Fiction | A Beggar’s Place
It’s raining again, and Estrella takes her green umbrella with her. Six, seven years ago, when she could afford to catch a cold now and then, she left her umbrella back at her apartment, deliberately. Only a cruel person would refuse to give a few shekels to a poor old woman, cold and soaking, huddled under an olive tree with no umbrella. But these days she has to be careful. She’s older now. Catching a nasty cold could really do her in. Nothing’s worse than Jerusalem rain. The drops seep into the bones and settle there permanently.
She packs her lunch, her battered maroon Bible that belonged to her father, may he rest in peace, newspapers, magazines, and other reading material, stuffing everything into plastic shopping bags, and catches the bus to Sabbath Square. A block away, on Strauss Street, she gets off and bursts open her umbrella, nearly poking one of the beggars, Mister Rags, in the ear, but she hurries on, eager to get to work, her plastic bags billowing in the wind like a mast of sails. She scurries past Old Moishe on his bus bench, his white beard damp and stringy from the rain, and barely nods hello. She has no respect for a beggar who can’t even be bothered to shake his can at the passersby. At the same time, she’s relieved—one less competitor to worry about.
A few feet past the bus bench, she stops short. There, right in front of the Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, sits a man in her spot. A shock! A man sitting on her ledge—in the same place where she always sits, for years now. It’s a good spot, everyone knows this. The olive tree gives off shade and she likes to lean against the trunk whenever she gets tired. Prime real estate! There’s even a groove in the cement, heart-like—her own body made that groove, she’s sure. But now, this intruder.
Gripping her umbrella, she moves a step closer. Maybe the man just needs a place to rest. Sure! Look at the weather. Through the blur of rain she peers at the huge man with two mountains for shoulders, his skin the same olive brown color as her own. He must be in his late fifties, younger than herself by a couple of years. A broken black umbrella flaps over his bald head like a bat’s wing. His two fleshy knees hold in place a dented tin can for contributions. Unbelievable. No, not a rest stop. An invasion!
She stands there, blinking rapidly, squeezing her umbrella, her eyes dazed. Doesn’t he know the rules, the way things are done here? Every beggar has his place—Old Moishe on the bus bench, Mister Rags under the striped Laundromat awning, Henchka with the big behind near the falafel stand. Estrella takes another step toward the man, and he lifts his baggy eyelids and looks past her, as if she were a large box or a tree or some ugly piece of furniture blocking his view. Before she can fully register this insult, his massive arm shoots up and sends her scuttling away. Old Moishe rocks on the bus bench and makes a clucking noise as if he senses her distress. With nowhere else to go, she carefully eases her haunches onto the same bench as Moishe, and seats herself at the far end, her bags coming to a rest at her side.
Grunting, she collapses her umbrella and props a plump knee on the bench. She fiercely stares down the large man sitting just a few feet across from her. How dare he—it’s her ledge, hers only. She found this spot after much trial and error. From her perch, she always gets first crack at all the religious people walking by, not to mention the tourists, so sloppy and free with their dollar bills from America. In the early years, she camped at the Central Bus Station. Later, she’d stood next to the old water fountain at the Western Wall, and after that, outside the gates of the Israel Museum. None of those places holds a candle to the ledge, but now this stupid man comes and parks himself in her spot, as if he has every right to be there.
The rain passes. Men and women, most of them pale-skinned Ashkenazis, emerge from under awnings and religious articles stores. Old Moishe won’t stop muttering prayers about the world to come. Meanwhile, the big man on the ledge folds his umbrella shut. What’s that on his head—she squints an eye at him—a yarmulke? Yes, a big, fat, velvet yarmulke spread out on his fat, bald head, and she trembles. In the beggar’s world, these things count for something. A little blood on the tourniquet, a nice black yarmulke, a tattoo on the arm from the machanot—the camps: this is what brings in the money. Then she glances sideways at Old Moishe, bent and slumped, staring out with his no-color eyes, his bony hands twitching and clefting the air before him as if separating between kosher and treif, pure and impure, and other endless Ashkenazi laws. Everyone knows him as the most pious beggar on the block. A dos. And he has a tattoo. And yet, he gets the least money, doesn’t he? And she settles back.
A shortish young woman pushing a stroller, a religious woman, no doubt, pauses before Estrella’s stoop to discreetly hoist her stockings. The young mother catches Estrella’s eye and immediately sticks her little hand inside a blue diaper bag—probably looking for a measly coin, Estrella sneers to herself. Such effort for a coin. Better not tax yourself, lady.
“Excuse me, G’veret,” Estrella says in a small, sweet, light voice, the voice she used on her husband (may he rest in peace) before they got married. “I need to buy a magnifying glass so I can read the Torah.” She holds up her battered Bible with the gold letters nearly rubbed off and kisses it on both sides with proper reverence. “My eyes don’t see so well.” The young mother looks startled for a moment, and then her small pious face breaks into a beam. She digs deep into her diaper bag and plucks out a twisted bill, which she presses into Estrella’s hand.
“Grandma, go and study,” the young woman says, “a blessing on you,” and Estrella offers her a humble smile as she whisks the bill into the yellow plastic bag where she keeps all her earnings.
The man on the ledge gives the young mother a hopeful look, and she tosses some coins into his can, too. At this, Estrella’s jaw and neck tighten. The loafer is benefiting from her labor and her talent, while he just sits there!
She stews over this injustice, but then a new terrible thought assaults her: Maybe he overheard her words. Little pulses of fear prick into her palms. It will be only a matter of time before he realizes why she chose this spot—right next to the Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. He could steal her lines, her techniques! And she has spent years developing them.
She gazes at a bare-headed man who walks by carrying a gray briefcase. There goes another customer. If she didn’t have to worry if that beggar would overhear, she would’ve called out to the briefcase man, “I need to buy a magnifying glass to read Ha’aretz,” and the man would laugh, charmed by the idea of a fat Moroccan peasant like herself reading such a fancy leftist paper, and he’d send an extra measure of coins her way. To the teenagers, to the lovers, to the Mizrachi patriots, to the kibbutzniks, to the occasional nun, she always says the right thing, and instead of a few shekels, she gets much more than those other beggars who have no real plan. A magnifying glass is nothing to sneeze at. It costs at least 30 shekels. Only she, smart Estrella, knows how to talk to every man in his own language.
Of course, her eyesight isn’t that bad, and even if it was, one magnifying glass would do the job, and truth be told, she hardly ever reads the Bible (that was for school days), but it’s good to help people to give, it makes them better people, and if what’s good for them is also good for her—doesn’t everyone profit?
But this bull of a man has wrecked her morning wages. She’s too frightened now to say anything to the people streaming past. Instead, she watches him with a bat-like radar. His thick hands, unusually large and hairy, protrude from his frayed sleeves. He shakes his can and calls out, “Tzedakah, tzedakah,” in an accent that speaks to her of distant places, maybe even Rabat, the town in Morocco where she was born.
Just then, a teenage girl in a shiny raincoat prances past, and as soon as Estrella leans forward and prepares to call out, the man stops his can shaking and hunches forward too, as if to grab her words. Estrella immediately sits back and shuts her mouth.
The hour stretches toward lunch, and she counts her shekels. Hmf. Only half her usual amount, all thanks to that bald man! He fervently calls out strange blessings to the men and women going by—may your wife’s breath always be sweet, may your camel never get lost, may your enemy’s intestines shrivel and stink—and a few people stop and scramble for some shekels in their bags. Estrella fumes. That’s her money going into his dirty pocket!
Just then, a young Arab boy teeters past, pushing a wheelbarrow cluttered with toy goat drums and other knick-knacks. The bald man raises his hand in greeting, and for the first time Estrella sees a crack of a smile on his broad face.
Look how friendly he’s acting—toward an Arab, yet. Estrella ponders this odd thing, fingering her hamsa necklace that she wears to protect herself from the evil eye. The young Arab bends his head toward the big bald man and says something. Estrella hears nothing, but she sees the man hesitate and then nod. Now the boy’s face scrunches up as if he tasted a bug or something rotten. He leans his head closer, his skinny lips pursed, as if about to plant a kiss, but instead he lets loose a knot of spit into the man’s dented can. Thwat! Estrella sucks in her breath and squeezes her long, loose skirt. The bald man lumbers to his feet. He shouts in Arabic, violent, guttural sounds, and shakes two large fists at the boy, but the young peddler has already pushed off toward Sabbath Square, his hands tight on his wheelbarrow.
Estrella quivers, her heart jumping so hard she nearly yanks off her hamsa necklace. God should protect her! The curtains have parted before her eyes. Realization dawns: This man is no Jew but an Arab! An Arab pretending to be a devout Jew! She saw, she heard the Arabic words with her own two ears, no, he can’t fool her anymore. Not Estrella. A hot righteous fury simmers in her veins. Impostor! You don’t belong here! Indignation blazes forth from her keen dark eyes: Go, leave! Her eyes do the talking.
The Arab picks up his can and squats back on the ledge (her ledge!). An obstinacy settles in his jowls: Make me.
A distant door bangs shut. Someone is coming out of the Institute. She cranes her neck: Shoshy, the American. Usually Estrella despises the social worker with her annoying talk about government work programs, but now her eyes thrill to see the American.
Estrella hurries over, clutching her umbrella. “Look!” she says in a hoarse, loud whisper. She jabs her umbrella at the bald man who sits there, gingerly probing the folds of his belly, his expression bland and innocent as a cow. Shoshy turns and stares a moment. Her hand creeps toward her purse. Estrella impatiently brushes her arm aside. “He’s an Arab!” she hisses. “Don’t you see?” She thrusts again with the umbrella. “He’s just pretending to be a Jew to get money from us. Disgusting!”
Shoshy looks at Estrella and then at the Arab, and with that shrug of hers, a shrug that makes things equal that never will be, she drops some coins into his can and some into her own hand. Estrella grunts, incredulous. She considers throwing the coins back at the American, then stuffs them into any old plastic bag, not caring about the order. This is what things have come to: An Arab man —a faker, a liar!—squatting on her very own ledge with his fleshy legs spread apart, pretending to be a religious Jew, all so he could get more money. Worst of all, nobody cares. Idiots! No wonder a Jew can’t go out and buy a carton of milk or some butter without worrying about a bomb exploding him into bits. The whole country is turning into a garbage heap before her very eyes.