Helen and I grabbed our bags and scampered through the front doors of the hotel. A broad-shouldered, average height man with impressive pearly whites stood behind the front desk.
“Welcome to the Bell Boutique Hotel. My name is Moshe. Are you checking in?” asked the man with the good-looking teeth.
“Yes, we are checking in, Moshe. Your hotel is beautiful,” Helen added.
“Thank you, may I please see your passports?” Moshe responded.
He inspected the passports in the same diligent manner as the lovely El Al security agent in Barcelona. His inspection process was no mere hotel formality. He fastidiously studied our passports and glanced at us periodically to confirm we were indeed the persons documented in these little blue books.
“Wow, you came all the way from the United States to stay with us. We are very honored,” Moshe replied, flashing his smile again. “By any chance did you hear the sirens about five minutes ago?”
“Yes, we heard the blaring sirens during our drive here,” I agonized.
“Did your driver pull over?”
“No! He just kept driving.”
“Oh no, that is not good. All drivers are instructed to pull over and take shelter immediately when they hear the sirens. Your driver made a terrible mistake. I’m very sorry.” After a slight pause and a smile that even a high school cheer coach would be proud of, he assured, “But don’t worry you are in very good hands here at the Bell Boutique Hotel.”
“Excuse me, where’s your restroom?” Helen blurted out, ignoring Moshe’s grave comments.
As Helen attended to her business, I asked Moshe if he had any rooms available facing towards the direction opposite of Gaza — rooms with a fighting chance, even if the odds were slim, of protecting our delicate human flesh from incoming rockets and life-shredding shrapnel.
Room 302 was the only room available that met my bulwark bunking requirements.
Helen returned from the restroom.
“Helen, you are staying in room 302,” I told her.
“Which room are you staying in?” she asked.
“He is staying in room 201, which has a beautiful view of the Mediterranean Sea,” Moshe beamed.
“Before I forget, and this is very important,” Moshe paused, placing Helen and I on pins and needles for a couple of seconds, “our free breakfast buffet starts promptly at seven in the morning.”
“Oh, I can’t wait!” Helen celebrated. “You know I will be the first in line,” she joked, looking directly at me.
I walked Helen up to her room.
Helen’s room was decorated in yellow wallpaper and equipped with a sorry-looking twenty-four-inch television. But, this little room would be her personal bunker until we booked a flight to Rome.
After an embrace, we said good night. I found my room and realized that I still had enough gas left in the tank, and set out for the nearest pub. It was Thursday night in Tel Aviv, after all.
The following day, the hotel phone rang at 12:00pm on the dot.
“Hey man, you still sleeping?” the voice shouted through the phone.
“Yeah, getting up now,” I whispered, more than half-asleep.
“Tell me later. I will be at your hotel in thirty minutes to pick you up,” the voice said before hanging up.
After a quick shower, I made a brief stop at Helen’s room.
“The TV only has three channels and nothing in English or Spanish,” Helen complained.
“That’s awful,” I commiserated, but not patient enough to continue our meaningful exchange. “I will be back in a few hours. Sharon is picking me up for lunch.”
“What time will you be back?” Helen asked.
“Around 4:00pm or so. Then we will go somewhere for an early dinner. Okay?”
Before I left the hotel, I asked the front desk to maintain a watchful eye on Helen, and, above all else, kindly prevent her from exiting the lobby doors if she dared to try.
Sharon showed up at the hotel at precisely 12:30pm.
“Man, it’s so good to see you here. I can’t believe you are in my hood,” Sharon greeted me in his best Liberty City accent.
Everyone loved Sharon. Men, women, children, pets — you name it — they all adored him. Women loved him because of his massive pair of hands, and men envied him for the same reason. Children and pets loved his gentle nature. And to top it all off, he was a Captain in the IDF, which meant he had plenty of backup.
“You hungry?” Sharon asked.
“I wanted to take you to Abu Hassan in Jaffa. They have the best hummus in Israel by far, but, because of the Gaza situation, the area is not too Israeli-friendly right now.”
“I’m fine with eating anywhere, really,” I said.
Sharon and I drove to a popular restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv. Sharon found his hummus, although it wasn’t the best Israel had to offer. I ordered shakshuka because its picture on the menu reminded me of chorizo and eggs.
As the waiter brought our bill, my cell phone rang.
“Dad, where are you? Are you and Nana okay?” asked Reesey, my extremely outgoing nine-year-old daughter.
“We’re in Israel, and we’re fine, love. I’m having lunch with Sharon, and Nana is in her hotel room probably watching TV.”
“Dad, Mom said there’s a war where you and Nana are, and she’s worried about you and Nana staying there,” Reesey said, cupping her mouth with her little hand to prevent any eavesdropping.
“Yes, love there’s a little argument between Israel and one of their neighbors. I hope they can work out their differences,” I said, as Sharon rolled his eyes but caught himself with a quick smile.
“Love, Nana and I saw the Iron Dome in action last night and it kept us safe from…,” I stopped mid-sentence.
“Be careful Dad. I love you! Mom wants to talk to you,” Reesey exclaimed, abruptly ending our daddy-daughter chat.
“What did your Dad say?” I heard Lori ask Reesey on the other end.
“Dad said they are fine. Something called Nana Dome is keeping them safe,” Reesey said, replaying a few choice words from our conversation.
Lori took hold of the phone from Reesey.
“What are you doing?” Lori asked.
“Having lunch and a couple of beers with Sharon.”
“You are in the middle of a war and you are drinking beers?”
“Well, yeah. What else should I be doing?” I said.
“Where’s my mom?”
“She’s in her hotel room”
“You left her?! She’s not with you?” Lori asked furiously.
“She’s fine. I asked the front desk to keep an eye on her.”
“You are unbelievable, Marc. You really are. If you are not too busy drinking beers today, please book your flights to Rome. The girls and I are headed there in two days. I already got us a large apartment there that I found on Airbnb which is roomy enough for all of us,” Lori urged, before hanging up.
After an afternoon of shenanigans at Carmel Beach near Haifa, Sharon dropped me off at my hotel.
“Hey, I almost forgot to tell you something. Stay away from the Russian girls here. They are trouble,” Sharon yelled from across the busy street.
Before I could respond, Sharon sped off.
I knocked on Helen’s hotel room door a little after 6:00pm.
“You’ve been gone all day. Where have you been?” Helen interrogated.
“Sharon and I went to a couple of beaches north of here. It was great catching up with him,” I said.
“Oh, okay. I spoke with Lori earlier and she was upset that you left me at the hotel. I told her the hotel staff is very friendly, and I felt very safe, but she was still upset with you.”
“Yes, I know. She gave me an earful on the phone earlier,” I sighed, eager to put a quick end to this topic. “Are you hungry?”
Helen and I walked around until we found a small store nearby. She didn’t care to dine at a restaurant and preferred to buy a few snacks to hold her over until tomorrow’s free hotel breakfast buffet.
After a little shopping and a forty-five-minute stroll in the vicinity of our hotel, I walked Helen back to her room.
Back in my room, I booked two tickets departing in two days to Rome for Helen and me.
Still not ready to call it a night, I moseyed down the street toward an outdoor-only restaurant that caught my eye earlier in the day.
The restaurant was separated down the middle by a three-foot-high, battered, iron fence. On one side of the fence, the restaurant was completely full of patrons, and there was not a single open table. On the other side, there wasn’t a single customer, and every table was available.
“What an odd restaurant seating arrangement,” I mused.
On the empty side, a man motioned for me to sit anywhere.
I ordered a dark Goldstar beer and a side of hummus as a quick starter.
The man, as I would come to learn, was an Israeli named Ari. He was the restaurant’s owner. Ari was a short man with a very thin build. He was very attentive — if I looked up for even a micro-second, he was at my table in an instant.
After polishing off another Goldstar, I asked him a question.
“I noticed that side of the restaurant is busy, not a single table available, but this side is empty. Why is that?”
“Would you mind if I sit down?” he asked, holding the top of the chair on the opposite side of the table.
“Not at all, please sit,” I responded.
Ari took a deep breath and his eyes moistened.
“I put my entire life savings into this café, every last shekel. The café was doing well for the first year, not great, but steady. Good enough to make a decent living for myself. You see, I run this entire café by myself — nobody else besides her,” Ari said, pointing at the café’s beautiful Russian hostess.
“About a year after I opened this café, those people moved into the next stall. They are Arab. I have no problem with that, none whatsoever. Every morning for the first two weeks, I said hello to them in Arabic, but never received a greeting in return. Don’t you think neighbors should introduce themselves?” he asked, and I nodded in agreement. “They never introduced themselves. I never understood why. They cleaned that stall for two months. The stall was filthy, and the kitchen in the back was full of garbage before they took it over. I was happy that they cleaned up that disgusting stall, as even my café looked more pleasing. Then I realized, they were opening a café, too. I was even happy about that. I would offer my Israeli food, and they would offer their Arab food. We could attract more customers to this area that way.”
Ari continued, “Then strange deliveries began arriving at their stall. It started with a delivery of floor tiles. They ordered the same floor tile that I have in my café. See?” Ari grimaced, pointing at the busy side of the restaurant’s floor tile.
I examined the floor beneath me then the floor on the other side of the fence. They were identical.
“Then came a delivery of tables and chairs, they were exactly the same as mine. Same color. Same everything,” he said.
“It got even worse from there — the café layout, the counter tops, the menu books, the food, the refrigerators, the freezers, even the shirt I am wearing now — they copied it all,” Ari lamented while gently placing his forehead flat on the table.
I didn’t know what to say or how to respond. I sat and stared at the top of his balding head.
After a minute of silence, Ari lifted his head and continued, “They created an exact replica of my café. The only thing they didn’t copy was the name of my café,” he continued, eyeballing the sign written in Hebrew above our heads. “You see they have no name above their stall. They do this to confuse customers into thinking we are the same café. I hear them, at least fifty times every day telling the customers we are the same café, and because they are closer to the busy intersection, of course the customers enter on their side.”
“I recently started selling gelato during the summer. What did they do? Of course, they started selling gelato too. They bought the same exact gelato machine and the same display case.” Ari said, pointing at the twin gelato display cases that were separated only by the aged iron fence.
“One day, I asked them, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ They didn’t even look at me.”
“Three families run that café. One family will live in and work the stall for four months straight, then the next family will take over. They keep rotating all year, while I just have me to run this café all on my own.”
“I’m tired of running this café from sunrise to almost midnight every day, expect for the Sabbath, of course,” he woefully complained, pausing to collect his thoughts.
Ari’s situation was the saddest and most disturbing story I’d ever heard. Such horrible people, I thought.
“Ari, I am only in Tel Aviv for a couple more days, and I will not eat at that restaurant,” I promised him, always at a loss for the right words when I needed them the most.
“Thank you for listening to me. I hate to cry to my only customer tonight, but nobody has ever asked about my café as you did. By the way, I think my hostess likes you.” Ari said, then headed back into the kitchen.
To be continued….