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Jason Fredric Gilbert
Pushing the boundaries of weird since 1978
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Gimme shelter

It’s not the reinforced walls or blast door that protects the people as much as it is their impossible optimism
A young girl inside a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv as rocket barrages from Gaza rain down on the city, on May 16, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A young girl inside a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv as rocket barrages from Gaza rain down on the city, on May 16, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

They only come here when they’re desperate. It’s true. I’m not exaggerating. Sometimes I go months — years — between visits. When they finally do show up, they leave before I have the chance to appreciate how much they’ve changed. 

In normal times — though if you’ve been around for as long as I have, those seem few and far between — they outright ignore me. They walk past me without even a moment’s pause for all that I’ve done for them. If they do, by some miracle, see me, it’s only as a storage facility. Like I’m some kind of warehouse for the knickknacks that dwell in that purgatory of usefulness — maybe some day they’ll have use for it, maybe not — but they’ll just keep it here with me for safekeeping. Just in case. There could be, God forbid, a funeral and those dusty old Keter chairs, broken and wobbly, might come in handy. Or, and this is far more likely dear reader, they may need it when hosting their grandkids for Passover. Or for a kid’s birthday party. Best to keep them here with me, just in case. 

My whole life has been a just in case. I guess there’s comfort in knowing your place in this world. Some of them that come through here never know their place. Scratch that. Knowing one’s place is different than understanding your place. Take the surfboard in the back. The teen surfer with the long hair and the smile that broke hearts up and down the beach in Bat Yam, is long gone. In his place a weary old surfer, bald, broken down and washed up, sitting on the plastic chair while his grandchildren huddled around the smartphone. I don’t feel sorry for him. He’s happier now, despite the prickliness of his few remaining hairs. He’s happier now, I imagine, because he understands that his place in this world is not so different than mine. He’s here to protect them, those grandkids, while his kids (and ours) protect them all. 

Sometimes the cleaning lady stops in and leaves her mop upside down with the dripping wet rag in the bucket. She has no interest in my overall cleanliness, which I find troubling. Like a barber who has no interest in your hair or a dentist that refuses to look in your mouth. I would say no one has an interest in my overall cleanliness until they come over and realize how awful I smell. They screw their faces and whisper things like, “I can’t stay in here another minute with that smell!” one of them will say, as if I had some say in the matter. 

“We have to stay a bit longer. It hasn’t even been five minutes,” another will say, while shuffling around the rusted bicycles in the back. There’s a bottle of bleach in the corner. It says Kosher for Passover and the Hebrew year — תשנ”ח

Every once in a while I’ll get a surprise visit from the children playing in the nearby playground. They rush in, screaming and hollering and take up seats on the thin straw mat on the floor, as though a theatrical show is about to start. Their parents, weary and tired, herd them in while silently judging my shabby appearance. It’s better than the alternative, I can almost hear them think, but if it were up to them, they wouldn’t spend a single second here with me if they didn’t have to. Especially not with the kids. The kids, I’m told, are scared of me. It’s not my fault. I’m not trying to be scary. The creepy, colorful handprints on the stained walls don’t help. I look like a scene from a horror movie. The flickering fluorescent light doesn’t help my cause. I’m not here to scare the children. I’m here to shelter them.

I’m a dying breed in this world. I guess you could say it’s part of a larger trend in society of privatization of experience. We don’t go to cinemas anymore because we can stream the latest film on a 60-inch screen in our living rooms. We don’t have to go to the office anymore because we can just use one of the kids’ rooms as a makeshift office and Google-meet from there. We don’t do anything TOGETHER anymore. The idea of community — of communal spaces — is replaced, and I’m not making a judgement about it, just an observation. I had a role as a community space where people would gather and discuss politics, culture and family, and that role is coming to an end. I see it, quite literally. I’m number 11. Numbers 3, 5, 7 and 9 have all undergone Tama renovations to add elevators and a safe room in each apartment. It’s only a matter of time before I, too, number 11, become a relic of the past, like the asimon for pay phones or the Susita cars. What will become of the shopping cart with the broken wheel or the stepladder left behind by some construction worker in 2006? What will become of the smiles on the faces of the neighbors of #11 when they see each other — in such dire circumstances in the middle of the night — for the first time in weeks or months? It’s those impromptu gatherings here, where new tenants mingle with the old, where children pet the frightened dogs, where laughter and mirth can be heard in spite of (and in defiance of) the harpish cries of the air raid sirens overhead. 

My life has been bookended by great conflict. I was first built In the late ’80s. It was then I offered the young couples of #11 shelter from the scud missiles of Saddam Hussein. Now I offer the same couples, grandparents, shelter from the Hamas-made pipe missiles. Nothing about me has changed, but if I look around at all of them in here, I see that they’re the ones who’ve changed. The hope — the optimism of spirit — that once filled my dusty walls with satisfaction has been replaced with a bleak hopelessness for the future. 

I guess I won’t be here to shelter them in the next war, but I hope they’re able to find a way to shelter each other. Because it’s not these four reinforced walls, it’s not the blast door, and it’s not even the floors above that have been sheltering them all these years, it’s that impossible optimism they have as a people that has kept them alive throughout. 

As for me, well, I could have been a dentist’s office, a repair shop for bicycles, or maybe even a recording studio for an indie band, but none of those would have given me quite the same satisfaction. Now, like the giving tree in the classic children’s book, I’ve given the residents of #11 all I’ve had to give, and they, grown and weary, with the demands of work and family, have one debt left to me; to find a space in their building or in their life to come together with their neighbors to shelter each other. 

Yours truly, 

The Building’s Mamad

About the Author
Jason Fredric Gilbert is a film and music video director, published author and acclaimed parallel parker; His Independent Film,"'The Coat Room" won "Best in Fest" at the 2006 Portland Underground Film Festival. He is also the author of two books of screenplays, "Miss Carriage House" and the follow up collection of screenplays "Reclining Nude & The Spirit of Enterprise" He currently lives in Or Yehuda and solves crossword puzzles in the bathroom. Please slap him in the face if you see him.
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