’ There were three of us on the move, plus the Indians, plus the bombshell with the tits. We rushed things and started driving.”
Jonesy stops to finish his pizza slice with two quick bites. He gets up and gets another slice. At Francesca’s he either has a slices day or a hero day. Today he’s stuffing himself with pizza, an ordinary margarita, because the add-ons kill the taste for him.
“So I ask the sheikh, ‘Where are we heading?’ He says, ‘New Jersey. Forrest Heights.’ We arrive at the neighborhood, but don’t find the house. We drive around for an hour in New Jersey, and this guy can’t remember where his new house is. Apparently they bought it one night when they were drunk, in about five minutes, and don’t remember anything. He’s driving in front of us in his Mercedes, with us close behind in the truck. We found the house at around 2 a.m.
“Now, it’s a Saturday. And me, I have a principle. Never, never in my life, will I work on a Sunday. I have busted my ass all week long for this bastard Haim. I’ll work nights, wake up in the dark, come home at 2 a.m., that’s no problem. But Sunday? Sunday’s for resting. I need that day in order to remain sane.”
He folds his slice in two and takes a bite.
“We’re standing outside the new house, and the Qatari tells me, ‘Come back tomorrow and finish it off.’ I look at my watch and tell him, ‘Two hours, we unload everything. Now.’ He looks at his woman and says, ‘Forget it, we’ll go to sleep. Come tomorrow, we’ll pay you whatever you want.’ I’m saying in my heart, ‘Fuck that, I’m not doing that!’ And I tell him, ‘It’s not the money, it’s Sunday,’ and he looks at me and tells me, ‘Follow me.’ He takes me to the underground parking. He turns on the light and says, ‘Take this home and come back tomorrow morning.’ I look at where he’s pointing, there’s a Rolls Royce standing there, brand new, huge, the color of cream, plastic covers still on the seats.”
Jonesy stops and takes a sip from his Coke. Wipes his mouth. He smiles a nostalgic smile.
“I tell him, ‘Sorry, Sunday. For me it’s sacred.’ So he pulls out a phone and calls Haim. And Haim shouts at me and tells me to stop fooling around and to stop fucking with his brain and that I’m there the next morning. Motherfucker.”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I came on a Sunday. I was still young then. But I remember thinking, even then, ‘Haim will pay one day for his nonsense.’”
He leans back, stretches his arms. “But the Rolls-Royce,” he says. “Oh my God, what a car! I came back home and took Nili for a ride in the middle of the night. Amazing.”
The end of a move is the best moment of the day. Jonesy shouts to Izzy and Shlomi to fold everything up quickly and finalizes the bill with the customer. Izzy feels his back and arm muscles, folds all the blankets with Shlomi, and loads everything on the full truck. Third floor with no elevator, and at first there was no parking, so Jonesy double parked on the avenue, the doorman shouted at him, he calmed the doorman down, he became the doorman’s best friend—another normal day in the moving business.
“God, what a weirdo!” Jonesy says, switching on the engine and driving slowly down Second Avenue in the evening’s heavy traffic. The customer, a guy called Joachim Basendworf, got divorced two months ago and is going back to his small town in Texas. When Jonesy asked him where his ex-wife was, he said, “I don’t know, maybe in heaven, maybe in hell,” and released a short burst of laughter. The wife’s clothes were in the apartment. Joachim had a red goatee and a cowboy hat that he didn’t take off even once all day.
“Most important,” says Jonesy, “we got an envelope.” He gives it to Shlomi.
“How much?” asks Shlomi. “What do you reckon?”
Izzy says, “I say he didn’t leave us anything, he was too mental.”
Jonesy shakes his head. “No way you’re right. Maybe not much, but we’ll have twenty, thirty each.”
Jonesy is a tipping legend in a world that revolves around the tip—around the tesher, as Israeli movers call it in Hebrew, especially when they are with customers and don’t want them to understand. He has a few methods of getting good tips out of customers, methods that he won’t disclose to anyone. All he admits is that there are “a few methods,” and that he chooses the method by the type of the customer. Every customer type has a method that works for him.
“When I leave New York,” he promises, “I’ll reveal all the secrets.” It is not unusual to get eighty or a hundred dollars each at the end of a workday with Jonesy, and that’s why many movers are prepared to put up with his shouting and cursing—in order to get such a big tip at the end of the day.
With Joachim Basendworf, today’s weird Texan, Jonesy used the envelope method. At the end of the day, after becoming friendly with the customer and letting him feel good, he gave him an empty envelope and said—making eye contact—“Joachim, the tip that we usually get for this kind of job is a hundred dollars each, at least. But take this envelope and put in it whatever you feel the workers deserve. I promise you, I will not open it until we’re a long way from here.”
Only once, in the six-and-a-half years that Jonesy has worked in moving, was the envelope empty. That was probably because Jonesy ruined a few things that belonged to the customer in a truck accident, minutes before he handed the envelope.
“He knew the accident wasn’t my fault,” Jonesy said later. “He could have been more considerate.”
Shlomi opens the envelope. There are quite a few ten-dollar bills in it.
“Izzy was wrong,” he says, counting the money. One hundred and fifty dollars in all.
Izzy says, “This Joachim is a king.”
Jonesy says, “Bastard. Less than ten percent, what does he think we are, pizza boys?” He isn’t pleased when the customer decides to give less than the sum he recommends.
They drive down the Avenue through the green lights, but toward midtown the traffic gets heavier and slower. Shlomi chews gum impatiently. Jonesy cuts across the park to Broadway and keeps going south until they can see the NBC screens on Times Square—showing the weather, the news, the stock shares—and a few minutes later the truck is parked on 39th Street and they climb up the stairs to the office of Sababa Moving and Storage, which is also home for Jonesy and Izzy, and a few others.
Assaf Gavron, 40, has published four novels, a collection of short stories, and a non-fiction collection of Jerusalem falafel-joint reviews. His fiction has been translated into German, Russian, Italian, French, English, and more, won prizes, was adapted for the stage, and optioned several times for movies. His novel Almost Dead will be published in the U.S. by HarperCollins in April 2010.
[photo credit: Moti Kikayon]
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