This piece was submitted by Assaf Gavron as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Assaf Gavron’s event: A Literary Quest
New York, Spring 1998
The spring of 1998 wasn’t exactly a spring. In New York, for example, snow fell one Sunday (Izzy had set up to meet Shlomi at 125th and Park in the Bronx at 7pm; snow fell on his face, the cold seeped into his bones), and the following Friday it was in the mid-80s and sunny (Jonesy and Izzy were loading huge paintings by an eccentric artist in Brooklyn and sweating like foxes).
The spring of 1998 was especially crazy because of El Niño. Tornadoes, heat waves, snowstorms, floods, merciless sunshine—all in the same week, in the same place, or a few hours’ drive away in the next state over. In any case it was spring, and Izzy had this one remark stuck in his head. He’d heard it at a truck stop in Nebraska as he stood waiting in the checkout line holding two large coffees, a bag of sunflower seeds, some Hershey’s chocolate kisses and a screwdriver. When the woman behind the counter told the fat truck driver standing in front of him that it was a wonderful day, he said, “Spring’s here, and that’s the time for changes.”
Working as movers, you see changes all the time. You’re part of them. You see people at the moment of change, the moment of transition, packing up their whole lives in one place—along with their work, friends, neighbors, experiences that took place between those very walls and in that very air—and you take them to a different place, where everything is new and unfamiliar and exciting and scary. Or else you’re bringing them back to the house they’ve been waiting to return to for years. Sometimes they’re fed up and sometimes they’ve lost everything they owned or earned a fortune, and it’s not only the place and the air and the office they’re swapping, it’s everything—their path in life, their social status, their worldview, their lives.
And you’re there, catching the moment right on the inside. You enter people’s lives through the back door for one day or a few. You dig around in their underwear, pack up their sheets, and by the end of the day you’ve bonded with them.
You get into places their friends or even their children and families have never seen, private rooms and personal belongings they can only show to themselves. You become their friend for a day, an outside observer who sees and hears everything: the quarrels between husband and wife, the significant looks shared by the husband and the wife’s sister, the small fears that weigh heavy on their hearts. You’re part of their fresh start in life, their adventure, you are the radar that picks up on their feelings, the interior decorator in charge of the furniture arrangement, the go-between helping them meet new neighbors for the first time. As a mover you perform a lot of functions. You calm them down, laugh with them, console them, listen to their stories about Vietnam or New York, about their grandparents or their children, about the drugs they take and the countries they’ve visited and the jobs they’re about to start. You look at photographs of them in their prime, decades earlier, you pet their cats and dogs. You say to them, “Spring’s here, and that’s the time for changes.” You say to them, “This armchair? It’s terrific.” You say, “For an apartment like this one, I’d leave Los Angeles, too.” For one day or a few you are the son that stopped paying attention to them twenty years ago, you’re the husband that walked out. True, you mostly do all that for the tip. But not just. You do it for the experience, too, to see America from right inside its soft underbelly, right inside people’s fragile lives.
The three most traumatic things that happen to people are the death of a loved one, divorce, and moving house—worse even than accidents or illness. It’s a known fact. When a loved one dies, family and friends come to console the bereaved, making sure not to let them feel lonely. When there’s a divorce, each party has his side or hers—the family, the lawyer. When there’s a move, they have you, the mover. Your jeans may be filthy, you may have been on the road for three days with their furniture, no chance to shower or shave. You may seem like just a simple guy from the Middle East, your only asset the muscles you use to haul their bed, but in fact you’re much more than that: you’ve sweated for them, traveled for days on end for them, crossed the continent and time zones and climates for them, all in order to bring them their belongings. You’re a shoulder to lean on, and cry on. You’re the sympathetic smile for those with no family to share smiles with. You are the best friend at a stage in life when there are almost no friends to be had.
The Guy from Qatar
Tomer Gonik, or Jonesy as most people call him, or Johnson as his boss Haim calls him, or Tomer—yes, there are still a few people (his girl friend Nili, his mom) who call him Tomer—so this guy, whatever you want to call him, had been thinking long and hard about the plan.
Jonesy’s plan was, in short, to make a killing. To score a big hit, to hit and run. To make a nice big bundle that would hold him over for a good few years, a sum that would buy him a nice apartment in Jerusalem, trips around the world, a huge plasma TV in a spacious living room, and, if possible, to destroy his boss Haim Galil, the head of Sababa Moving and Storage, in the process, because that asshole Haim Galil had been pissing him off for quite some time.
Jonesy, Shlomi and Izzy are sitting at Francesca’s on 99th and First eating lunch. The blue Sababa Moving and Storage truck is parked outside. Shlomi is eating a sandwich he brought from home. Jonesy is holding a slice of pizza and telling another one of his stories. Every once in a while a mover walks by and says hi to Jonesy. He answers with a nod of the head, never interrupting his story.
“So this fat Arab guy—huge gut—opens the door wearing nothing but underpants and a pair of slippers with pompoms. A prince from one of the Gulf states. He has six Indian servants who do whatever he says and this gorgeous wife with huge tits. Gigantic apartment on the Upper West Side. After a few years in moving you get to know the goods. You know their value, whether they’re crap or decent. So this guy, his stuff was worth billions, you can tell right away. Everything there was top of the line—furniture, pictures, kitchen.
“I’ve learned something,” Jonesy says: “The richer people get, the more they care about their things. Regular people just have some old refrigerator, they don’t care if it gets a scratch or two. But rich people are tight-fisted about every little thing. They’ll warn you not to scratch up some old armchair, God forbid. You can say it doesn’t make sense, that they have lots of money so what do they care? But it doesn’t work like that. Rich people are the biggest tightwads of them all. That’s because rich people don’t have anything more important to worry about. Regular people do. You get it?
“But this guy, the Saudi, no sorry, he was from Qatar, this guy with the pompoms on his slippers, he couldn’t have cared less. He says, ‘Yalla, toss all this stuff into the truck.’ There were three of us on that move, along with the Indians and the bombshell with the tits. We finished up in good time and hit the road.”
Jonesy stops talking so he can finish his pizza in two quick bites. He gets up and fetches another slice. At Francesca’s he has pizza days and hero sandwich days. Today he’s stuffing himself with pizza. Plain cheese pizza because he claims the toppings kill the taste.
“So I ask the sheikh, ‘Where’re we heading?’ and he says, ‘New Jersey, Forest Heights.’ But when we get to Forest Heights we can’t find the house. We run around New Jersey for an hour and the guy can’t remember where his new house is. Turns out they bought it in about five minutes one night when they were drunk, and they don’t remember anything at all. He’s driving ahead of us in his Mercedes, we’re tailing him in the truck. We find the place at around 2am.
“Now it’s Saturday night, and I have this principle: I never, ever in my life work on Sunday. I bust my butt for that asshole Haim all week, I work nights, get up before daylight, come home at 2am and that’s okay. But Sunday? That’s my day of rest. I need Sundays to stay sane.”
He folds his pizza slice in two and takes a bite. “We’re standing outside the new house and the guy from Qatar says, ‘Come back tomorrow and finish the job.’ I look at my watch and tell him, ‘In two hours we’ll get the whole business unloaded. Right now.’ He looks at his wife and says, ‘Forget it. We’re going to sleep. Come back tomorrow and I’ll pay you whatever you want.’ I say to myself, Like hell I’m sticking around, and to him I say, ‘It’s not about the money, it’s about Sunday,’ and he looks at me and says, ‘Follow me.’ He takes me to the garage, turns on the light and says, ‘Drive this home and come back in the morning.’ I look, and there’s this Rolls Royce sitting there, brand new, huge, cream-colored. The plastic’s still on the seats.”
Jonesy stops to take a sip from his Coke. He wipes him mouth and smiles nostalgically.
“I tell him, ‘Sorry, it’s Sunday. That’s holy for me.’ So he takes out his phone and calls Haim. Haim shouts at me and tells me to stop fucking with him and tells me to report back there first thing in the morning. Son of a bitch.”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I came to work on Sunday. I was just a kid then, still green. But even back then I remember saying Haim would pay for his bullshit.”
He leans back, stretching his arms. “Still, that Rolls Royce,” he says. “Holy shit, what a car. I got home in the middle of the night and took Nili for a ride. Incredible.”
The end of a move is the best moment of the day. Jonesy shouts to Izzy and Shlomi to fold up shop quickly while he settles the bill with the customer. Izzy can feel the muscles in his back and hands. He folds the blankets with Shlomi, shoves them onto the loaded truck. A third floor walk-up, at first there was nowhere to leave the truck so Jonesy double-parked out front and got shouted at by an elderly tenant. He calmed the guy down, became his best friend—a day like any other in the life of a mover.
“God, what a weirdo,” Jonesy says as he starts up the truck and begins driving slowly down Second Avenue in evening rush hour traffic. The customer, a young guy by the name of Joachim Basendworf, got divorced a few months ago and is returning to some small town in Texas. When Jonesy asked where his ex-wife was, he answered, “I don’t know. Maybe in heaven, maybe in hell,” and let out a short burst of laughter. The woman’s clothes were in the apartment. Joachim had a red goatee and wore a cowboy hat he did not remove from his head all day long.
Jonesy says, “And now for what’s really important: the envelope.” He hands it to Shlomi.
Shlomi says, “What do you guys say, how much did he cough up?”
Izzy says, “I say he didn’t leave us anything, he was too crazy.”
Jonesy shakes his head. “No chance you’re right. There’s not a lot, but there’s got to be twenty, thirty each.”
Jonesy is a legend in the world of tips, or tesher as they call it in Hebrew when the customers are within earshot and they don’t want them to catch on. He has a few methods for ensuring good tips, methods he does not reveal to anyone. He is only willing to admit that he chooses the method according to each individual client; for each type of customer there is a method that will work. He says, “When I leave New York I’ll reveal all my secrets.” It is not unusual after working with Jonesy for a day to get tips like eighty or a hundred dollars each, which is why so many movers are willing to put up with his shouting and cursing.
With regards to Joachim Basendworf, today’s weirdo customer from Texas, Jonesy used the envelope method. At the end of the day, after becoming friendly with Joachim and making him feel good, he stuck an empty envelope into his hand, gazed fixedly into his eyes, and said, “Joachim, the usual tip for the kind of work we did here today is one hundred dollars per mover, at the very least. But you take this envelope and put inside it whatever you think these workers deserve. I won’t open it up until we’re far away from here.” Only one time in the six and a half years that Jonesy has worked in moving was the envelope empty, and that was apparently because Jonesy had ruined some of the customer’s belongings in an accident, moments before handing him the envelope. “He knew the accident wasn’t my fault,” Jonesy said afterwards. “He could have been more considerate.”
Shlomi opens the envelope. There are lots of ten-dollar bills inside. “Izzy was wrong,” he says as he counts the money. All told it is one hundred and fifty dollars.
Izzy says, “What a prince that Joachim is.”
Jonesy says, “Son of a bitch, that’s less than ten percent. What does he think we are, pizza delivery boys?” He is disgruntled when the customer decides to give less than he’s suggested.
Now the stoplights are working in their favor and they race down Second Avenue without stopping until midtown, where traffic is congested and moving slowly. Shlomi is chewing gum impatiently. Jonesy cuts through the park and heads over to Broadway, continuing downtown until they can see the screens at Times Square flashing weather reports, news, and stock shares. A few minutes later the truck is parked on 39th Street and they’re on their way up to the office of Sababa Moving and Storage, which is also where Jonesy and Izzy and a few other people live.
This piece is excerpted from the novel Moving by Assaf Gavron, originally published in Hebrew, Zmora-Bitan (2003). Appeared in German translation as Alles Paletti, Luchterhand (2010). This translation, by Evan Fallenberg, is previously unpublished.