A tit for a tat, black for white.
White Night in Tel Aviv has come and gone. Music, museums, meditation at dawn, meandering on the seashore and along streets throwing off hot-and-sticky summer air. Black Night countered with its own form of celebration, protesting the way in which the municipality chose to handle protesting.
But this remains: right smack in the middle of all the celebrations, on Rothschild Blvd. across from the classy, glassy theater just reopened, a lone pushcart appears. A twenty-something youth is selling his wares, Red Velvet cupcakes.
I slip through the crack in time opened by the pushcart-and-cupcake duo. My own private Proustian madeleine in the heart of Tel Aviv.
I’m back on the Lower East Side. My senses are on fire. I land in the middle of a street teeming with pushcarts and horse-drawn wagons. I jump onto the sidewalk. I pass a winding metal staircase leading up to a crammed Jewish bookshop with Hebrew letters engraved on each stair – I squint but can’t make out their meaning over these many years. I continue walking, lured by the pungency of pickles stuffed into big, open wooden barrels, soft sour ones and crunchier half-and-half’s. I reach out to pluck one from the nearest barrel but then, not sure which to choose, close my eyes to leave it to chance. I bite into it, my eyes still closed, and savor the juices. Like a blind person, I hear Yiddish buzzing all around me, banishing English, that foreign tongue. I open my eyes and breathe in deeply. I feel the drive of a people determined to start over with a store of energy bursting fresh from captivity.
But something is strange about the scene. And then it occurs to me: everything is black-and-white. This is not my time, no longer my place. I am a visitor.
I blink and am standing in the wide, well-lit aisles of Waldbaum’s in Westchester, miles away from the Lower East Side. My mom is stocking her cart with all sizes and shapes of packaged food and canned goods. She leads me to the Entenmann’s shelves.
“Your choice,” she says, pointing to the shiny white boxes with cellophane windows. “If you choose from yesterday’s cakes, you can have two.”
My eyes widen.
She nods. “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
I focus. Five minutes is not a whole lot of time. The crumb cakes, pound cakes and lemon meringue pies don’t have a chance. The brownies, chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes are nose to nose. I rummage among yesterday’s half-priced boxes and find one with chocolate chip cookies that don’t look too broken and cupcakes whose peaked frostings are only slightly smooshing the “take me” windows. No 50% off brownies. My decision is made.
My mom returns. I gently place my choices on the top of her cart, making sure that the pile underneath is stable enough to keep the Entenmann’s boxes upright.
“Can I have a cupcake now? Please?”
“It’s almost dinnertime. You’ll spoil your appetite. Why don’t you save it for dessert?”
I know the taste of the chocolate and fake-pink frostings by heart. But then it occurs to me that something is strange here, too. The frostings are all black-and-white.
It must be the policemen who bring me back. There are two of them, one on either side of the pushcart lined with neat rows of Red Velvet cupcakes. The frostings are cherry red, whipped cream white, peachy pink, bittersweet chocolate brown and melted butter yellow. I salivate shamelessly.
“What are you doing here selling food? It’s against the law.”
A crowd is beginning to gather around the pushcart seller and the law enforcers. I can’t hear what the cupcake seller says, but I can hear the street talk:
“Let him be.”
“What’s the big deal? He’s only selling cupcakes. Go catch some crooks.”
“Wow, those must be Red Velvet! They look so yummy!”
The cupcake seller has no answer good enough to prevent one of the policemen from writing out a ticket. And he has no choice but to take it.
“I’ll buy one,” someone pipes up.
Even though the policemen walk off, the youth has been humbled.
“I can’t sell these now.”
“What a pity! All those cupcakes gone to waste.”
“Here, take one,” the cupcake giver says, extending one and then another cupcake to the crowd. My Israeli partner takes a red frosted, chocolate cupcake, declares it too sweet, and hands it to me. I never thought I’d make it to heaven, but here I am. Someone else objects.
“I don’t want it for free. That’s not fair. I’ll pay you double. How much?”
“Four-hundred and fifty shekels.That’s my fine.”
The crowd snickers and makes room for the forlorn youth to pass. But like a pied piper, he has his followers. One of them is my partner. He tosses a 20-shekel bill onto the pushcart. The youth snatches it up quickly and makes it disappear in his pocket. Transformed back to cupcake seller, he looks at my partner and smiles. More bills float through the air; coins clink onto the pushcart.
I lick the frosting all around and then take my first mini bite followed by another mini bite. I worry that my bites are too big, and pause between each one. Who in their right mind would object to the teeth-hurting sweetness?
Yes, I think, Israelis prefer their hummus.