Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Driving Through Terror

I was talking on the phone to my brother Dave in California as I pulled my car to the entrance of Jerusalem. We had just started a lively discussion about new business opportunities when I noticed that the street in front of me, opposite the Central Bus Station, was jammed.

Oh great, I thought. Must be a suspicious object on the street. Not surprising. Not in Jerusalem these days. But come on already, it’s 11:20 at night. Now I’ll never get home.

Suddenly, as if a hornet’s nest had been beaten open with the sharpest stick in the swamp, I was nearly overrun by a swarm of ambulances and motorcycles. They came at me from the left – where the Magen David Adom station was located – from behind me, from in front of me too.

The lights and the sirens flew around my car and I felt as if I’d been stung. My entire body started to ache. I was disoriented as I looked around – should I try to go forward? Move to the side? How? None of the other cars quite knew what to do either.

I was for a brief moment reminded of when the big San Francisco earthquake of 1989 struck. Then, too, I was in my car, in the middle of the street when the world as I knew it gave way and everything went all fuzzy.

When I noticed the signs on the motorcycles, I knew.

Zaka” is the Hebrew acronym for the team of ultra-orthodox men who rush to the scene of a bombing to collect all the scattered body parts and pieces of human flesh. It means “Identification of Disaster Victims.”

“Brian, are you there? What’s going on?”

My brother was still on the phone. And Jody was calling on the other line.

“Just a minute, wait,” I said to Dave and then accidentally disconnected him while trying to get to Jody.

“I think it’s right in front of me,” I said. “Something must have happened right here at the Central Bus Station.”

“I don’t think so,” Jody replied. “The boom was too loud. The whole house trembled. It’s got to be in our neighborhood.”

It was. CafĂ© Hillel. On Emek Refaim. The glitziest, jazziest establishment on the street, converted only recently from, of all things, a Kabbalah Center. All decked out in glass and chrome with a funky black and red color scheme, always packed. It was obvious, inevitable…

And less than five minutes walk away from our apartment. I needed to get home.


But how? I couldn’t take any of my usual routes since they all converged roughly in the location of the attack.

I began weaving my way through unfamiliar streets, cutting a path through Mea Shearim around to the Old City and then up Derech Hebron. Everywhere, people were stopped on the street, talking in cell phones, listening to car radios. Stunned. Or in shock.

I’ve been close to attacks before. But I’ve never tried to drive through the ensuing chaos.

All the way home, the swarm never let up. The city became a living, breathing video game. Police and army vehicles, their blue lights spinning, sirens blaring, came at me from all sides. And more ambulances, more motorcycles.

All rules of the road were ignored. Not just the emergency vehicles but ordinary cars and trucks, too, ran red lights, weaved like drunkards. The traffic alternatively stopped and started again. A car cut me off and zoomed round the traffic circle – in the wrong direction.

It was after midnight when I finally pulled into my garage. And then I was safely in my wife’s arms.

The TV provided the gory details, most of it indistinguishable from the previous attack, and the one before that.

Except for the familiarity.

This was our street. Our back yard. Where we shop and eat and swim at what’s advertised as “Jerusalem’s Only Olympic Sized Pool.”

“Maybe I should go down there,” I suggested.

“Why would you want to do that?” Jody shot back.

“I don’t know. To see.”

As the sirens on the TV competed for attention with the sounds still blaring outside our window, I couldn’t help wonder: which were more real? Images accompanied by a newscaster’s breathless commentary emanating from a small lit box in our family room, or sights taken in with one’s own living eyes?

At 1:15 AM, after the crowds had dispersed and I was confident there was no second bomber still lurking, I headed out.

It wasn’t like I was going to be able to sleep anyway.

The police were guarding a tough line, keeping the gawkers – yeah, people like me – at bay. I navigated around the site, like a groom circling his bride under the chuppah, trying to find a vantage point. I needed to claim this space. I needed to make her mine.

The street scene at this hour was vastly different than my wild ride home. The ambulances were mostly gone, replaced now by tow trucks and news vans, their spidery antennas reaching up above the devastation. Portable generators illuminated the streets.

A group of Zaka volunteers milled about. Their plastic-covered shoes played a muffled scraping sound on the rough pavement. A few were speaking Yiddish.

Yiddish? When was the last time we heard that in our neighborhood?

I went out again in the early morning. The usual buses and cars were already speeding by the spot, the street filled with children walking and biking to school, aware but moving on. This is the drive that keeps us going. To live a normal life. Somehow. Someday.

But I won’t forget, how on this night, I drove through terror. And how it drove through me.

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