Thursday, May 24, 2012

Raising Cain At Shiloh

Shael Siegel

The cement truck slowly pulled up to Shiloh 16 in the Nachlaot section of Jerusalem just before a moonless mid-night under a cloud cover as planned weeks before between the owners of the three room house and the one armed contractor who always enjoyed a challenge. The modest three-room house was tucked in low and tight between two, three story dilapidated apartment buildings one housing low rental units the other a Farsi rabbinical academy of questionable standards. 

The owners of the small house, Blossom and Fred had contracted the one armed builder, Froika two years before in what appeared to be an impossible task: To build a three-room house out of a one room 19th century shack that had no running water, electricity or plumbing for a paltry sixty thousand dollars.  That was all the money they would be able to scratch together through government loans and help from her parents. Their only other option had been to buy a one bedroom, government subsidized apartment in a depressing poured concrete block of apartments called “shikoonim” in an area that was considered occupied territory. Neither Fred nor Blossom had the inclination to live in a neighborhood where they weren’t wanted nor in a government subsidized drab, colorless building that reminded them of communist era building style ubiquitous in Soviet bloc satellite countries. No, this young couple, flirting with the bohemian counterculture was on the cutting edge. Weighing their limited options they decided to push the envelope, go for broke and buy a dilapidated hovel with no hook up to the municipal sewerage, no electricity; a shanty that was slated to be torn down along with the rest of the Farsi slum.

Fred had no significant input in the initial purchase of the property. He knew in general terms that they had optioned out of any government subsidized apartments on the west bank, but beyond that they hadn’t thought of a realistic option. As a matter of fact he hadn’t been aware that his beloved and trusted Blossom was doing this deal against all odds and on her own. Fred had been on reserve duty, without a worry in the world; unbeknown to him that their slim savings was about to be thrown to the wind. It was like an act of a desperate man gambling his last few bucks hoping against all hope that he will hit the jackpot. Upon Fred’s return from reserve duty and learning of this risky and unwise gambit, but believing that a husband should always be supportive, was one hundred percent behind Blossom’s insightful and wise decision to “steal” the property at a price that couldn’t be beat. When visiting the property for the first time upon returning from reserve duty and hearing of the municipality’s intentions to demolish the blighted area he for the first time in his young adult life felt hopeless unable to imagine shouldering this financial debacle. 

Blossom, self confident and with a vision, wasn’t concerned that the area was earmarked for the wrecking ball leaving no chance that the city would agree to an electrical hook-up to the city grid and a water line to the sewerage in order to eliminate the outhouse. For Blossom, it was only a challenge to see how long it would take to charm the do-nothing vacuous clerks into giving her what she wanted. She knew the system and knew how to game it to her advantage.   

The building plans, pretentious as they were prepared by an elite architectural firm, friends of the family, recommended a Technion educated, high-end contractor, who enjoyed hobnobbing with the hoity-toity. The architect thought his recommendation appropriate since the design concept was a boutique style that couldn’t be understood by a builder that was anything but highfalutin. When Blossom and Fred met with the contractor, explaining that it would be difficult to receive a building permit due to the city’s plan for demolishing the neighborhood he backed out not wanting to associate with anyone or anything perceived as sketchy. Upon sensing their bitter disappointment he suggested sardonically that they buy a lottery ticket and pray to the Baba Sali, a known kabbalist and miracle worker whom every Sephardic obscurantist venerated.

Finding a contractor would be difficult since no self-respecting contractor would risk his license taking on a project without the building permits. With her back up against the wall, and encouraged by her luck in convincing the city clerk to approve of a water and electrical hook-up to the city grid she understood the power of persuasion she held over people. That coupled with the determination and chutzpah of a sabra to have her way Blossom systematically combed Jerusalem for a hungry builder in search of a project who would assess the imagined benefits as greater than the looming risk. 

After weeks of searching she met Froika who made little impression on Blossom. Her skepticism was compounded when she compared this “down on his luck” member of the hoi polloi to the smooth and schmaltzy contractor who sent her away wishing her luck. It was Froika’s naive enthusiasm that drew Blossom in for a second look at this odd man. Yet she was worried about doing business with a man who didn’t engender the professionalism that she was accustomed to. For starters he had one arm; the left had been amputated above the elbow and it was hard to imagine him in the construction business with one arm. “I mean”, she thought, “How can a one armed man pound a nail into a board, much less put up a wall”? How will he be able to unroll building plans tightly wound like a spring, spread them out and keep them from springing back like a slinky with only one hand? Furthermore his appearance was distracting and disturbing especially when he became agitated. His left arm, or what was left of it above the elbow would begin flaying like a chicken chased by a fox. Fred had commented to Blossom when looking at him that he was reminded of a beached penguin, helpless at first blush but quite resourceful when necessity dictated. 

Necessity for Froika presented itself when told by Fred and Blossom that there was no chance of pulling the building permits. You could see the adrenalin rise in him as his left arm began twitching in every which way as should be when Jews have for eons been conditioned to speak with their hands, as he began cursing out the mayor, the city, its inspectors and the entire bureaucratic apparatus. “Ach ach, not to worry”, Froika reassured the young couple. We’ll do this in the tradition of the pioneers who built settlements under the nose of the British and in spite of them: “Migdal V’choma” “tower and wall”*, remember, he asked as though testing their historical knowledge of pre-state days? “We will do what Jews under attack know how to do best”! Skeptical as Fred and Blossom were, one-armed Froika with his team of daredevil construction workers managed, under the watchful eyes of the city inspectors and police to build without a building permit a three room palace with electricity and water - but no plumbing connection to the municipal sewerage. 

That had been two years ago. But now Blossom and Fred, expecting their first child were in need of more space; hence the need for Froika’s considerable talents at obfuscation for they were in need of raising Cain – as Fred put it. “A second floor”, exclaimed Froika, “are you mad”? The city has gotten stricter 
and likely to execute the demolition order and tear down the whole slum. “My advice to you - don’t waste any more of your money”. Nevertheless Blossom and Fred prevailed, convincing Froika that this is exactly the kind of project that would cap his brilliant career as a master builder and champion of the “people” in the face of adversity.

Froika managed to get the rebar, pilings and other requisites in place and prepped for the pouring of the concrete without being discovered.  Froika met with Blossom and Fred to discuss the next and most challenging phase: pouring the concrete without being discovered by the neighbors. The locals were apt to inform the city if they realized that Ashkenazi yuppies were discovered building a second story. These Farsi poor were suspicious that more younger upward mobile couples would move in saving the city the expense of tearing down the Farsi slum. By upgrading the neighborhood in this fashion the city would avoid the expense of razing the slum, relocating the poorer tenants while realizing the added benefit of increased taxes – never mind the hardship to the local tenants who barely had enough to get through life with dignity.

Froika presented the alternatives: Call in the cement truck at early evening, before people got home from work, when traffic thinned out enough to be able to maneuver a ten ton, six axle cement mixing truck through the meandering narrow alleyways. Another option was to call in the truck at midnight while everyone was asleep, streets deserted, void of traffic, thus easier to get in and out quickly. He presented the options to the nervous couple as though he was a battle hardened field marshal preparing for an operation behind enemy lines, having to consider the cover of night, weather conditions, traffic and possible collateral damage. Having chosen option “B” Froika pointed out that there was an outside chance, that some of the neighbors may not be asleep or that perhaps the truck’s powerful revving engine would generate enough noise to wake the entire city. In that case however, the work would be so swift he rationalized that “we’d be in and out before anyone would really realize what happened” and, he added that he would instruct his crew to work silently. Froika also insisted that the designated night would be with little or no moon, preferably with cloud coverage to maximize darkness.

As zero hour approached, Blossom and Fred’s nerves were frayed frayed; they kept obsessing over being caught in the act imagining the worst. Not having the patience to listen to their concerns, fears and negativity Froika advised them to stay far away from ground zero and wait near a phone for the all clear.  Not being able to wait Fred suggested to Blossom that they take an innocent walk at around midnight. “There’s no law against eating falafel at midnight around the Nachlaot area, is there?” Fred asked Blossom rhetorically. And so they walked, falafel in hand through the dark, deserted market place to Shiloh 16. From a distance they heard the labored revving motor of the cement truck. The noise was so disturbingly loud that it caused the tenuous ancient buildings to vibrate since the cement truck had only inches of clearance from the buildings on both sides of the alleyway. “No one would be able to sleep through this” Blossom thought, breaking into a nervous sweat, beginning to hyperventilate. “Even the veteran Jerusalemites who went through two wars and constant shelling from the Jordanians couldn’t have slept through this”, she worried.  And sure enough their fears were confirmed when at first they heard the faint sounds of sirens, growing louder every second and then the reflection of the blue and red flashing lights reflecting off windows on Agrippa street becoming more prominent and ominous every second. 

Before Fred had a chance to calm Blossom she took off like a bat out of hell screaming at Fred to join her in an escape.  Fred catching up with her tried convincing her that the sirens were purely coincidental having nothing to do with them. He entreated her not to run, but to look calm as though they, two lovers, were taking a romantic walk through the market place at midnight. As the siren became louder and the patrol car drew closer, Blossom bolted for cover. Turning a corner, she ran into the arms of a waiting police officer who began questioning her. All the while, the laborers finishing the concrete work took off in every direction reminding Fred of cockroaches on the kitchen counter top scampering in every which way once the lights are suddenly turned on. What a scene! Faster than you can blink an eye the cement truck disappeared, not a construction worker to be found, total quiet in the neighborhood with none other than Blossom being questioned by the cops. Still holding onto his half eaten soggy falafel for dear life as tahini dripped down his hand Fred heeding his own advice held back in the shadows around the corner listening in on the police questioning Blossom. 

Apparently the cops thought that Blossom was a local drug-seeking whore servicing the Arab construction workers.  Anticipating some free action they forgot about the noise disturbance and construction work without a permit. Finishing the last morsels of his falafel Fred tried to digest all that had just happened and wasn’t sure at this point what to do. Trained in Talmudic reasoning and philosophy Fred began debating the problem rather than take action. Blossom was his wife – he couldn’t just leave without coming to her aid. On the other hand, he reasoned, why get dragged into a bad situation. It wouldn’t do Blossom any good he rationalized if he too was arrested. Better let Blossom take the heat in the short run while he think of what to do: she was tough and could take the heat more than he could. Nevertheless, Fred couldn’t leave her flapping in the wind.

Deciding to come out of the shadows and confront the police Fred’s strategy was two-fold: Not to admit that they were married, but to make his presence known and thereby disarm them from any intentions of having their way with the Blossom. And demonstratively show disbelief that Blossom was a drug-seeking hooker since he recognized her as a student at the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University. He knew the police would buy it because Fred’s American accent and his preppy look would be totally convincing. 

After a few more minutes of convincing, apologies and handshakes, it seemed that she had become best friends with the Jerusalem police. They let her go: Blossom promising to invite them over some time soon for coffee. This seemed to be a stroke of genius on her part, considering the slum they lived in; having police friends could come in handy. As the patrol car left the scene Fred and Blossom jogged back to Shiloh 16 to cast a coin into the wet cement for good luck. 

Just as they completed their coin toss the intrepid Froika stepped out from the shadows appearing smug to Blossom and Fred whispering two words: migdal v’choma. The three of them standing before the freshly poured cement breathing in the damp air smelling of the pungent cement couldn’t help think that they made a great team: raising cain.