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Stuff people leave on benches

A Tel Aviv tale of giveaways and takeaways
Stuff on a bench (Miriam Herschlag)
Stuff on a bench (Miriam Herschlag)

When the Tel Aviv municipal workers renovated the little park behind my building, they ripped nearly everything out except a few old trees and the bomb shelter. The pavement, the lawn, the toddler playground equipment and the benches — all gone.

After months of replacing all the underground pipes, laying in new pavement, expanding the playground, landscaping, putting in a little community garden, the very last thing to be added back was the benches. Those benches took ages. And this caused me no small amount of anxiety. Not so much because I ever sit on them — I’m usually ambling by with the dog or whizzing past on my bicycle — but because where are people supposed to leave all the items they want to give away? There’s always that one bench for clothing and nicknacks.

I like to keep tabs. I’ll see some kids clothes or womens stuff, and swing back later to find most of the items gone. It’s satisfying. I like to imagine origins and destinations, and contemplate the zigzag journeys of the objects left on benches. Two cotton dresses, a cardigan, and a red lace bustier in a Stella & Lori shopping bag left conveniently open. Baby PJ’s, a swimsuit, and four little T-shirts in a bag from Fox Kids.

Of course, I know benches are not the only way to ditch or find old stuff: WIZO runs drop off centers; the city has collection bins. Those are good for that multi-garbage-bags-full culling that comes with moving house, say, or, God forbid, a death. And, yes, I know that every developed, consumeristic city has a give and take economy. There are the familiar curbside treasure piles, with the “TAKE ME HOME” signs taped on them. But I’m talking about the delivery platform for more modest offerings of just a few items.

Stopping to browse through whatever is on offer fits with the rhythm of Tel Aviv — a great walking city, where the pace is moderate, perhaps because Tel Aviv walkers are rarely going very far. I’m told that the bench distribution system may be used even more in Jerusalem, and that makes sense. Jerusalem walkers have hills to climb and eternity to ponder. Neither city has that long-legged, high-speed, get-outta-my-way marching pace you find in New York.

I’ve lived in New York and I have seen piles of excellent furniture by the curb. In Tel Aviv, it’s usually smaller scale. The aforementioned clothes, books as well. You find them either on benches, or arranged on low walls, near the trash bins, as if to say, “You! You see where I’m headed. My fate is in your hands.”

My son’s bookshelves are full of such finds: six tractates of Talmud Babli printed in 1968 in partnership with Maariv Publishing. The three-volume set of Hamilon Hechadash, or “New Dictionary,” the edition of that new dictionary having been published in 1982. But my daughter is by far the more avid scavenger. Her genetic love of bargains combines perfectly with an ideological embrace of reduce and reuse. Luckily the tendency to acquire stuff is tempered by her Simple Living values and peripatetic lifestyle.

Now, I myself wasn’t above schlepping home a great little shelf unit that you see when you enter our home, but I have stopped asking my girl where she got that African-patterned dress from. Or that retro skirt. Or that handknit sweater. Or that silk scarf. I Found It is not the name of any cool new Tel Aviv pop-up store, though it should be.

With my daughter temporarily back home with us, I was getting more and more queasy about the treasures she brings into the apartment, plagued by thoughts of bacteria, fleas and, a new, imported, horror at the possibility of bedbugs. Heading home down Nordau Boulevard a few days ago, I decided to put my foot down — absolutely no more stuff from the street. Of course that’s when I saw a bag. On a bench. With the most beautiful dress, perfect for my Bohemian 22-year-old. I left it there, but I felt guilty.

It’s a force too strong to fight, and Judaism teaches that you mustn’t set a law that the community cannot follow. So I shouldn’t feel too bad about that fancy espresso machine I brought home on Tuesday, should I? I mean, it’s in perfect condition.

This was my “Vadda Country” segment when I was a guest on the recent “Big, Beautiful Wall” edition of The Promised Podcast. Give it a whirl. I should also mention that Facebook friends provided helpful input on the subject of Stuff on Benches, including expressions of horror at the practice, which mainly proves that I have Facebook friends who live in Raanana. Raanana is very, very clean. I do not endorse littering. Nor do I champion the use of espresso capsules, which, I’m told, currently account for 83 percent of landfills, the rest being composed of drinking straws. Therefore, the perfectly good espresso machine I found on Dizengoff Street is going back onto a bench. I don’t know what I was thinking.

About the Author
I edit The Times of Israel's Ops & Blogs section, and I also co-host the storytelling live show and podcast WhyWhyWhy! (That needlework in my cover photo is by Yocheved Herschlag Muffs.)
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