Sharing a cab in Jerusalem requires making a leap of faith

NO man on earth is as imperturbable as a Nesher cabbie -- the fellow who drives a shared taxi from Jerusalem to the airport and back again.

Sharing suggests merely that seven or eight strangers are traveling together in a tall white van in order to save money and trouble; the rattling of their luggage in the back reassures them that it hasn't fallen out. But in this country of intense individuals the act of sharing a Nesher -- of being compressed with respect to thighs and shoulders -- forces sentiments up from the heart and out of the mouth. Sharing a Nesher to the airport obliges a skullcapped gentleman to question the driver's route; each turn becomes a matter of metaphysical urgency. Sharing entitles a glamorous young woman to complain loudly about making a trip without her boyfriend, who was viciously not invited to the third wedding of her second cousin. "Why bother with Cousin Yael's wedding to begin with?" she asks me. "The new husband won't last any longer than the others." Sharing confers on a matron the right to know the contents of her seatmate's canvas sack, which not only is taking up its allotted space on the floor but is expanding, attacking her own modest tote, which contains only a refrigerator. Sharing gives a thin old man the privilege of remarking that the new moon over a charred forest could be a wisp of the fire that swept through those trees four years earlier. Yehuda Amichai might like the image. "'Leaves without trees must wander,'" the old man softly quotes. "'A heavy mystery lies over the wood,'" says a young man, also very thin, who until now has been as quiet as the moon. He is quoting Bialik. In the dark interior of the cab, lit at rhythmic intervals by the highway lamps, the young man and the old exchange a look of poetic complicity.

The Nesher cabbie drives on, unmoved by the prattle behind him -- directions, complaints, squabbles, and recitations. Unmoved is what we want him to be. We have put our trust in him; here in the Middle East that is no trivial act.

THE Nesher Company, which operates the most illustrious fleet of shared taxis in Israel, claims a perfect record. Querying friends and acquaintances, I found only one person who thought he'd heard of an incident in which Nesher failed to arrive on time. This had happened so long ago that the mode of transportation was probably a camel. But despite the company's reputation, a new customer must make a leap of faith. Say your flight is on a Thursday. You telephone Nesher on Tuesday; you are told that it already has its hands full booking Wednesday. "Call back tomorrow, if you please." (The polite phrase fools nobody; your pleasure is of little consequence.) You call back on Wednesday, braced for the news that Thursday is now booked. But no: the voice, though not exactly accommodating in tone, accommodates. "So when's your flight?" it asks. "And what's your address? And what's your name? And what's your telephone number?" When you divulge all this, the voice tells you what time you'll be picked up. Be ready, if you please -- or even if you don't.

During my year in Jerusalem, Nesher never failed me. It picked me up at five in the morning to catch an 8:30 plane to London; it ploughed through the unholy afternoon traffic to get me onto a chartered flight to Istanbul; time after time it arrived promptly at half past nine in the evening so that I could board the 1:00 A.M. jumbo to Kennedy. I was often one of the first passengers to be picked up. The taxi then bounced from hill to hill, from hotel to balconied apartment to shuttered house, until, warm and aromatic, loaded with people and luggage, it turned onto the westbound highway.

My favorite time to Nesher was late at night. I stared out the taxi window at corners of Jerusalem I'd explored under the sun. Under the moon their details vanished; their mystery deepened. A tiled courtyard now glittered like a cache of cursed diamonds. A popular hummus stall seemed to shelter hunched bandits. Streets where by day learned men hurried past in gaberdines, their pale faces averted from the temptations of this world, became by night alleys where faces disappeared altogether; coats walked untenanted, and broad hats floated a few inches above spectral shoulders.

Like a spacecraft the Nesher cab probes glowing little cul-de-sacs. It scoots along the rims of valleys. It trundles past landmarks and government buildings, all bathed in floodlights. And then we are out of the dry city, the city of silvery light. We hurtle along the highway, our fates fleetingly linked. "My ridiculous cousin," mutters the young woman. "'Tomorrow storm shall carry you away,'" says the young lover of poetry. The Nesher fetches up at the airport, which lies low under palms like a furtive Caribbean landing strip. Our intimacy vanishes. We tumble out of the cab and pay our fares and wheel our suitcases off to our respective flights.

But we'll be back, and the Nesher taxis will be lined up waiting for us. The drivers sometimes perform a rough triage on the passengers according to their destinations, sometimes take us as we come. One afternoon my mates included a finicky visitor just arrived from Manhattan. While we waited in the cab for a final passenger to appear (Nesher disapproves of empty seats), my new American friend, unhappy with the hugger-mugger tossing of his luggage, got out of the taxi and climbed into its rear to arrange things better. Meanwhile, the last passenger took his seat. Thinking all his charges safe, the driver started the vehicle -- and there was the New Yorker squatting among the suitcases, one leg bent under him, the other extended, as if he had been summoned to the Holy Land expressly to dance the Kazachok in the back of a cab. We Nesher regulars yelled "Stop!" The driver composedly stopped, got out, and helped the shaken visitor onto the sidewalk and into the seat where he belonged. Whose business is the luggage anyway? the driver's calm face suggested. But "If you please" was all he said.

Edith Pearlman has written for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and one of her stories appears in She is the author of (1996), which won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

Illustration by Philippe Weisbecker

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; Neshering; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 30 - 31.