We live in a small three-story apartment building in Ramat Gan that was built sometime in the 70’s. We are told that Menachem Begin’s granddaughter once lived here, but concrete proof of that is still wanting. Just like in that classic Balzac novel they shove down your throat in high school here, Le Pere Goriot, our dilapidated old hovel, its residents, renters and guests can easily be seen as a microcosm of Israeli society at large.
The ground floor apartments are occupied by Israeli Arabs from one of the villages in the “little triangle” region up north. My best guess is that there are between ten and twelve crammed into those two studio apartments on the ground floor. I could not tell you exactly how many because they always seem to rotate. There’s the guy who wears the McDonald’s uniform. The guy who works at Roladin bakery. The one that bathes in Davidoff cologne. There’s a woman there in her early twenties who spends most of the afternoon screaming at someone on the phone in Arabic while hanging the laundry in the back of the building. She wears black camel toe tights that are two sizes too small and high heels at all times. Just when I got used to the slim, twenty-something kid who used to fix his moped in the front yard (leaving oil stains and spare parts everywhere) he was gone and replaced with the hookah smoking bloke. He would sit at the entrance of the building and smoke strawberry tobacco all day long wearing nothing but his boxer shorts and blaring Arabic music. There is also the short, stocky guy who aptly wears a wife beater and proceeds to rough up the aforementioned young girl, presumably his girlfriend, prompting M. to call the police on more than one occasion. Finally, there is the tall, lanky one who is missing teeth and always smiles at D. and pats him on the head as he uses the old squeegee to drag the dirty water and suds from the floor right on to the walkway, leaving it there to dry.
On the first floor is a young couple in their mid to late twenties. He is a tall and slim pot head who wakes and bakes every morning to the tune of trance or house music, god knows I can’t tell the difference. She is quiet and petite, takes classes in something or other and works in customer service. She hates the smell of Hashish. I know this because the two have deafeningly loud arguments about the lack of direction in his life, or alternately, her constant nagging, that inevitably end in doors slamming and crying. I think the recent uprisings in Egypt and subsequent closing of the borders, which in turn has dried out the influx of hashish into Israel, has had a positive effect on this young couple. Since the great dry spell began I have not heard one argument.
In the apartment above them is a couple in their mid to late fifties who own their apartment and act as the Vaad Habayit, which translates as the Apartment Committee or Board. They are not married and both have children from previous marriages. On Fridays it is a bloody Brady Bunch reunion as both of their extended families converge on the apartment. At any given time you’ll find forty people in that tiny two bedroom apartment. They leave the door open and sit in groups of three on the stairwell and smoke cigarettes and argue loudly. The grandchildren run up and down the stairs screaming and yelling, usually at that time in the afternoon when we’re desperately trying to get D. to take his nap. Since they are religious, or at least keep Shabbat, they usually stick a toothpick in the hallway light switch to keep it on all day.
The apartment next to them was once rented to a Russian woman and her army-aged daughter. They left a few months ago and were replaced by a morbidly obese man who sits out on his window sill each day screaming obscenities at his lawyer on the phone. He sits there and chain smokes cigarettes, behind him a brown shelving unit full of VHS tapes. Every once in a while I’ll see him come down with a gym bag and get into a taxi. I’d venture a guess that the bag holds equal parts burekasim to gym clothes.
The apartment above us is rented to a married couple in their thirties. He’s a university professor, originally from The Netherlands and she is studying for her PhD. I hardly ever see or hear from them unless their hot water heater bursts, which it tends to do quite often, flooding their entire apartment, the one below it and the stairwell. No matter how many times I make a joke about him reconstructing the dykes in Amsterdam in our apartment building he fails to find the humor in it. Moreover, he quite often, and quite deliberately I might add, ignores me if he sees me on the street or in the supermarket.
The apartment next to them is vacant. It has been this way ever since we moved in three years ago. I did happen to see the owner of the apartment once a few years ago when she renovated the place. Instead of collecting the rubbish in great big bags like most people would do, she chose to sweep the debris down three flights of stairs creating huge, billowing dust clouds that left soot and grime in our collective lungs for days. Did I mention that M. has asthma?
The last apartment on the top floor is owned by a mouse-faced spinster who readers of this blog will recognize as the one with a severe feline phobia. She has at least one son who is ultra religious, Haredi, and several grandchildren. I can’t say how many other children she has, or grandchildren for that matter, because I always see a constant flow of religious men and children making their way up those flights of stairs. I often wonder whether or not she is running some sort of black hat brothel up there. It’s always the quiet ones.
The one and only time that this rag tag bunch of derelicts (me included) were ever congregated in one place and at the same time was in November of last year when the IDF went about bombing the shit out of Gaza in operation Column of Smoke. Since the apartment building was erected in the pre-mamad days (a mamad is a reinforced room), the instructions were to sit in the stairwell between the first and second floor. And so there we all were, united and coexisting in that wretched stairwell while sirens blared and missiles dropped. I turned to the Dutchie professor and jokingly said that I hoped the Hamas hit his hot water heater so his landlord would finally replace it. He didn’t laugh.