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By Barbara Rogan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Barbara Rogan
All rights reserved.
Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz, son of Rebecca and Samuel Sternholz, father of Jacob, R.I.P., and grandfather of innumerable unborn Sternholzes, was a waiter. He served in a Dizengoff café called Nevo, and lived alone in a two-room apartment on the top floor of the same building. He was seventy-three years old. Except for an occasional touch of rheumatism and a chronic sleep problem, Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz was in the pink of health. This was surprising, considering where he had spent his youth.
Nevo consisted of one cavernous room which opened wide as the yawning mouth of a toothless old man, and spilled its tables out all the way to the curb, checking the flow of pedestrian traffic, as if the aforementioned old man had insolently stuck out his tongue. Inside, ancient, dusty signs, advertising brand-name liquor unavailable upon request, and photographs of former Nevo habitués, all of them distinguished for their utter insignificance—for Sternholz would have considered it unforgivably crass to hang pictures of the café's famous patrons—decorated the walls. A long bar ran along the south side of the room, and the gents' was out back, in the courtyard. There was no facility for ladies, nor did Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz encourage ladies to frequent his establishment.
He could not keep them out, of course, although he tried his best He gave them the royal treatment, which was enough to discourage most from ever returning. What was the royal treatment? First he cleaned their chairs for them. He kept a special rag for that purpose and for cleaning the stove. Then he never served their drinks without inspecting their glasses minutely, in their presence. If he saw even the slightest speck, and that was inevitable, with his half-blind busboy, he pulled out his handkerchief, spat genteelly into it, and wiped the vessel clean. Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz was a clean man, and his spit as pure as anyone's, but how were they to know that? If despite the royal treatment some ladies persisted in coming, Sternholz eventually grew reconciled and even, after many years, greeted them civilly.
For he was not a misogynist. Far from it; Sternholz was a man who had loved, loved deeply and more than once. Age had not lessened his appreciation of feminine beauty, though it had eroded his susceptibility to it. No, if Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz deplored the patronage of women, he was not moved by personal bias. He simply felt he had enough tsuris without them. He was cursed with an obstreperous, argumentative lot of customers, and it was all he could do to keep a reasonable semblance of peace in the café, without adding sexual fire to gunpowder. If asked, or even unasked, Sternholz would assert that mixed café sitting was the root of half the divorces in Israel, and that was true whether a man sat with his mistress or his wife. If the former, it was possible, even likely, that his wife would hear of it and make both of them unhappy; if the latter, his friends would give him no peace.
How many times had Sternholz heard it? "Poor Yoram, his wife has him on a leash."
Look at Peter Caspi, sitting there with his arm around that little starlet half his age. He always had to show off, absolutely nothing subtle in the choices, either; and what did he expect Vered to do about it, just sit and wait till the cows come home? The worst of it was that now she'd shown up too, hovering some tables behind her husband like a cross between a good Oriental wife and the avenging Shadow. It would not do. Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz, never a man to shirk his duty, went right up to her and said: "Vered, it won't do."
"Hello, Sternholz. I'd like a brandy and soda, please."
Sternholz sat at the table and showed her his palms. "What's the point?" he said. "What's the matter, you don't have enough trouble, you have to go out and look for it?"
She'd been an awkward girl but had grown into her looks. She had a graceful carriage which was thrown away on Caspi, an air of sadness that was all, or almost all, his doing, huge dark eyes, and a frozen mouth. "I don't know what you mean," she lied. "I used to come here a lot."
"Then was then," the waiter said meaningfully. "Now is now."
"What's your problem, Sternholz?"
"My problem is that you are setting a very bad precedent. Look at it from my point of view. What would be if Nevo was overrun by feuding husbands and wives, sitting at separate tables?"
"You'd double your business."
"I'd triple it. Everyone would come to see the show. But that kind of business I need like a hole in the head."
"So throw Caspi out."
"Caspi lives here," Sternholz said. "He's got nowhere else to go. You do. Listen to an old friend. Go home."
Sternholz compressed his lips. "Look here, Verdele," he said, "you made your bed; right under my nose you made it. So what am I running here, a laundry?"
"A brothel?" she suggested, looking at her husband.
"Vered, you are making my nerves ache."
"Pretend you don't know us," she said.
"I don't know you?" He gave her a dark and wondering look. "Who do I know if I don't know you?" He walked away, shaking his head and muttering, "Pretend I don't know you!"
She watched him go. Mad Muny was up to some nonsense, standing on a chair and haranguing someone. Vered walked unnoticed to the back of the bar, where she poured herself a brandy.
"Dotan! Dotan, you miserable bastard, I'm going to break your neck!"
"Not here, Muny," Sternholz said, touching his arm.
"Get your hands off me! Murder's too good for that bastard. I'd castrate him if he had any balls."
"Get off the table, Muny."
"He's got a nerve, showing his face here. Dotan, get your raggedy ass over here; I want to kick it for you." Rami Dotan waved genially from Caspi's table. "Sternholz, hold my coat!" Muny roared.
"You haven't got a coat, you maniac."
Muny jumped off the table and ran zigzagging through the café. Though he was only five feet two, with a belly like an overinflated beach ball and floppy bum's shoes, he was fast, Sternholz couldn't catch him, and no one else wanted to. Muny leapt onto the table beside Caspi's and dived headlong at Rami Dotan.
The force of the kamikaze attack knocked Rami off his chair and onto his back. Muny landed on top of him. Glass cascaded around them, shattering on contact with the pavement. Scrambling to his knees, Muny raised a shard aloft. "Death to the Philistines!"
Caspi reached over leisurely and relieved him of the shard. "Good show, Muny. Now go sit down, there's a nice boy."
Muny levered himself up, using Rami's head as a fulcrum. "You don't understand, Caspi. You don't know what he did."
"Three fucking months he held on to my manuscript, which happens to be the best work I've ever done. Then he sends it back with a form letter, a goddamn form letter! 'Thanks for thinking of us, turkey, but we don't publish shit.' And this after he cheats me out of a million shekels in royalties on the last one."
Caspi clicked his tongue. "Did you do that, Rami?"
Rami stood and brushed glass off his designer jeans. He picked up his pipe and said, "It's broken. Damn you, Muny."
Muny danced on his toes, shadowboxing. "That's nothing. You wait for it, Dotan. Wait for it. One dark night. You wait, and you wonder. Muny never forgets."
Caspi laughed. "The pygmy elephant struts his stuff."
"Shut up, Macho Man. You're riding high now, but I hear things aren't so great in the Caspi eyrie. Look at wifey over there. If that woman isn't starving for it, I've never seen one who was. What's the matter, Caspi? Not enough left to spread it around?"
"Back off," he growled.
Muny tittered. "All worn out, Caspi? Feeling your age? Drying up at the source?" This last was a sly reference to Caspi's literary output, which had been sparse for several years.
Caspi lumbered to his feet He was a big man, grown broader in recent years, and he loomed over Muny. Hie little man looked about nervously for someone to stop the fight. Sternholz stepped out of a sea of avid faces.
"All right," he said sourly, "you've had your fun."
"I exonerate you on grounds of drunkenness," Caspi said softly. "Who can blame you? If I wrote like you, I'd drink, too. But there's no excuse for smelling as foul as you do. Go away, Muny."
A buzz of disappointment rose in the café as Muny turned docilely and returned to his place. Rami examined his pipe. "It's broken," he said again, sadly.
"My God, are you all right?" Caspi's little actress bleated.
Dotan ignored her. "The funny thing is, his manuscript wasn't that bad."
"You're joking," Caspi said. "Muny doesn't write poetry, he excretes it."
"I tell you it was not bad. And we did all right with the last one, too. Not," he added hastily, "that he earned out the ridiculous advance he squeezed out of us."
"Then why not do the new one?"
Rami shuddered piteously. "Never again. God strike me if I ever publish that maniac again. He was in the office every day, pestering people, badgering me. He had to supervise everything. Cover, type; he insisted on hardcover and we gave him hardcover. Wanted a picture of himself on the back cover and we did that, too."
"Probably cost you half your sales."
"I don't know, I heard some people bought the book just to throw darts at it."
Caspi's laugh boomed again. Vered glanced at him and away.
"He wanted us to print five thousand. Can you believe it? Five thousand! We finally compromised on two. Then he demands a publication party. Against my better judgment I agreed."
"Was it a good party?" the actress asked wistfully. She was a lover of parties, and regretted every one she missed.
"Terrific, till he showed up. Then he punched out the Yediot literary editor and dumped the punch bowl over the Minister of Culture's head." Over their laughter Dotan added gloomily, "He said it was in protest of the cut in theater subsidies."
A voice at his elbow said, "Then why did it take you three months to return his manuscript?" It was Sternholz, kneeling to sweep up the broken glass.
Dotan did not (as one might have expected) reply, "None of your business." He said defensively, "It takes some time till these things reach me."
Sternholz sniffed and moved away.
A hand reached out and caught at his apron, and a slurred voice said, "Get me another."
Sternholz clucked his tongue. "You've had enough, Arik."
"More arak for Arik," the young man chanted. "I'm celebrating. Have one on me."
"What are you celebrating?"
"Freedom! Today I am a free man. No more worries, no more responsibilities—no more job."
"Oy," Sternholz sighed. "You quit again."
"Not this time. The bastards fired me."
The waiter went and made two cups of strong coffee and carried them to the table. "So what now? Back to the kibbutz?"
"Who asked for coffee? I want arak."
"You take what I give you and be grateful for it, boy. Why were you fired?"
"Budget cuts. Last in, first out, they said. But it was political." Arik Eshel was a strapping young man of twenty-nine with the lean, wide-shouldered body that seemed to grow only on kibbutzniks. He had a headful of brown curls, blue eyes, and a cleft chin. Sternholz often saw him promenading on Dizengoff with some woman or another on his arm, but when he came to Nevo he had the respect to come alone.
"Too bad," the old man said. "So now you'll go back to Ein Hashofet. Your father will be glad to have you back."
"No, no, no," Arik said, wagging his finger, and he began to sing, "'I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.'"
One thing about kibbutzniks, Sternholz thought: they never could hold their liquor. He left Arik singing to himself, and went back inside.
It was Friday afternoon, and the pavements on Dizengoff were packed with strollers checking out the action in the cafés. Though summer had barely begun, there was enough bare flesh on display to blind a man with worse eyesight than Sternholz. Skirts were high this year, bare midriffs fashionable, and décolleté only reasonable for the climate; and wasn't it a shame, the waiter thought, that men grew old and lost their strength?
Across the street the Sabra was bursting at the seams. With its shocking pink walls and mirrored ceiling, white wrought-iron tables and chairs, and fringed umbrellas, the Sabra looked like a tart's bedroom. It attracted tourists and the young suburban dating crowd, types who could sit all night in Sternholz's sanctum without seeing so much as a glass of water. The Rowal, next door, was also overflowing. The Rowal was the oldest café on Dizengoff, besides Nevo. Modeled after Viennese pastry parlors, the Rowal was no longer the best cake place in town, but it was still the Yekke Mecca of Dizengoff. Sternholz called it the chicken coop because it was only women and old men who sat there, gabble gobble all the day.
Only Nevo, of all the Dizengoff cafés, still had empty tables on Friday afternoon. Its front flank was guarded by the overcoat brigade, a row of burnt-out, bleary-eyed, wasted individuals who nodded over chessboards, shivering even in the summer heat. These were the pioneers of yesteryear who fell by the wayside, their stinking but unburied wreckage the hidden cost of the great adventure. To enter Nevo one had to pass through their sad malice; no wonder most people preferred the brighter façades.
Nevo was the oldest and certainly the grungiest of the Dizengoff cafés; in fact it predated the street over which it seedily presided. When Dizengoff was being built, and Tel Aviv was nothing but a miniature white-stoned oasis of a city on the desolate shore north of Jaffa, two enterprising Polish brothers set up a workers' kitchen beside the construction site, to serve the laborers beer, seltzer, and Turkish coffee. The construction ended but the canteen remained, upgraded by the addition of an awning and a hand-painted sign that proclaimed in large red Hebrew letters, CAFÉ NEVO. Though retaining its worker clientele, the café soon began to attract another set, the writers, actors, and artists who by virtue of their socialist ideology styled themselves members of the proletariat, but who in fact constituted the Tel Aviv elite of their day.
The workers had to work, but the artists had nothing better to do than to hang around all day, gossiping, flirting, and arguing. When the brothers realized that not even by starving these customers could they encourage them to turn over faster, they began, grudgingly, to serve food. It wasn't long before they felt the need of additional help. They hired Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz, a greenhorn fresh off the boat, for twelve pounds a month.
Years passed, and decades, each with its own war. Nevo weathered them all. The Polish brothers grew rich, but one died childless, the other lost his only son in the war of '56. Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz reigned alone, the sole keeper of Nevo. Other cafés sprung up: cafés to the right of them, cafés to the left of them, cafés all around them, strung together by the colorful beads of boutiques, shoe salons, and jewelry stores. Dizengoff grew richer and gaudier and more expensive, but Nevo endured, huddled in on itself, stubbornly filling and defiling the classiest section of Dizengoff pavement with its ragtag collection of gun-metal gray fold-aways, its shabby decor and even shabbier clientele.
Not all who penetrated Nevo's front flank attained service, for Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz was a jealous and exacting waiter. Traditions had to be upheld, standards maintained. Tourists and gawkers lowered the tone and disturbed the regulars, whose sanctuary Sternholz was sworn to defend. Such callers were ignored until they slunk out ignominiously or, if that failed, were summarily ejected. Nor could a customer on whom Sternholz deigned to wait be secure of getting what he asked for, for the waiter reserved the right to edit all orders. He gave his customers what they needed, not what they wanted.
So it was that when Ilana swirled into the café, parting the ranks of the old men with her scent, Sternholz did not wait for her to order but hurried over with a double shot of his best whiskey (which was not very good).
She accepted it with a smile and said, "How are you, Emmanuel?"
"Don't ask. Muny was acting up again."
"He looks quiet enough now."
"You don't look so great." In fact she looked beautiful, as always; only Sternholz could have seen the weariness in her walk.
"I'm okay," she said without conviction.
Sternholz gave her a sympathetic look. He would have stayed to talk some more, but the animals were clamoring.
Excerpted from Café Nevo by Barbara Rogan. Copyright © 1987 Barbara Rogan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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