Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your Engines

Monday morning started with already elevated blood pressure as I concentrated through all the booms and pops of the celebrations from the Muslim holiday on the other side of the city. It’s not so bad when you know that this acoustic backdrop is festive, but considering the proximity to the recent war and continued tensions in the area, I can think of more calming accompaniments to the tappings of a keyboard in our office.

I went for a walk around mid-afternoon and noticed a variety of incongruities that perked my attention to some sort of something going on. The traffic patterns had been altered around the base of the Old City; and a parachute hung in the air in the distance . At first glance, it simply seemed to be a strange choice of location for the sport, but it turned out to be tethered about 150 feet in the air by a barely visible strap. My boss explained that it was a security measure – they use parachute military instead of blimps for aerial surveillance. I wondered if he had balloons and a painted face or maybe was dressed like Santa Claus (that’s logical, right?).

Usually when I do a loop past the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, I pass groups of older Russian Orthodox women with delicate scarves covering their hair, tourists from South Korea clicking photos in front of David’s Harp, or groups of Jewish families dressed up for a bar or bat mitzvah at the Western Wall. On Monday, I passed a kid with a bull nose ring and jeans holding on for dear life just below his ass and a dude wearing a gray t-shirt with yellow splotchy letters that said My idea of balanced is a beer in each hand. Neither of these offended me, but they were nevertheless a jarring introduction to a new demographic taking in the consecrated scenery of the Old City.

I should have figured it out sooner, but it wasn’t until I heard the distant growls of gunning engines (and our director came to tell us that the office was closing) that I learned a Formula One racetrack had been set up at the base of the Old City and would be doing figure-8s along the route between my home and my office. Despite my profound connection to the Appalachian hills - where racing actually got its start running liquor during the Prohibition and still has a huge following – I have pretty much always despised everything about race car culture. My encounters with racing mostly center around Bristol, Tennessee, where I simply acknowledge its existence and move through as quickly as possible – taking extra care not to get bowled over in the passing lane by some yahoo with no muffler and a Bud Light in his hand.

To be fair, I’m not judging all race car fans individually – it’s also my fear of the commanding influence of stupidity that takes over in large crowds of people. ESPECIALLY considering that we live in a politically charged environment already and are now cramming thousands of people like sardines into the perimeter of less than a kilometer with engines and emotions revving. (Awesome opportunity for creative coexistence, or just needing a spark for the gasoline? Yes.)

Also consider the environmental factor: I can think of no more efficient yet meaningless way to burn fossil fuels than doing laps around a track – aside from maybe lighting up oil fields outright. And the only sound more obnoxious than the incessant honking already plaguing the roads of Jerusalem would be to add exponentially louder engines and more aggressive drivers. In short, I hate racing and the thought of being around it made my skin crawl.

I’d been hoping to leave the office before the hullaballoo got started. But given that our timing was slightly off, Lucy and I wound up leaving the office just as the race began gearing up. We could hear the motors roaring past the Old City and turning up the main drag towards Bethlehem. We took a longer route home and cut up behind the mall nearer to the City Center to try to skirt the course, but we missed by about a block and wound up at the main junction with a huge projection of the drivers coming around the bend and about 400 people all crammed into the four corners of the intersection. One car zoomed by, but didn’t slow down enough and skidded around the turn, coming within meters of the barricades where teenagers were perched with their lemonades and camera phones. I realized that the only way to get home was by crossing the rickety scaffolding staircase that led to a footbridge over the track. 

Scores of other people had stuffed themselves into a makeshift line to get across, but were bottlenecking as they lifted bikes and baby strollers and pausing to watch the race. Lucy, whose father had not taken her to football games as a youth and hence not taught her how to ‘shoot the gaps’ in the crowds (nor who was about 14 seconds away from a panic attack like yours truly), got caught in the line. I knew she’d catch up with me eventually and I crossed and came down the other side without looking back. Waiting for Lucy, however, meant that I was standing in the street just behind the barricades, during which I had the delightful opportunity to watch the environment-leech-sound-polluting-waste-of-every-possible-resource epitomes of human over-consumption come screaming towards me at death-defying speeds before slowing to turn and thunder past some of the most sanctified sites on Earth. I would've rather spent that 5 minutes pulling out my fingernails, but managed to continue breathing, which sometimes is all you can ask. We finally escaped the crowds and made it home in record time.

This city is full of surprises. I think I read somewhere that next week they’re doing a mobile Biblical petting zoo in the park – lions, lambs, serpents, the works….