Supplies dwindling. Shoes smelly. Shoes very smelly. Shoes really, very smelly.
Everything I have fits in two medium sized bags. I'm typically well sock-stocked.
Care packages, Grammy?
Unless you wanna...
Supplies dwindling. Shoes smelly. Shoes very smelly. Shoes really, very smelly.
Everything I have fits in two medium sized bags. I'm typically well sock-stocked.
Care packages, Grammy?
Unless you wanna...
I returned to Olimpia Park by the Danube in Budapest, ball in hand, around three in the afternoon. I knew that I was early and that play typically doesn't begin until the sun starts its slope to the horizon, but I was still disappointed to find an empty court. Now I could only wait. I walked onto the court to get a feel. The surface was made of a lawn-green rubber and soccer goals sat underneath the hoop. I went and got a nearby coffee.
Though I had only just walked around the block for what felt like ten minutes, eight young men were playing when I returned. I sat in silence on the cement bleachers on the west side of the court and watched them compete. The tallest and sole shirtless player pump-faked his defender, drove to the lane and reversed dunked the ball. This made me involuntarily correct my posture. It was the first dunk I had seen on my trip and it was a hell of a dunk to boot. I felt my confidence wane. All the players, young as they were, were excellent passers and dribblers. They could shoot pretty well, too. I wondered if I was about to have my ass handed to me by some 17 year olds.
The ball was deflected out of bounds and rolled to my feet. I picked up the ball and handed it to the young blonde who dunked.
"Can I play next?"
He looked at me warily. I couldn't tell if he was sizing me up or if he didn't speak English. One of the other players, a thin Adrian Brody-looking guy with stubble and buzzed hair said that I could play next. They finished their game and I warmed up along the sidelines. When they had finished I picked the three best players from the losing team and I was matched up against the blonde super-athlete. When I first play with strangers I tend to defer offensively. I pass up open looks and try to establish a theme of sharing. When I finally did take my first shot, it was after I had rebounded a teammate's errant three pointer. I was nearly under the rim, and when I jumped, I realized I had reached the backboard sooner than usual. After scoring, I stood underneath the basket and found that the height of the rim not the standard 10 feet, but something closer to 9'6". While six inches may not be very much (depends on the level of confidence of the guy you ask), it makes quite a bit of difference in basketball. Christ, even I could dunk with relative ease, and I did.
The most frequently asked question of any person who plays basketball with some serious regularity is: Can you dunk? This question is asked by athletic philistines and hoop-heads alike because dunking most identifies the sport. Dunking is a feat on par with summiting a mountain. For me, it's a touchy subject because I'd prefer the question to be: Have you dunked. Yes--yes I have. I have dunked twice. And no, I have no proof.
The first time was the summer before my junior year of college when I trained daily to increase my vertical leap. I started at the three-point line and made my charge toward the basket while going left. I jumped with two feet (I've never been very comfortable with the single-legged leap). I lifted and stretched the ball in my right hand and clean stuffed it through the rim. The ball hit me in my sternum before I had even landed back on the ground. It was something I had wanted to do for a great part of my life, something I had fantasized and trained for months to accomplish and it happened so fast and so casually it was almost disappointing. The only other person in the gym was this kid named Frank. I looked at him for confirmation. He barely noticed, but he saw it in his periphery. But this Frank kid was an unknown and when I informed my friends that I had finally dunked, Frank and his testimony were nowhere to be found. Still, I can dunk, if only once or twice in a lifetime.
But here I was, dunking again…Though I hardly considered this legitimate. Even when I would catch an alley-oop and throw the ball with force through the net, it felt hollow. The inimitable joy of dunking was soured by forgery. Like getting an A+ on a school project that your parents did for you. Like playing scrabble with a dictionary. Like sugar-free cookies. Like writing a paper with Wikipedia as your primary source. Like telling someone else's story with yourself as the protagonist. Like watching a movie version of a book and feeling literary. Like having sex with a condom. It just wasn't the same. It didn't count. And it changed the way everybody played the game--it turned in to a sloppy dunk contest. And, truth be told, Hungarians don't play the game the way I like.
Don't get me wrong, the kids at Olimpia Park were talented, if only on the offensive end of the court. On defense, Budapest ballers are like matadors—they stand in the way for show and slip away from any and all contact. The best player of the bunch, another shirtless fellow with a short ponytail, heavy brow and severe back acne got rather upset at my style of defense. He was used to being mostly uncontested when he drove to the basket. I learned that in street ball there is no such thing as an easy bucket. So I challenged him. He gave me a dirty look and said some things in Hungarian. Everybody but me laughed. This was a passive form of play that does not exist anywhere else I have been.
A brief historical interlude:
Because of the country's central location in the Carpathian Basin of Central Europe, Hungary was a sort of nexus for the imperial jaunts of the latter half of the second millennium. In the 16th century it was the Ottomans. After 150 years of war, the Turks were replaced by the Habsburg Empire. When a Hungarian resistance revolted against the Hapsburgs and initially defeated the Austrian army. But then the Habsburgs convinced Tsar Nicholas I to invade Hungary. The Hungarians were defeated. Following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 the whole country was in a state of "passive resistance". There was a brief moment of success for Hungary when it was combined to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that turned out to suck because then Franz Ferdinand got shot and Hungary was thrown into the clusterfuck that was World War I. After the war and a few political uprisings, Hungary was carved up and lost over 2/3 of its territory and 66% of its ethnic population. Then the Nazis took over. Well, they didn't take over so much as they were given the keys to the country. Hungary declared war on the Soviets and that didn't work out so well. The Soviets Stalinized Hungary and sent hundreds of thousands to labor camps and/or to their death. There was a revolution in 1956 and things lightened up a bit and then the Soviet Union fell and now Hungary (really, just Budapest) is overrun with soused meatheads who roam the city streets drinking cheap beer and exploiting the free-market capitalism induced weak currency.
And there were invaders on this basketball court, too.
The basketball players were 20 strong at Olimpia Park that Saturday. Sitting against a wall at the corner of the court were nine soccer players. After a couple of games the leader of the soccer group approached the basketball crew. Words were exchanged, and though I could not understand a single bit, they seemed mostly polite. I asked the Adrian Brody-looking fellow what it was they just talked about.
"They want to play."
"And?" I said. "Did you tell them to go somewhere else?"
"No. They will play a game after us."
"But there are twice as many of us..."
"And they still get to play?"
I was shocked. This would never happen in the States. Though soccer is still more popular in Hungary as a whole, there were twice as many of us as them. Still, in a completely calm and non-confrontational demeanor, the majority gave way to the minority.
There is a new schism in Europe. It's between the old guard of soccer and the reforming ways of basketball. Budapest might be the new door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenburg, Saxony (where Martin Luther nailed his 95-Theses).
Of course, the soccer players took advantage of the kindness of the ruling majority and played games to 11. We played games to 11. It is much easier to score in basketball than in soccer. Still, the basketball players patiently waited their turn and let the ungracious footballers play their game.
I knew I could no longer stay with D.C., my romantically deprived (by me at least) couchsurfing host. It wasn't that D.C. bothered me with his unrequited wants--it was that the metro in Budapest didn't operate after midnight and a taxi to his place cost around 4000 forint (240 forints to the dollar, so around 17 bucks), thus negating the monetary benefits of free, albeit kooky housing. Fortunately, I received a belated message on couchsurfing from a married couple informing me that I would be able to stay in their apartment.
At first it seemed like a safe and platonic housing opportunity. But then, as I am wont to do, I let my mind ruminate on what-ifs. What if they're one of those married couples whose sex life has gone stale and they're hunting for young meat in order to spice things up? What if the husband has a fetish and he wants me to cuckold him? What if they get off on sadism and are planning to tie me up and torture me? What if they're super boring and expect me to play hours with of passive aggressive Monopoly?
Zoltan, the husband, sent me the address of the apartment. It was in the Jewish District near the city center. A prime location. There was a condition, however. Zoltan needed help running an errand. The errand required me to meet him at the train station and head out into the Budapest boonies. I could have said no, but I said yes. Now, I had never met Zoltan and had no reason to trust him, and once again my mind wandered. I thought of all the ways in which my body could be disposed and the capability of the Hungarian forensics unit. For all the bravado and toughness of the American male, we are mostly chickenshit. I think there is something American about distrust and paranoia.
To prove my point, I, a sizable male, had to interact with unknown women who weren't the least bit intimidated by the untrustworthy nature of my gender (but to be fair it's hard to be scary when you have dimples). Zoltan told me that a cleaning woman would be at the apartment at 11 a.m. to hand over the keys. I had trouble locating the proper street. I poked my head into a café that was just setting up for the lunch rush and handed the busy waitress the piece of paper with the address on it. Her English was mostly inscrutable and she must have recognized the pained and puzzled look on my face. She held her right index finger in the air and turned back into the café. She came back outside and locked the café door and grabbed me by the hand and led me down the street and to the apartment's front door. She smiled and didn't even wait or seem to expect any thanks. The maid let me into the apartment. She didn't speak any English either and it was clear I didn't speak any Hungarian, but she went on talking at me while she finished mopping the tile floors. The two-bedroom apartment was completely bare save for a room stuffed with old carpets and light fixtures. Zoltan didn't tell me, but I was to stay in the unfurnished apartment alone, which was fine by me.
When I finally met Zoltan, it was at the train station. I was early and unsure how we would recognize each other. My lost demeanor was enough and Zoltan tapped me on the shoulder. He certainly didn't look like a murder. He was handsome with thick and wavy salt-and-pepper hair.
"You wait here long?" He asked.
"No, not at all."
"Alright, let's go."
He didn't say where. Not that it would have made a difference.
I thanked him for allowing me to stay in his apartment. He apparently had a couple other apartments in the city and a house in the country suburbs where we were going to get a car battery. I usually feel confident in conversations with perfect strangers, but Zoltan was a tough nut to crack. It wasn't that he was silent or glib, he just seemed constantly un-entertained as if he had something more important to say or think about. I was beginning to get a feel for Hungarian men.
When we arrived at his townhouse he pointed out the car we would be driving to retrieve a spare car battery from his totaled Mercedes. He had been in a car accident the other week and his wife's brother's car needed a new battery. But that meant we had to take a third car to retrieve the totaled car's apparently functioning battery. A convoluted errand, indeed. Fortunately, the car we were taking was an algae-green Moskvich 1500. A little Soviet vehicle from the ‘70s. I loved everything about it. The engine's weak purr, the analog odometer, the metal grain of the door handles and the absence of power-steering. I sometimes wonder whether people 40 years from now will gush over the vintage feel of a 2010 Honda Civic. I hope not.
Predictably, the old car had inconvenient idiosyncrasies. You needed to hit a sweet spot to turn the key all the way in the tumbler to spark the ignition. Zoltan couldn't find it after five minutes of fiddling. He said maybe I'd have better luck and offered me the driver's seat. I tried and found it in a couple of tries. I was now unequivocally useful and that fact relaxed me.
We drove through the flat farm countryside outside of Budapest. Zoltan told me about his love of the Beatles. Though he grew up in Soviet-oppressed Budapest he had the same revelatory experience when he first heard the Liverpudlians play. It must be universal, the memory and first moments of hearing John, Paul, George and Ringo.
With our errand finished we headed back to Budapest for celebratory drinks. Zoltan began to divulge information about himself. We talked about Couchsurfing and its discontents and benefits. He loved meeting people who traveled and hearing their stories. He told me about a an an orphaned Japanese girl who climbed the ranks of the BBC only to quit and travel the world, living out of a backpack for something like eight years. I felt that maybe my story wasn't as exciting as I'd hoped. We then talked about the unspoken sexual nature of couchsurfing. He agreed that it was there. We got into talking about sex in general. I told him that I wasn't traveling the world to get laid by in every city I visited, an expectation I feel from men I know and meet who hear about my odyssey. We talked about loveless sex as a form of validation and false intimacy. He spoke of his own struggles and realizations and what a content marriage feels like. Still, there was something longing about the way he described his own sense of contentment. This was something I would learn more about when we went out later that evening.
"So, you meet any girls yet?"
"There's this girl, Ivett (I'll write about her later), I'm supposed to hang out with later tonight," I replied.
"Well, let's go out and meet some. I have a friend that will join us later."
We drank at a hip bar in a remodeled square. The crowd was international and outgoing. Zoltan would generously offer cigarettes and drinks to people who joined us. He bought me a shot of pálinka, a Hungarian spirit made of cherries or plums or apricots and tastes like a fruity mouthwash. When we met different people and they asked what we did, I'd say writer and he'd say rock star. He was not too proud of his profession in marketing it seemed, even though it more than paid his bills.
A Dutch girl joined us named Isa. We talked about going to a different bar. I voiced my interest in finding a Hungarian dive that would be absent of tourist.
"What is it with you Americans and trying to find authentic places? You are all the same."
She had a point. Perhaps the pursuit of authenticity is apocryphal, neutering any realness that was there to begin with. Still, I had a retort.
"What's your background?" I asked. She said it was Dutch as far back as she could go. "See, most Americans are mutts. We have no roots. Our history is brief and our heritage is lost. I think, maybe, this obsession with authenticity is like our own anthropological and spiritual truth for ground to stand on." She squinted and then shrugged her shoulders. I am hopeless.
We stayed out very late and were joined by a friend of his, a 28-year-old Hungarian girl. Maybe it was a European thing, but it didn't seem very kosher for a married man to be drinking with a young woman until three in the morning while his wife was out of town. I certainly wasn't going to question his morals. Not when I was given my own set of keys and an apartment all to myself. Selling out never felt so good--even if I was sleeping on a hardwood floor. Privacy is a truly wonderful thing and I walked around the apartment naked at four in the morning for an hour.
Though I know nothing about the virtues of fishing, I like to think that finding good ball has some similarities with this patient and noble pastime. Like the rivers and oceans and the fish that live there, public parks and the people who play there sway by weather and temperament. And, lest the best spots become overfished by amateurs and assholes, many courts are purposefully unadvertised and tucked away. Even after you've found the best spots on one of those perfectly sunny and crisp late spring Sunday afternoons when you most expect the fish to bite, you'll discover teenage boys and girls chain smoking cheap cigarettes underneath the hoop. So how does one find this elusive gathering (the narrator said in his best David Attenborough voice)?
When you are a stranger you can only wander.
In Budapest, I got off the metro at Déak Ferenc square at the heart of the city center. I prepared myself to wander, but not before a little help from our Lord and Savior, Go(d)ogle, peace and blessings be upon its name. Because I cannot afford to purchase temporary phone plans in each country I visit, I am entirely dependent upon Wi-Fi. I found a café that displayed the clam-shaped symbol for Internet, sat down and ordered an espresso. Before the waitress could put in my order, I had another request:
"Um, excuse me, but what's your Wi-Fi passcode?"
Her chin lowered but her eyes disdainfully focused on me. I never feel so small as when I ask for those passwords.
I logged in and brought up Google Maps and with my electronic Apollonian eye, I scoured the cityscape for squares and triangles and nebulas of green. Somewhere in those public lots would be basketball courts, and, hopefully, basketball players. I wrote down the cross streets and made a mental map.
I first walked through the Jewish district of Budapest. There were bars and a few blocks of sex clubs that advertised Glory Holes as though they were kebab specials. Soon I saw the forest green iron of a park fence.
I could see a court on the far side of the mostly empty Klauzál tér (square). There were miserable-looking basketball hoops that sat atop a net-less soccer goal. They were conspicuously unused. The other basketball hoop was without backboard, its rim hung in the air like a still and rusted halo. I watched two young brothers boot a soccer ball at each other, completely unaware of the other sport at their disposal. So I continued to wander.
It rained for a moment and I ducked into the old opera building. I wandered the ornate halls, but was not welcomed because of the basketball shoes that dangled from my bulky backpack. When the rain stopped, I headed back to Déak Ferenc where another park, the Erzsébet tér, was located.
There, in the shadow of a 200-foot-high Ferris wheel was a basketball court. Only two played: two Israeli brothers of Georgian descent (why is it that everyone I meet now is Israeli?) shot on an 11-foot rim and tried not to slip on the wet court. I walked up to the brothers and made the one request that no basketball player can deny.
"Can I shoot around with y'all?"
He passed me the ball. I took a shot and made it.
"Where you from?" Mishel, the older brother, asked. "Oh, New York, eh? I better watch out—this guy's a pro."
Mishel, who was round and thick with one of those perpetual five-o'clock shadows, challenged me to a game of one on one. Unable to turn down this request, no matter the circumstance, I didn't change out of my plainclothes so that I wouldn't take the game too seriously. We played and I handled him without breaking a sweat. We chatted about basketball in Israel and Hungary. We quickly ran out of things to say about basketball and Mishel changed the topic to girls.
"Girls here, man, SO easy. You buy them one shot and then you get whatever you want! I mean, look at me, how short I am. In Israel, I could never get a good girl." A devlish grin lit up his face. "But here, I've got a girl that is like you!" He gestured at my height. I nodded, if only to acknowledge that I heard the words that came out of his mouth. Now that we had sufficiently bro-bonded, I saw an opportunity to find a new play to stay for the night. I told him about how the person I was staying with was a guy who was trying to hook up with me. Mishel was repulsed. He said he'd see what he could do about it, but that he lived in a small flat. We agreed to play basketball again tomorrow and parted ways.
As I left, I shamefully recognized that I had used someone else's homophobia to my benefit.
I walked until I ran up against the Danube, the river that splits the city in half. I was on the working-class, 'Pest', side. Across the river was 'Buda', which is more posh. I followed the river, occasionally looking up at the tops of buildings to orient myself. There are no skyscrapers in Budapest. The skyline is low and baroque, and the buildings peak at four stories. As I trekked north, I followed gold spires piercing the skyline. It was the Parliament building. It was extravagant. I took a selfie. An older Asian couple stared and I felt the cold sweat of selfie-shame. I walked through the Parliament's wide and open courtyard and stared until I could stand to admire it no longer.
A few blocks further, I saw a park that took up an entire city block. Perched above the riverside entrance to the park were the five rings of the Olympic symbol and inside was a basketball court. It was called…Olimpia Park. I was elated until I saw it populated by shirtless teenage soccer players. I walked in anyway.
“Does anyone ever play basketball here?”
A blonde boy with the faint signs of a mustache answered in lightly broken English.
"No. Nobody plays basketball here. Football only."
"There must be basketball," I said. "This court is too nice to not play basketball on."
He didn't budge.
"There's a park down the street. They play basketball there."
I said thanks, even though I figured they were just trying to get rid of me, and went to see the other park.
This park was heavily wooded with a playground and Ping-Pong tables and there was, in fact, a basketball court. Through the leaves and thin wire fence I saw two 20-something boys shooting. I walked through an opening in the fence and set my backpack down.
"Can I shoot around with you guys?"
They both looked at each other with an unsure expression. I repeated myself, this time more clearly. The shorter of the two, Peter, who spoke decent English, tossed me the ball. I made the first shot. At first, we shot around in silence. Everything about the hoop was metal. The backboard, the rim and the net. I love the sound of the ball going through woven metal—urban wind chimes.
I started to pry about finding some competition.
Peter, who donned a well-worn t-shirt with the Looney Tunes' Tazmanian Devil inside of a basketball hoop, told me that the weekends were best.
"Football (soccer) rules here. That's what everyone plays. But people play over at the Olimpia Park on the weekends."
Peter shot the ball. He had good form. Tom's shot was a little quirky.
"Where are you from?" Peter asked. "Ah, nice, so who do you like: the Knicks or the Nets?"
"Neither. I don't really have a team anymore...What about you?”
I never thought I would hear mention of this Midwestern city abroad. Peter listed the players from the 2004 Championship team: Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace.
"I also like the Patriots," Peter continued. Apparently, the NFL has a bit of a following in Hungary. They broadcast games and Hungarians watch. Peter explained to me that this was because the Hungarian national soccer team has been dismal for decades.
While Peter and I bonded over the Patriots and the NFL, I asked him where he lived. He pointed to a building around the block with a salmon pink exterior. I dropped hints that I was looking for a place to crash, this time omitting my current living situation, but either my subtle suggestions were lost in translation or Peter did not want to host me.
We shot around some more and then parted. On this particular day there were only nibbles, but maybe I'd land a big fish this weekend at Olimpia Park.
I found a café nearby with Wi-Fi. D.C. had left me a message asking what time I would return to his apartment. I guessed I could spend one more night at the awkward Bed & Breakfast.
My budget for this basketball odyssey is a paltry $50 per diem. In order to make this work I must find free places to sleep. That means I have to rely on the kindness of strangers. It worked in Tel Aviv. My first generous host was Ron, who I met at a falafel stand. But would it work in Budapest, my next stop? Everyone in Budapest was a stranger. And nothing is stranger than the Internet.
A few days before I left the Middle East, I signed up for traveler's social networking site Couchsurfing. The site provides free lodging for the world's wanderers in exchange for nothing but company (and maybe Internet clout since the surfers and hosts can review each other's character after the stay). Since I did what I always do and waited until the last minute to find a host, I blindly sent couch requests to dozens of Budapest residents. I was surprised when I heard back that same day from D.C., a 30-something Israeli expat living near the city center who offered me an indefinite stay during my time in Hungary. I told him I'd be there and crossed that task off my to-do list and went about my final days in Israel.
My mother, who is keen on details and wary of total strangers (always on my behalf), asked that I forward her my future host's information. I promptly obliged. The following day, my mother texted me:
I brought up D.C.'s profile. Mom was right, per usual.
I could only laugh at the self-inflicted predicament. I considered staying with someone else who offered me a couch—a female student studying medical anthropology at a local university. But I had already told D.C. that I would stay with him and the neurotic pain of going back on my word and telling D.C. that I wasn't going to show up after all outweighed the guaranteed social discomfort. I couldn't even come up with a proper excuse anyway. My mom advised me to immediately be upfront when I met my host. I imagined the scenario: “Hey, stranger. Nice to meet you. I'm Isaac and I'm not gay.”
When I arrived at D.C.'s apartment complex it was past one in the morning. I promised myself that if any weirdness occurred I would handle the situation with humor and graciousness. When the cab pulled away I walked to the front gate where many stainless steel mailboxes with the names of the residents were located. I scanned the names until I found D.C.'s, but before I could press the buzzer underneath his surname a bright light shined from D.C.'s box. He was waiting for me. I shielded my eyes from the halogen beam. The front gate buzzed and mechanically swung open. I was led down the building's corridors by automated lights that preempted each of my steps. I carried my bags up the four-story staircase until I got to the top floor where I was greeted by an open door and warm light and faint music. I walked through the door and met D.C.
D.C. was short, shirtless and had Chinese characters tattooed down the left of his back. I stuck out my hand without putting down my bags.
"Hey, nice to meet you. Sorry for arriving so late."
"Oh, it's OK." He let loose a small smile and then hid it right away. "I always stay up very late."
D.C. didn't ask me any questions except what kind of beer I preferred: Heineken or Corona.
We sat across from each other at D.C.'s small IKEA dining table. I watched the cool bottle begin to sweat. I looked up at my host.
"So...How do you like Budapest? How long have you been here?"
"Oh, it's OK. I've been here a little while." I waited for something else. We just half-looked at each other. The condensation on my beer ran down my hand and onto his table. He reached over and wiped it off. I asked him another question:
"Oh, that's interesting. Do you miss Israel?"
This kind of questioning and response went on for a while. Then I asked him about his time serving with the Israel Defense Forces. He looked up at me with his eyes while he kept his head lowered.
"Oh, you'll find out soon..."
I couldn't tell if he felt like I was interrogating him and he was waiting for his attorney, if he was autistic, or trying to be coy and mysterious. Either way I was tired and told him that I was going to go to sleep. He stood up.
"The guest room is over there, but it doesn't have AC, so I think you should stay in my room; it has AC." Definitely at least Aspergers.
“Oh, that’s OK,” I said, and I walked over to the guest room and dropped my bags and lay down on the platform bed.
My naivety in couchsurfing was really willful disbelief. The Internet is 95 percent sex. People want to fuck and the Internet is the lubricant. Nothing in this life is free. I laughed at myself for my predicament. D.C. was not being creepy or fulfilling the male heterosexual stereotype of predatory gay coercion—he was just trying to get laid, an intention his profile made clear but I, in my clumsy last-minute-ness, ignored.
The next morning, D.C. lightly rapped on my door.
"There's breakfast for you."
I threw on some shorts and a shirt and stumbled out of the guest room and into the kitchen. On the table was a prepared five-course meal: perfectly circular fried eggs, orange juice, toast with schmear, sliced and salted avocados and a warmed pastry. I did not ask for this. And I felt a creeping sense of guilt and obligation to D.C. This must be what it feels like for girls when I insist on buying them drinks or refuse to let them pay for their food. Nothing in this life for free. But as awful as it felt, I still ate everything on that table.
After breakfast, and after D.C. wouldn't let me do my own dishes, we awkwardly parted. He asked me when I'd be coming back this evening. I told him I didn't know. I headed to the city center in search of courts…and other couches.
On my way to the West Bank I could only think about how I hadn't flossed my teeth in weeks. I tongued the outer enamel of my incisors.
I thought, Should I return safely with all my teeth I will begin to floss regularly.
I suppose I focused on the potential food between my teeth because there were two, much larger and indigestible thoughts in mind:
There was fear.
When I told my Israeli acquaintances that I was to visit the South Hebron Hills, Palestinian territory in the West Bank, 28 kilometers south of Jerusalem, I was asked if I was suicidal. Even though the latest conflict was on the other side of Israel, in Gaza, I feared some reprisal upon my visit to the West Bank. I was 13 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and, hard as I try to shake the less-than-fair western portrait of Arab people, the anxiety remains.
Then there was guilt.
Guilt for introducing myself to people as a journalist but not making an opportunity to see the other side until the second-to-last-day of my stay in Israel...
In my experience, only by grace and desperation does freelancing succeed. I wrote a piece for GQ a couple of weeks ago. Here's what happens behind a thousand-word article.
On July 10th, my plans to meet with Karen of Peace Players International, a group in Tel Aviv that has Arab and Jewish kids play basketball together in hopes of creating a lasting bond, was cancelled. I wasn't surprised in light of the daily rockets flying over Gaza and Israel. With a day to waste, I sent out emails to dozens of my contacts, pitching a story about how I'd witnessed Israelis rooting for the German team during the World Cup. Only an editor at GQ replied:
Wow. I mean... Wow. That's fascinating. Why on earth do you think this is happening? Can you report out a bit by tomorrow? Challenge is we'd wanna post this tomorrow so we're up pre weekend / pre final, so it'd need to be fast turnaround. Maybe 1000 words?
I had some scribblings and memories to go by, but this required more formal reporting. I set out to find some Israelis and quotes. I knew I wasn't going to find much in the neighborhood of Jaffa during Ramadan, the Arabic neighborhood where I was staying, so I hopped on the 25 and headed to central Tel Aviv in search of Jews who loved Germany.
I knew where my first stop would be...
I was surprised that Ron would give me such unfettered access to his apartment. He lived in a three bedroom on the third floor of a mostly dilapidated building in Jaffa. Jaffa is the historically Arabic port neighborhood in the southern end of Tel Aviv. Many Arabs live there today (about 16,000) amongst the growing Jewish population (about 30,000). There was a mosque a couple blocks from Ron's apartment and five times the adhan, the call to prayer, would project from the loudspeaker atop the minaret. I could hear it as early as 4 in the morning and it was beautiful and primordial and erie and guttural and perfectly matched the desert heat...
During the week leading up to the invasion of Gaza, when things looked like they might resolve without excessive tragedy, I met Ron on King George Street in central Tel Aviv.
He was wearing a No. 4 Spud Webb Hawks jersey. Sometimes it's important to wear symbols. We were in line to get a six-shekel (under $2) falafel. I was with my friend Noah. Noah was staying at a dorm provided by his Israeli internship, and, against the organization’s rules, I crashed in his dormitory apartment. Noah recognized a friend, Ryan, in line for a falafel. Ryan was Australian and a couple inches taller than me, maybe 6'5”. We eyed each other with tall-people distrust, like two lanky male peacocks during mating season. While Ryan and Noah caught up, I started talking basketball with Ron.
"You play ball?" I asked, pointing at his vintage NBA jersey.
"Yeah, when I can," Ron replied. Ron reminded me of my family physician. They both had similarly narrow faces with slightly sleepy eyes. They also seemed perpetually unenthused, Operating at one speed and tone no matter the subject.
"Where do the best players go?"
There are some things you cannot get used to.
I slept on the roof my first night in Jerusalem at the Heritage House. There was a fellow camper in the bed adjacent to me whose snores were cartoonishly loud and sleep was futile next to him. I grabbed a blanket and a pillow and found a mattress on the roof balcony. It was already 3:30 in the morning. At quarter to four, the Muslim prayer rang from the east side of Jerusalem. It was spectral otherworldly ephemeral ancient primordial. I couldn't sleep and watched the sunrise over the Arabic end of Jerusalem...
Jerusalem doesn't let you forget that it is old. The city building façades are required to be at least 70 percent stone, giving Jerusalem a uniform and colorless aesthetic. Many residents dress as conservatively and ancient as the buildings around them. The conflict hasn't changed much either as Arabs and Jews historically alternate reign over Jerusalem's hallowed ground.
I arrived in pious Jerusalem amidst the most recent troubles. There were race riots over the slaughtered boys on both sides, the light rail that weaved and symbolically connected East (Arab) and West (Jewish) Jerusalem was vandalized and the IDF launched attacks in Gaza while rockets were launched into Israel in return...
I try not to believe in omens.
At JFK Airport, before boarding an El Al direct flight to Tel Aviv, I was thoroughly vetted by an Israeli agent named Omer. He was thin and meek, but his questions, unlike himself, were anything but:
"What are you doing here?"
The answer seemed obvious: To see Israel.
"Are you Jewish?"
Last I checked...
When pulled taut, the longest bits of my hair stretched about eight inches. I figure, if your hair grows about half an inch per month, the oldest parts of my top were a year and four months.
The past 16 months were eventful. Lou Reed died. 'Selfie' is in the dictionary. Lance Armstrong got busted. You can print your own, fully-functional gun online. The pope resigned. The new pope seems great. Edward Snowden. There was an Egyptian military coup. Putin spent over $50 billion to make snow and annexed Crimea.
I had spent the better part of 2013 months ghostwriting a memoir for a professional athlete. At some point the relationship went sour and I was told that I would no longer be a part of the project, thereby losing the remaining $40,000 of the contract; this, after I had just turned in a manuscript of 85,000 words.
By April of 2014, I decided to move out of my Bed-Stuy apartment. I figured I could use a break from the black hole of ironic self-importance that is Brooklyn, and, as the saying goes, the best part about living in New York is leaving it. Without a home, my intent is to travel the world to meet strangers and learn the minds of many distant men and women. I've never been one to enjoy the prix fixe tourist experience that most foreign adventures provide. Instead, I will gain entry to people and places by playing pickup and document the people on the courts and the periphery of basketball.
But first, I'd have to remove that part of myself that I carried with me. I decided to chop off my hair before my great basketball odyssey...