Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Save My Spot

He looked like a regular guy. His short cropped hair, half frame wire glasses, t-shirt (not too designer, not too sloppy) and well worn sandals all suggested a cafe patron with at least a moderately worldly frame of reference. So when he asked Jody to “save his spot” at the Rami Levy supermarket checkout line, it was hard to refuse.

“Save my spot” is one of the hardest things for the Western immigrant to Israel to get used to. It can occur at nearly any time in just about any public place: the line at the post office, the pharmacy, the bank. An optimist would say it’s simply a way of maximizing limited resources. You reserve your spot and then continue shopping. As long as you get back before your turn, no one gets hurt.

Others would call it plain chutzpah.

Usually we shrug it off and try to go with the flow. There are bigger battles to fry. And to protest this quintessentially Israeli behavior is to admit that we have not – nor may we ever – fully integrate into life here in our new home.

Plus the man with the wire frame glasses had a gentle look that said “trust me, I’m not here to screw you. I’m just covering all my bases.”

Well, looks can be deceiving.

He had maybe twenty items in his basket and he wanted to see if he could get through the "Seven Item Maximum" Express Line. That should have been a red flag right there.

He trotted off and was gone for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Jody and her basket slowly inched forward. It was a Thursday night and the store was overflowing with pre-Shabbat shoppers.

Jody spied the man with the wire frame glasses moving from check out lane to check out lane, trying to secure a space. The Express Lane wouldn’t let him in. He pestered the customer service desk.

And then, when Jody was finally next in line to check out, the man returned. He didn’t say anything but it was clear he expected his spot back.

Now, maybe there’s an etiquette in spot saving, something that, not having grown up here, we just don’t have the cultural background (some would say baggage) to pick up on. But it seemed clear to Jody that a fifteen minute sojourn was pushing it.

She gave him another quintessential Israeli gesture: she shrugged.

To no avail. The man in the wire frame glasses inched his cart up to Jody’s and angled it in such a way that there was no way to gracefully avoid confrontation. Someone had to back down.

The woman in front of Jody, who was now transferring items from her cart to the checkout counter, turned around and snarled at the man. “Go in back of her,” she said. “It’s only fair.”

“I was here first,” the man said. It was so incredibly childish that Jody let out a laugh. Like two kids wrangling over who gets the last scoop of ice cream.

This only increased the man’s determination. He pushed his cart forward again.

“What does it matter to you?” he said to Jody. “It’s not like you’re giving up on something you already had.”

“Be a gentleman,” the woman in front said.

Now, a native-born Israeli would have pushed back or turned to fisticuffs. A native-born Israeli would have yelled and made such a fuss that the man and his no longer charming cafe culture wire frame glasses would have been caustically embarrassed into retreat.

Jody let him through.

With a sneer, he drove home this battleground victory, hissing under his breath “Americans are so inflexible.”

How he could discern Jody's country of origin was anybody's guess. She hadn't said a word the entire time. But this latest declaration was too much for the woman in front who had taken the role of Jody’s defender.

“She’s just as Israeli as you or me,” she snapped. One look at Jody’s basket filled with Israeli brand milk and pizza and cornflakes and frozen chicken would confirm that assertion.

Jody was still too stunned by the whole incident. All she had intended to do was shop. She hadn’t gone scrapping for an international incident.

And then, the man with the wire frame glasses left his cart in place...and went off to shop some more. Unbelievable! Jody thought.

He returned just as the woman in front had placed her last item on the conveyer belt and was getting her credit card ready. He moved into place, quickly bagged his twenty items, paid, and triumphantly took off, having beaten the system...and his fellow shoppers.

Jody was loading her goods onto the conveyer belt when she spied him making a hasty return. She girded herself for another confrontation. But the wild beast look that had so taken over his visage had subsided. He was holding out his hand.

“I hope I didn’t upset you,” he said.

“Well you did,” Jody replied. She wasn’t letting him off the hook for ruining her day quite so easily.

“Oh, well..” he said, hesitating for a moment. “Well, um...then Shabbat Shalom!”

And that was it. As far as he was concerned, the matter was closed. Bygones should be bygones and any animosity from this point forward would be as inappropriate as...well, his behavior just a few moments ago.

What could Jody do? Not return the greeting? That would be so un-Israeli. And she’d already been accused of that. But maybe there was something to learn here. About how Israelis deal with conflict. Or muster an apology.

She’d think about that later. For now, there was only one thing to say.

“Shabbat Shalom,” Jody wished the man with the wire frame glasses. She shook his hand and he smiled. Jody suppressed another laugh and smiled back.

And then they walked their baskets through the sliding glass door and out into the parking lot together.

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