We love it very much here in Israel. At the same time, though, we are dealing with the unusual dynamic of being profiled by the locals. One of the most pronounced illustrations of this is when you grab a taxi here on the streets of Jerusalem.
I have to add that it is on the streets, because if you take a taxi parked in front of the King David or Waldorf-Astoria, you may be paying 50 percent more than you would otherwise. And who wants to overpay if you do not have to?
I have to say this first: I love the taxi drivers here. They are the salt of the earth; in a sense, they are the lifeblood of the country. Many are IDF veterans, and they have seen the best and the worst of what Israel has to offer and what Jews have had to endure over the decades.
Still, business is business, and these men are not driving all day — and some deep into the night — for the fun of it. Many are in the driver’s seat until they cannot keep their eyes open, in order to make a few shekels and be able to support their families.
But that does not mean that they have to overcharge us, or, shall I say, try to rip us off, just because they have sized us up as being tourist types from New York. I could not believe my ears last week when a driver asked where we were from and we said the Five Towns — and he said that we give that impression (though he did not say it in those words). On one level, of course, that is a compliment, but I doubt he meant it that way.
I don’t think I’m paranoid per se, but a similar thing happened in a Jerusalem restaurant last week. We made reservations at one of the most in-demand eateries in Jerusalem — Jacko’s Street. We arrived early, the place was about half-full, and they told us that, yes, they have our reservation but it is for seating at the bar.
What? The bar? Who asked to be seated at the bar?
We’ve been to Jacko’s before, located in the heart of the gentrified area of Jerusalem known as Machane Yehuda. This area has become the hub of the city with lines outside the doors of most restaurants and the streets teeming with people. There were three young women seating diners and we protested to them, saying that we did not reserve the bar and that we were not told the seats for dinner would be at the bar.
They looked at one another for a few minutes, checked their computer screens, and then somehow magically came up with a table for two that was fairly large and in a nice part of the place. There was really no need at that point to inquire as to what that no-table-available charade was all about. The important thing was that the food was quite good and the place did fill up about a half-hour after we arrived but no one seemed to need our table, so that was good.
Other than Jacko’s, we were at Piccolino, which is off Ben Yehuda Street in the Kikar Musica, and one evening we tried a place called Pompidou on Emek Refaim. The short review is that Piccolino is great, but Pompidou not so great.
Back to my friends driving taxis here in Israel. I told you last week about Shmulik, one of our heroes in Bnei Brak, but I hopped into another taxi on Rechov Allenby in Tel Aviv last week. As soon as I entered the cab I said to the driver that I can tell he has a good and happy life and that he is satisfied with the work he is doing. He asked how I knew that, and I told him that the taxi is spotless both inside and out, and there is no stench of cigarettes or cigars inside — and that just creates the impression that things are good.
The driver smiled and said that he quit smoking 26 years ago and never had a cigarette again. I said to him that he was probably happily married as well, and he nodded his head in the affirmative. So there you have it — clean taxi, good life.
Now a word about the size of the seats in back of the taxis. I’m not a tall person but rather built low to the ground. That said, how does anyone over 5’8” get into those taxis and then manage to maneuver themselves out when they arrive at their destination? I find myself practically contorting myself to get into the back seat and out once we arrive at the destination.
I can manage, but how do the tall folks get in and out of these vehicles? And then to add to the challenge, very often in small cars with good-sized drivers, the drivers have their seat pushed back almost into my lap if I am sitting directly behind them, which is my usual place.
Then there is the matter of pricing. Most taxi drivers just press the meter when you enter their car. Others will ask you whether you want to take the trip on the meter or at a fixed price. Obviously, the drivers — or at least some drivers — prefer off-the-meter fares, possibly because it is not reported income, so let’s leave it at that.
But it is not such a simple matter. If a driver asks if you want the ride on or off the meter, that usually means his preference is most likely that the transaction be off the meter. If you choose off the meter, that means you will get anything from a slightly to an exorbitantly inflated price, but you will get where you are going quickly.
Now, if you reject his offer and insist on a metered excursion, you are running the risk of seeing parts of the city you’ve never seen before on your way to wherever. It would seem to me that if you get into a taxi you can assume that the ride is going according to regulations on the meter unless there is a conversation on the matter. Too often, however, the opposite is the case here. If neither party says anything, there is a good chance the meter is not going on and you will pay 60 shekel for a 30-shekel fare.
And that’s not such a bad thing either. Except for the non-Jewish drivers — who are plentiful, by the way — it is, in reality, not possible to pay excessively for these rides. It’s all a matter of charity on some level. Perhaps that is not their motive, but maybe they just don’t realize it.