Thursday, June 12, 2003

Hole in One

I am standing with my landlord and we’re looking at a big hole in the wall. A hole that I was responsible for making. And the landlord is not happy.

Not happy at all.

It all started the day before. We had a leak in one of our pipes. It seemed simple enough to fix and we hate bothering the landlord with the little things. So we called our own plumber to have it fixed. Chick-chack we thought.

Well, the plumber got to the ailing pipe all right. But while he was fixing the pipe, another sprung a leak.

“Happens all the time,” he said. “The pipes are old. You can never tell.”

“OK,” I muttered. “What choice do we have? Go ahead and fix the second pipe too.”

Before I got even half way up the stairs, I heard loud banging. I raced back down and found that he was knocking a hole in the wall in order to get his equipment positioned properly to twist the stubborn second pipe out of its socket.

Now you have to understand a little about Israeli construction. Many internal walls are made of a substance known in Hebrew as geves and in English as some-flimsy-plaster-that-would-never-see-the-light-of-day-in-North American-housing-construction. It’s thin and easy to put up. Even easier to knock down. As far as the plumber was concerned, what he'd done was par for the course. He’d made plenty of holes in his time.

But in his enthusiasm, the plumber had also broken clean through to the other side of the wall which was the guest bathroom. The landlord had put some very lovely tiles there, and now four of these were lying crumbled on the floor in sad little pieces.

“Stop,“ I yelled at the plumber. Then calming for a moment: “I think we’d better call the landlord and see what he says.”

Which brings us up to the present.

Now, our landlord is a very straight guy. He prides himself on his honesty and disposition which is always calm, always measured. But as we stood there, I could sense him trying with all his might to contain an uncharacteristic rage. He just kept shaking his head and muttering “This is a problem. I don’t know what we’re going to do. The insurance... This is a problem. Yes, this is a big problem.”

We sat down at the kitchen table and I offered him a glass of Mei Eden mineral water while we proceeded to work through what was going to happen next. I was already imagining the worst: a large bill we couldn’t afford. Or even eviction. “On account of being too much trouble” the documents would somberly read.

Before we dived in, he mentioned something about what he was doing work-wise these days. And it just so happened that there was an intersection between his work and what Jody is doing with her financial household management courses. I thought there might be a potential shidduch here - a match.

So I indulged him. I asked him questions about his work. And he began to talk. And as he talked, his face lightened up. His shoulders relaxed. He became more animated and free.

He went on for a long time and I didn’t try to stop him. I nodded and smiled and asked pertinent questions at the right times.

After awhile, he said “OK, let’s get back to business.”

I braced myself.

“Look,” he began. “This could have happened to anyone. If I had done it myself, I probably would have broken through the wall too. It’s no big deal really. The insurance will cover it.”

Was this the same man I was standing with a half an hour ago? Apparently, a little active listening had worked wonders. But it was no trick. I truly was interested in what he had to say. Not to mention helping Jody by making the match.

Still I wondered: was this experience somehow indicative of the inner workings of the average Israeli? A real-time version of the old cliche about the sabra – the cactus plant that’s all prickles on the outside yet tender on the inside if you just know how to get in?

Maybe the rapid transformation had something to do with the bus bombing in downtown Jerusalem the day before? A sense of perspective washing over him as the personal connection between us increased.

Or would the same thing have happened anywhere, with anyone, in similar circumstances?

The question was certainly interesting on a theoretical level. But tachlis –the practical benefit: we had just turned what could have been a very ugly and expensive situation into an unexpected win/win. And maybe even a friendship.

“Listen,” I added, almost nonchalantly at this point, “At least let us pay the insurance company’s deductible. After all, it was our fault. We broke through the wall in the first place.’

“Nahhh...” he replied, shrugging off my magnanimousness. “We’ll split it.”

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