It all began with a dream. A lot of troubles in my life begin with a dream. And in this dream I was at a train station in a strange city, behind a hot dog stand.
A horde of impatient passengers were huddling around it. They were all jumpy, impatient. I couldn’t understand them. They were dying for a hot dog, they were afraid of missing the train. They were barking orders at me in a strange language that sounded like a scary blend of German and Japanese. I answered them in the same strange, nerve-wracking language. They tried to make me go faster, and I did my best to keep up. My shirt was so splattered with mustard and relish and sauerkraut that the few places where you could still see the white looked like spots. I tried to concentrate on the buns, but I couldn’t help noticing the angry mob. They looked at me with the ravenous eyes of predators. The orders in the incomprehensible language seemed more and more menacing. My hands started shaking. Beads of salty sweat dripped from my forehead onto the thick hot dogs. And then I woke up.
The first time I had that dream was five years ago. In the middle of the night, when I got out of bed, covered in perspiration, I made do with a glass of iced tea and watched an episode of “The Wire.” It’s not that I’d never had a bad dream before, but when I saw this one start to make itself at home in my unconscious, I knew I had a problem, one that even the winning combination of iced tea and Officer Jimmy McNulty couldn’t solve.
My best friend Uzi, a well-known dream-and-hot dog buff, worked out its meaning in no time. “You’re a second-generation Holocaust survivor,” he said. “Your parents were forced to leave their country, their home, their natural social environment overnight. That unsettling experience filtered down from your parents’ unsettled consciousness to yours, which was unsettled to begin with. On top of which there’s the unstable reality of our lives in the Middle East. Stir it all up and what do you get? A dream that includes all of those fears: of being uprooted, of arriving in a strange, alien place, of being forced to work at something unfamiliar or unsuitable. You’ve got it all.”
“That makes sense,” I told Uzi. “But what do I do to make sure that that nightmare doesn’t come back — see a psychologist?”
“That won’t do you any good,” he interrupted. “What’s the therapist going to tell you? That your parents weren’t actually persecuted by Nazis, that there’s no chance of Israel being destroyed, leaving you a refugee? That even with your lousy coordination you can do a good job selling hot dogs? What you need isn’t a bunch of lies from a Ph.D. in clinical psych. You need a real solution: a nest egg in a foreign bank account. Everybody’s doing it. I just read in the paper that foreign accounts, foreign passports and four-wheel drives are the three official trends this summer.”
“And that will work?” I asked.
“Like a charm,” Uzi promised. “It’ll help the dream and the reality. It’s not going to keep you from becoming a refugee or anything, but at least you’ll be a refugee with a bundle. The kind who even if he winds up with a hot dog stand at a train station in Japo-Germany has enough cash to hire another refugee with even lousier luck to stand there and stuff the sauerkraut.”
Taking advantage of refugees wasn’t an idea that appealed to me at first, but after a few more nocturnal visits to the hot dog stand I decided to go for it. On the Internet, I managed to find a nice website of an Australian bank, with a promotional video that showed not only breathtaking landscapes but a smiling teller, who looked like Julia Roberts’s even-nicer sister and who urged me to deposit my money with them.
Uzi nixed the idea straight away. “Ten years from now Australia won’t even be there. If the hole in the ozone layer doesn’t get to them, the Chinese takeover will. It’s a sure thing. My cousin works in the Mossad, Pacific Division. Go for Europe. Any place except Russia and Switzerland.”
“What’s the problem there?”
“The Russian economy is unstable,” Uzi explained, taking a big bite of falafel. “And the Swiss … I dunno. I don’t like them. They’re kind of cold, if you know what I mean.”
Eventually I found a nice bank in the Channel Islands. Truth is that before I started looking for a bank I didn’t even know there were islands in the Channel. And it may well be that even in the worst-case scenario of a world war, the bad guys who’ll conquer the world won’t realize there are islands there either, and that even under global occupation my bank will stay free. The guy at the bank who agreed to take my money was named Jeffrey, but he insisted that I call him Jeff. A year later he was replaced by someone named John or Joe and then there was a very nice new guy named Jack. All of them were pleasant and polite, and when they talked about my stocks and bonds and their secure future they made sure to use the present perfect tense correctly, something that Uzi and I never managed to do. Which only reassured me even more.
All around me, squabbles in the Middle East were growing more aggressive. Hezbollah’s Grad missiles were hitting Haifa, and Hamas rockets were thrashing buildings in Ashdod. But despite the deafening explosions, I slept like a baby. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have any dreams, but what I dreamt about was the pastoral setting of a bank, surrounded by water, and Jeffrey or John or Jack taking me there in a gondola. The view from the gondola was dazzling, and flying fish swam along with us, singing to me in a human voice that sounded a bit like Dido’s about the splendor and beauty of my investment portfolio, which was growing by the minute. According to Uzi’s Excel charts, it had grown to the point where I could open at least two hot dog stands or, if I preferred, one roofed kiosk.
And then came October 2008, and the fish in my dream stopped singing. After the market crashed, I called Jason, who had replaced the last J on the list, and asked him if he thought I ought to sell. He said I’d do better to wait. I don’t remember just how he said it, except that he too, like all the J’s before him, made very correct use of the present perfect. Two weeks later, my money was worth another 30 percent less. In my dreams, the bank still looked the same, but the gondola had begun capsizing and the flying fish, which didn’t look the least bit friendly anymore, started talking to me in the same familiar Japo-German dialect. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have bribed them with a good hot dog. Uzi’s Excel charts left no doubt that I hadn’t enough money left for a stand. I kept phoning the bank. In our first few conversations, Jason sounded optimistic. Then he began getting defensive, and from a certain point on, simply indifferent. When I asked him if he was looking at my investments and trying to do something to salvage what was left of them, he explained the bank’s policy: proactive management began with portfolios of one million dollars and up. I knew then we’d never again take a gondola trip together.
“Look at the bright side,” Uzi said, and pointed at the picture of a friendly-looking man in the newspaper’s financial supplement. “At least you didn’t invest your money with Madoff.” As for Uzi, he made it through the crisis unscathed; he gambled all his money on wheat crops in India or weapons in Angola or vaccines in China. Before that conversation, I’d never heard of Madoff, but now I know all about Bernie and Ruth. Looking back, apart from the bit about the rip-off, we have a lot in common: two restless Jews who love to make up stories and have been sailing along for years in a gondola with a hole in the bottom. Did he too, once, years ago, dream he was selling hot dogs at the train station? Maybe he also had some true friend, like Uzi, who never stopped giving bum advice?
The guy on the news just announced a state of alert in the middle of the country and that there were roadblocks on some of the highways. There are rumors about a soldier being abducted. On my way home I bought two bottles of green tea and stopped at the video store to pick up the first few episodes of the last season of “The Wire.” Just to be on the safe side.
Etgar Keret is the author of “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,”
“The Nimrod Flipout” and “Missing Kissinger.” He is the director of the film
“Jellyfish.” Translated by Miriam Shlesinger. Reprinted from Tabletmag.com.