The cell phone in my pocket vibrated with worrying insistence. On the other end, my wife said with a somewhat dramatic terseness, “Come quick. They want to cut down The Tree.” Not every tree gets to be called “The Tree.” You need a lot more than a few branches and a trunk for your name to be capitalized. In the case of The Tree we’re talking about, being called that meant it had to be one of the most beautiful trees in Tel Aviv and to blossom with the kind of vividness that astonished even visiting forest-dwelling Europeans who are normally not turned on by the trees of the Levant. And to add to the mythological status of that Tree, the old-timers on the street like to tell the story of how A. Hillel—one of the most famous children’s poets in Israeli history, the person who promised me and thousands of other kindergarteners in his beautiful naïve verses that the world will always be smiling at us—planted it with his own hands.
When I got home, I saw one of the workers already checking out the designated victim with the tired eyes of an experienced butcher. As I always do at times of distress, I pulled a pad and pen out of my pocket and tried to look like an investigative reporter. I said hello to the tree butcher and inquired whether I might ask his name and the purpose of his visit to the neighborhood. “My name’s Eli and I work with the Electric Company,” the butcher muttered with practiced indifference. “May I ask what your surname is?” I wondered out loud. “No,” Eli replied with surprising honesty, “now scram.” “I am not scramming,” I replied, trying to sound threatening and even wrote on my pad, “Answers rudely.” And I underlined it. Already as a child, I understood that there were kids who threatened to bring their big brothers and there were others who had no big brothers or had completely non-scary big brothers, like mine. Those were the kids who had to make do with a weenie threat like they’d snitch, and they were the ones who, when they get older, like me, turn into the type that threatens to write about it in the papers. “Do whatever you want,” Eli kept mumbling at me, “For me, you’re nuthin’, you hear? Just air.” Eli was not the first person in my life to say that for them, I was just air. There had already been a platoon sergeant, a neighbor in Ramat Gan, and even a girl who once went out with me for two months and then dumped me. In fact, she didn’t even dump me. She just left me on the sidewalk and never came back to get me. But none of them threatened to kill the only Tree that ever came close to being a friend.
But luckily for me, who should show up then but a guy named Kobi, Eli’s tree-sawing partner and for our purposes, the good cop. He wouldn’t give me his surname either, but he was happy to tell me that he and Eli had come into my life from Ashkelon Mining Inc., and that they weren’t exactly the Electric Company, but in a minute, someone who was would come by to pull the plug because it was dangerous to saw branches like that, so close to the high-power lines. “We’re not gonna kill the tree,” Kobi from Ashkelon Mining Inc., reassured me, “we’re only gonna rough it up a little.” He was quick to explain that some woman in the neighborhood had called them to come, saying that the tree bothered her very much, and was dangerous too, because some of its branches had rotted and might fall on passersby or on the power lines. “And those are the only branches you’re going to cut down?” I tried slyly to wheedle a promise out of him. “Not only. We’ll cut down all kinds of branches.” He patted my shoulder affectionately, “You know, so the tree should be balanced and the leaves don’t make the street dirty.”
On the way to a work meeting, I got an editor from a local weekly, Ha-Ir, on the phone and offered to write him a short piece about The Tree A. Hillel had planted on my street that was about to get butchered. “Hey, what’re you writing about trees for?” the skinny cab driver interrupted my conversation, “you think anybody’s interested? I’ll give you an idea right here and now. A real hot one.” I waited expectantly while the driver took himself a dramatic pause. “Write somethin’ about the transmission on the Mercedes,” he finally said as if he were telling a secret. “The transmission on the Mercedes?” I asked. “Yeah,” the driver was getting excited, “write about how the transmission in a two-hundred-thousand-shekel car goes on you after eighty thousand kilometers. And that’s not just with me. There are at least six drivers at Castel Cabs and maybe another four at Paladin Cabs. I’m tellin’ you, you write about that and you’re on a roll.” “A roll?” I echoed, trying desperately to communicate. “Yeah.” The driver banged his leather-lined steering wheel assertively, “Listen, you write somethin’ like this, the whole cab drivers’ union is behind you. You write about a tree, who’ll back you up except a bunch of birds?”
When I got out of the cab, I thanked him politely and he cheated me out of fifty shekels change, payment for his advice. In front of my house, The Tree was waiting for me, completely bare except for a little yarmulke of leaves on the very top. Kobi Ashkelon Mining Inc. was standing next to the pile of felled branches having a lively discussion with a few angry tenants. Eli Ashkelon Mining Inc. was consistent, and even though he didn’t tell anyone to scram, he acted as if they were just air too. “A. Hillel’s granddaughter came by when we were sawing,” Kobi Ashkelon Mining Inc. said, invoking a higher authority, “and EVEN SHE said it was better like this.” “To hell with A. Hillel’s granddaughter, she doesn’t live here,” said a frantic skinny man who lived across the street, “I do.” “Okay,” Kobi nodded, sounding insulted that his reference to A. Hillel didn’t get the same respect as everyone else’s. “Okay, no need to get rude.”