Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fourth Of July, A Short Story by Samovar Lightfoot

Fourth Of July

Short Story by Samovar Lightfoot

Fourth of July, 1961, Chicago Loop.

Harry was behind the bullet-proof glass. Only two cars had

pulled into the parking lot since he'd started his shift at eight in the morning, relieving Willy Blackman. Willy'd been asleep when Harry knocked on the window, startling him awake. Willy went for his gun, a .38 snubnose special he kept in his belt. When he saw Harry he took his hand off the gun. Willy didn't smile much. A smirk was the best Harry ever got.

After Willy had turned over the change and cash Harry'd need for his shift, Willy'd gone to his canary-yellow Cadillac, and driven out of the lot. Harry'd put the 12-inch portable GE television on the counter, ready to watch the baseball games later in the day. He had a twelve-hour shift to kill.

Harry worked Sundays and holidays. Usually there was no business until later in the afternoon when families came down to the Loop for dinner. The lot had a contract with the Blackhawk Restaurant providing free-parking for the dinner guests, if they returned with a stamped ticket.

A short list of typed names was taped to the wall near the cash register. Most of the names were Chicago big-wigs who parked for free. Some of the names were Mafia dons. When they pulled in they were usually followed by a non-descript sedan occupied by stern-faced men in suits who Harry assumed were the FBI.

Getting up for work wasn't easy. He'd been out on a date until three in the morning. When the alarm went off at seven he thought he'd been shot.

The two cars had come in together, a Plymouth and a Chevrolet; two families heading somewhere, dragging little chldren who protested all the way down the driveway and out towards Randolph Avenue.

Harry'd been working in the parking lot for two years, since he was 15. It was owned by his cousin, part of a chain of about fifty lots. During the summer and on holidays Harry parked cars alongside the men, all black, who treated him kindly.

Cars were part of Harry's life then. Parking them, admiring them in magazines, going to races. He and his buddies, the other four Jewish guys, would sit around and listen to records of the sounds of car races trying to identify the cars.

"That's a Ferrari," Al would say. Al was the genius, a homely Judo champ who was always skipping grades. "Nah, it's a Lotus," Gabe would say. Gabe was the muscular dunce who was always flunking. If tests knew what ADD was then he'd have been on Ritalin and given more time at exams. David wouldn't say anything. He never did. In later years he became a well-respected radiologist, but that too is a solitary profession. David and Harry and Gabe had been on the football team together until Gabe been expelled for misbehavior and wound up in a private and expensive Military school. The last in the group was Earl, a smart, pudgy non-athletic kid who was usually asleep. He was a decade younger than his next sibling, and the spoiled baby of the family.

Gabe and Al had their own car. They were partners. They'd been given the little Morris Minor as a gift by a shady character who'd caught their attention one morning when he'd flown down the street in his red-Ferrari, a car as rare as the abominable snowman in their north-side brown brick apartment building neighboorhod where Chevy's and Fords were the mainstays and a Buick was already a move up.

His name was Dick, and he was some minor hoodlum, hiding out in the neighborhood in a third-floor walk-up. The Ferrari kept in a wooden garage in the alley behind the apartment building. Gabe and Al worshiped the guy, who was handsome, trim, and claimed to race sports cars. He even deposited the Morris Minor on the street, complete with black rollbar and numbers painted on the doors.

The engine block had frozen up. He gave Al and Gabe the car. They rented a wooden garage in an alley a few blocks away and worked feverishly trying to rebulid it. They had dreams for the car, cutting off the old body and replacing it with a fiberglass Devlin, bought from a magazine.

The hauled out the engine, took it apart and rebuilt it, dropped it back in the Morris Minor, and were impatient to test it. The car didn't have any doors or a front bumper. The hood was standing on it's side near the door of the garage. When they tried the key, the engine wouldn't turn over. So they thought of a push to start it.

Gabe and Al pushed he car out of the garage, out to the alley. Al thought if Gabe pushed it, got it going fast enough, Al would pop the clutch and the engine would catch. They tried it until Gabe was covered in sweat and gave up. They couldn't get the car going fast enough.

By then they'd reached the end of the alley, and were near the street. A young guy driving by in an old Oldsmobile saw them, and offered to help. They man handled the Morris out into the street. Gabe and Al sat side by side, and the other guy started pushing. Up to speed, pop the clutch, zip. No luck.

Then Al thought the problem was the carburator. He had Gabe stand on the metal struts that usually held the bumper, lean over into the engine, and play with the choke and carburator while he released the clutch. Again the push, the speed, pop the clutch. Zip.

Okay, Al said, I'll do it. So he switched places with Gabe. Got on the struts, the car behind pushed, the car came up to speed, Gabe popped the clutch, the engine coughed once, twice, backfiring and sending out a plume of black smoke, then the engine froze up, the tires bit hard into the asphalt as if Gabe hit the brakes. Al was thrown twenty feet from the car in a graceful arch landing with a thump as his head hit the cement curb.

By the time Gabe reached him blood was pouring from his ears. By the time the ambulance arrived Al had been dead for ten minutes.

Harry heard the news on the radio. "A freak traffic accident is the only fatality on this July Forth. Seventeen year old Aly Feldman was killed...."

Harry's knees went out from under him. He called his boss for relief, and then rushed to Al's house. Al was an only child. His parents were inconsolable. Al's grandmother kept calling Gabe a murderer.

Two days later Harry was a pallbearer at his friend's funeral.

There would be no more horse-play. No more games. Wearing dark

suits and white gloves, the four friends were no long kids. Death had ended their childhood.

A coroner's inquiry cleared Gabe of any criminal charges.

But Gabe never forgave himself, nor forgot. Some say you never really get past being seventeen. Al never did. The rest of us ran from it as fast as we could.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Letter From The Taxman

Sometimes the IRS or Mas Hachnesah (the Israeli equivalent) send out letters to a
taxpayer demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars, or shekels, in back taxes. These
letters are usually a complete surprise and result in the taxpayer quickly contacting
the IRS or Mas Hachnesah.

That was the government’s point: to get the taxpayers attention. Soon it becomes evident that the sums of money the government demanded in the letter were gross exaggerations. Once the dialogue begins between the IRS and the taxpayer the real reason for the letter becomes clear; some issue of back-taxes or another at a sum greatly reduced from the heart-stopping number in the first letter.

Pundits assume that this is the same tactic U.S. President Barack Obama is using with the Israelis when he makes the statement that the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo is a settlement.

Gilo has nearly 50,000 residents serviced by Jerusalem’s bus lines. Gilo residents pay their city taxes to Jerusalem. Gilo students attend Jerusalem schools. For all intents and purposes Gilo is part of the Jerusalem municipality.

During the Second Intifada that began in September 2000, Palestinians perched in nearby Beit Jalla and fired on Gilo. According to Wikipedia, “Between 2000-2002, during the first two years of the Second Intifada, there were over 400 shooting incidents targeting Gilo from Beit Jalla. Although Beit Jalla is predominantly Christian, it was infiltrated by Fatah's Tanzim gunmen, who purportedly positioned themselves in or near Christian homes and churches in the knowledge that a slight deviation in Israeli return fire would harm Christian buildings…. The shooting included gunfire and mortar attacks. Many civilians were injured and homes facing Beit Jalla suffered extensive property damage, prompting many residents to leave. The Israeli government eventually built a cement barrier and bulletproofed the outer row of homes. The shooting on Gilo ceased entirely only after Operation Defensive Shield.”

During that operation the IDF invaded the West Bank, including Ramallah, and captured Yassir Arafat, putting him under house arrest, and effectively ending the Second Intifada.
The head of Tanzim Mawran Bargouti was also arrested during that operation, and later convicted of murder. He is now serving several life terms, but is still talked about as a possible replacement for Mohammed Abbas, the current head of the Palestinian Authority.

Observers remember when sandbags appeared in the windows of Gilo apartments. When the Israeli government set up the wall of pre-fab cement blocks nine-feet tall stretching the entire length of Gila’s frontier with Beit Jala. The wall protected those Gilo citizens driving along the frontier street, as well as the pedestrians, some of whom were taking their children to the local school, and pre-school centers.

Palestinians snipers firing into Gilo from Beit Jala shot Israelis. One case was a 22-year old policeman who was shot in the heart. He languished unconscious in Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem for months, but miraculously recovered. Other shots ripped into a local day-care center. Cars traveling along a road beneath Gilo heading into the Gush Etzion block were fired at indiscriminately until the government put up the pre-fab nine-foot tall concrete blocks there as well.

The Gilo wall still stands. Local artists painted beautiful pastoral scenes on the wall. The government paid to have bulletproof glass put in the windows of those apartments facing Beit Jala.

Calling Beit Jala a settlement isn’t new. During the second Intifada some foreign news services referred to Gilo as a settlement, using statements like “Palestinian guerillas today fired at the Israeli settlement of Gilo,” giving the impression that Gilo was somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, on an isolated hilltop surrounded by pastureland, not a part of Jerusalem.

Gilo was captured by Israel from the Jordanian army during the 1967 Six-Day War, and sits over the 1967 ‘Green Line’. Other neighborhoods captured then were East Talpiot in the southeast, French Hill in the Northeast, and Ramot in the Northwest. Back in the 1980’s these new neighborhoods were referred to by Israeli Foreign Ministry officials as the ‘New Wall Around Jerusalem.’ They were meant to do exactly what Gilo did during the Second Intifada, absorb the enemy’s fire so it didn’t reach the center of the city.

Today the combined population of these neighboods exceeds two hundred thousand Israelis who think of themselves as living in Jerusalem. When the U.S. representatives visit Jerusalem, however, they are careful not to venture into these neighborhoods that the State Department has long-considered ‘occupied territory.’

During the Bush administration little mention was made of these neighborhoods being ‘occupied territory.’ Mostly they were considered a natural expansion of Jerusalem. Bush wrote a famous letter to then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon saying it recognized that there had been changes on the ground that needed to be taken into consideration when drawing up final boundaries. Former Premier Ehud Olmert said Bush talked about 1967 plus when talking about borders.

But dissension over settlements always existed even in the Bush administration. According to a Jan 2008 article, the Jerusalem Post reported on an upcoming visit by then U.S. Sec of State Rice saying that the “US has consistently opposed all construction beyond the Green Line, including inside Jerusalem.”

A compromise was apparently worked out with the Obama administration to leave the large settlements, like Ariel, Karnei Shomron, Beit El and Ofra, alone. Lumping Gilo in as part of the definition of settlements was, according to some analysts, meant to get the attention of Israel’s P.M. Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu.

During P.M. Netanyahu’s last visit to the U.S. much was made of the lack of a photo-op at the close of his meeting with President Obama. The Israeli media fell over themselves dissecting the reasons for this apparent ‘snub.’ The consensus was that Netanyahu was not as forthcoming on the settlement issue as Obama expected. And that Netanyahu was in no great rush to negotiate a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, public statements to the contrary.

Today’s Israeli press made mention of the announcement that only 400 Jewish leaders would be invited to the White House for Hanukah celebrations, opposed to the usual 800. “Cold shoulder to the Jewish community” was how the Jerusalem Post described the downsizing of the event.

Some observers say this could lead to a very dangerous situation if the trend to ignore the American Jewish community gathers momentum. By minimalizing the Jewish community’s importance Obama could wind up marginalizing that community. Some in the Jewish Community believe it is only their influence that has kept the Jews in America safe and productive. History has shown, say the oberservers, the difficulties that could arise should the Jews become helpless and vulnerable.

Some time back the Israeli press wrote that Obama’s Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel told the President that the only way to get the Israelis to do anything about peace was to play hardball. One commentator in today’s Israeli papers said that Obama may be paying too much attention to his aides who themselves don’t know what is really going on in the Middle East, just what they think, or want to think, is going on.

Some critics go even further, stating that Obama has assembled a team of sophomoric idealists who have not outgrown their unrealistic concepts held when they were part of the anti-Israeli radical-left back in the 60’s. Today, the critics say, these idealists have aged, grown wealthy, but still hold onto unrealistic goals. The sophomoric approach, the critics say, also applies to the economy. Rather than opt for employment schemes as FDR did during the Great Depression in the 30’s, the Obama administration is looking for ways to cut government jobs, creating even high unemployment. These same critics say that Obama seems primed to make all the wrong moves at the right time.

Moreover, columnists like the New York Times’ Tom Friedman have written on a few occasions that Obama doesn’t have the right take on the Middle East, and that anyway he should be focusing on issues like the economy rather that falling into the trap of thinking he can solve the problems of the Middle East in a few months.

The latest flap over Obama’s people calling Gilo a settlement is in the same vein. No serious politician on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really expects Gilo or any of the other new neighborhoods, the “New Wall Around Jerusalem” to be given up.
Yossie Beilin, one of the authors of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and former head of the left-wing Meretz party, says that Jerusalem is not part of the settlement issue. (Construction within existing settlements was permitted under the Oslo agreements, although the Palestinians later demanded no construction. Analysts say that demand effectively stopped any possibility of negotiations, a situation that continues until today.)

So sending out shocking messages to get attention isn’t always the best way to break a deadlock, or further negotiations. In this instance some say it is more that some college kids broke into the tax authority and started having fun sending out prank letters.