I drove to Jaffa the other day, South on the boardwalk and the crumbling old houses that make Tel Aviv so paradoxical. Decaying. Peeling. Fading. Collapsing. But beautiful. And colorful. With the smell of the Mediterranean so enchanting. Stuck in a traffic jam. And it reminded me of that summer in the late 1980’s. Maybe because the radio was playing Rhythm is a Dancer. Or Don’t worry be Happy. Only in Israel. And those smells coupled with that music brought me right back to the same place I grew up. And I looked at M. Busy posting a picture to Instagram. And D. asleep and sweating in his car seat.
My pops was an early riser. 6 AM we were already on the road. To the Tennis Center. Down past those long sand dunes. And coming to Holon reminded me of Vegas. The endless sand dunes on either side that eventually became the town of Kiryat Sharet. And this fascinated me. Even though I had only seen Vegas in the movies. My town was anything but exotic. And I had dreams. Big dreams. And while nothing became of me and my grandiose dreams, those sand dunes were developed in the late 90’s and became some of Israel’s most expensive real estate.
He’d open that rickety gate and you could hear the roosters from the neighboring apartments in the slums of Jaffa. Jaffa daled, “D”, it was called. Home to the poor and the addicted and the criminal. But there is a certain grace at 6 AM. A certain peace. Serenity. Even the junkies finally find some peace.
His first private lesson was with a French optometrist. Lucien. Who was wealthy and old. The perfect combination for any tennis professional giving lessons. And I watched from the bench outside the court. And one time my pops remarked about his watch. And wasn’t it a beautiful watch? And small talk. It must have been. But that old frog took off the gold watch and handed it to my pops. And said that where he came from, if someone complimented you on a watch, or anything really, you would give it to them. But my father declined. And picked up the balls while Lucien sat and drank water.
There was an old Television in the “study room” upstairs. Donated by some rich Jew in California. And there was no studying in the study room. It was an empty room with a long wooden table and a TV in an armoire. And I would watch episodes of Pinocchio dubbed in Hebrew. And that’s how I learned the language.
The fat utility man, Yaakov, would stumble in hungover at seven. And fumble around the kitchen making his Turkish coffee. And my pops knew better than to approach him before he finished that cigarette. And I would watch him sip. Loudly. And cough. And he had thinning strands of blond hair. And if you didn’t know any better you’d suspect that I was his son. After all I resembled him more than I resembled my pops. What with his tall slender build and his dark curly hair. I was chubby. And blond. Just like Yaacov.
And we’d start the day with the rounds of the courts armed with a trash bag. And he would regale me with stories of the previous night’s drinking and brawling. While telling me stupid and raunchy jokes. Like the one about the two guys pissing at the airport. A white guy and a Jamaican guy. And they both have “WY” tattooed on their cock. And the white man turns to the Jamaican and says: Your initials are WY too? And the Jamaican rubs his cock to erection where it is revealed that the tattoo says: “Welcome to Jamaica and I hope you have a nice Holiday”. And he would laugh so hard trash would fall out of the bag.
By 9 AM the secretary, Lily would arrive. And she always had a VHS tape with her. Because she knew how bored I was. And back in those days we had pirated cable. And she would tape all the new movies and then bring them to the tennis center. And I would spend the next two hours watching a Van Damme action movie. Or a Steve Guttenberg comedy. And if I was really lucky it was a Kevin Costner comedy. Like Bull Durham.
My pops would stop teaching lessons around noon. It just got too hot. And that’s when he would do paperwork with Lily. Reports for the city and Mayor Cheech about attendance. And there were no more movies. And the TV was airing boring daytime shows. And even Yaacov was taking a nap in the shade of the palm trees.
At 2 PM the coaches would start to arrive. And each in turn asking how I was. And whether I was enjoying the summer vacation from school. And was I getting ready for sixth grade? Or was it fifth grade? And I should do more exercise. And not so many sweets. And was I playing in such and such a tournament? And they would stretch and drink nes café and soon enough that quiet room became so loud and abuzz with commotion that I needed to find some place quiet to retreat to.
By early afternoon hundreds of neighborhood kids had swarmed on the tennis center like locusts. Every court was filled to capacity with kids chasing tennis balls. And yelling. And laughing. And sometimes I would join them. And practice for an hour. But most days I would buy an ice cream from the kiosk (on my pops tab of course) and climb up to the roof of the study room and watch that mad circus unfold. Someone had left a beach chair up there. And reclining and staring at the setting sun I would dream fantastic dreams of what life had in store for me. Oh what wonderful things I would accomplish one day. When I was old enough.
The sun sets late in the summer here. And my pops would treat me to a hot dog from the kiosk. But don’t saying anything to mom. It’ll ruin my appetite. But my appetite was almost never ruined. And as the sun began to set the loud buzz of children was slowly replaced by the laughter and drone of adults.
And my pops and I would say goodbye to Lily and Yaacov. And he would lock his office. And we would drive past the sand dunes, to our Las Vegas, as night set in.
And my mom would have dinner on the table for us. We, the men, had come back from a long day of work. And my older brother was nowhere to be found. Out drinking or causing trouble. But there we were. The three of us. And I don’t think I could have been any happier.
And the sound of honking behind me brings me back to the present. To the beautiful Mediterranean on my right. And to my M. and my D. And how many of those dreams dreamt on the roof were accomplished? Probably none. I never became a famous tennis player. Or a renowned film director. Or a Playboy photographer.
But looking around me at my loved ones I’m reminded that those dreams pale in comparison to the life I’ve made for myself.
*This has been an excerpt from my upcoming book Slower than Your Average Bear due to be released posthumously.