Nothing new to write about this moment…but here’s an “oldie but goodie”. I invite you to read about my adventures with former Prime Minister (and current Deputy PM) Shimon Peres. (Can anyone keep track of what he does? I feel like politicians in this country bounce around positions so often, it’s like a game of musical chairs. Ech omrim “musical chairs”?)
When you have about 10 minutes to spare, have a read…
My job can be pretty darn cool. If not the best, then certainly the latest example would have to be my incredible experience recently when I got to re-enact Morgan Freeman’s role in Driving Miss Daisy. Instead of driving an old, Jewish woman around Atlanta, I got to drive around an old, Jewish man, namely the former Prime Minister of Israel and living legend, Shimon Peres.
Since he was in the States anyway, the Consulate decided to bring him down to Atlanta which benefited both parties. He represented us and he had some productive business meetings for his center (the Peres Center for Peace). Anyway, I knew I had to document the day’s events so I thought you might be interested to read about what was probably one of the more interesting days I’ve had in some time. I can’t call it a tell-all as a couple of things I didn’t see fit to print. But it’s a tell-most.
Without further ado…
The middle of the night…
3:10 My home phone rings. I answer and hear beeps. I have to wake up at 5:45 and now I’m wide awake. This is just great.
3:30 I recall the words of the Consul General’s driver Ted: “You know that the driver is the first one the bad guys target, right?” Yeah, I don’t see myself falling asleep anytime in the near future.
4:10 Hey, Ted, thanks a lot, buddy.
5:45 Alarm clock goes off.
6:23 I’m driving in my rented suburban on my way to pick up my boss and hear 50 Cent on the radio. I have a strange feeling this is the last time I’m going to hear him today.
6:47 On the way to Peres’ hotel to check him in, my boss, one of the Israeli diplomats, catches me looking at my maps and driving directions for the day which I had nicely typed out. “Do not, under any circumstances, read your directions in the car while driving today,” he tells me. “We have an 80 year-old man in the car.” Anyone have a Rolaid?
6:48 I decide that screaming “No brakes! No brakes!” would probably not be that funny.
7:03 I test the waters by casually mentioning to my boss my admittedly far-fetched idea of having Peres wish my friend Caren a happy birthday over the phone. I throw out that there’s probably a 1% chance that I could ever see myself pulling that if things are going really well.
7:04 Benji is shot down.
Benji: “The odds of that happening are only like 1%”.
Benji: “Okay, half a percent.”
Boss: “Less and falling fast.”
Benji: “A quarter?”
Boss: “Less than zero.”
Benji: “The pollen count is pretty high today, huh?”
That was much like bargaining at the shuk except that when haggling, it’s recommended that you head in opposite converging directions.
7:25 On the way to the airport, Boss launches into his exaggerated Peres impression: “The Palestinians must realize?” He then reminds me not to laugh when I hear Peres talk in that voice which is kind of talking about how terrible some R-rated movie is and then telling your teenage son not to see it.
8:00 Various representatives of the Consulate are standing on the private runways of Hartsfield International Airport watching beautiful people walking by. We’re surrounded by tons of security. This is like the 40 year-old version of the club where you can’t get into because you don’t have “the right look”. Remember that Seinfeld episode where George enters “the forbidden city” and hangs out with the models, knowing he’ll never be back here? That’s kind of how I’m feeling at this point.
8:10 I’m surrounded by State Department officials, diplomatic security, cops, airport staff, and air marshals. The ratio of sunglasses to heads is roughly 1:1. They all get together to go over procedures. I briefly consider dropping a few lines of NWA’s “F**k the Police” but then reconsider.
8:30 We drive to the taxiing area. The private plane of the Atlanta Thrashers and Hawks drives by.
8:40 Peres and his group of Israelis should be here in six minutes.
8:46 No Shimon.
8:50 WHAT??? The plane has landed at McCullum Airport in Cobb County, roughly the same distance from Hartsfield that Jerusalem is from the nearest TJ Maxx. Working in the Consulate is like working in Israel. Only in Israel, my friends.
Benji: “How are they going to get to the Capitol by 10?”
Unnamed Israeli: “Don’t worry.”
Benji’s Rule Number One of Working with Israelis: When they say “don’t worry”, start worrying.
9:15 We join Ted’s consulate car and two squad cars in a four-car motorcade, with a police car in front and back to leave the airport for the Capitol.
9:16 I have trouble picking up speed.
Benji: “What the hell is going on?”
Unnamed Israeli passenger: “What gear are you in? You’re in neutral.”
Did I mention that I’m driving a suburban?
9:17 I just ran my first red light. WHOO-HOO!!!
9:20 The motorcade proceeds to cut off four lanes of traffic on I-85 to move to the HOV lane. Unnamed Israeli shouts, “Follow him! Go, go, go!”
Why don’t we stick to what we know best: Israelis, irrigating deserts; Americans, operating vehicles in a safe manner. Understand?
9:25 We arrive at the Capitol. Governor Perdue walks out to greet us.
Benji: “Governor Perdue, sir. Pardon my ignorance but which came first, you or the chicken?”
Get it folks? Perdue chicken? I’m kidding. Let’s move on.
9:35 The van carrying Peres and his entourage pulls up. He gets out and there he is. He looks me straight in the eyes. Seeing that my job today is as Peres’ driver, I resist the urge to run up and start acting like a schoolgirl at an O-town concert, instead opting to speak when spoken to. By the way, the passengers include myself, the security guard, Peres, one of his business partners who’s worth more than everyone reading this, a couple of representatives from the consulate, and maybe someone else I’m forgetting.
How the hell do I address Shimon Peres anyway? Mr. Prime Minister? Mr. Peres? Shimmy shimmy cocoa puff?
9:43 I unload the baggage into our vehicle. Geez. You guys are here for 2 days. What did you pack — Masada? I resist the urge to peek into Mr. Peres’ handbag. I place it on the seat.
9:45 The important people enter the Capitol, leaving me and Ted to do what drivers do: chill.
10:07 Ted and the 2 cops discuss a 9 millimeter. They’re not talking about film, are they?
10:38 My legs hurt.
10:55 They’re out of their meeting and the action begins. It’s time for their next meeting at CNN. Unnamed Israeli yells at me to turn on the AC.
10:57 The security guy in the front seat outlines the important things for me to know about driving, like which lane to be in when we approach red lights. I thought driving on the highway with my cell phone and the radio was a lot of stimulation. Try sticking to the car in front of you and chauffeuring one of the architects of the Oslo accords while trying to process orders from a security guard. In-flight movie, anyone?
I wonder if security officers can detect the smell of gas. It’s going to be a long day. (Ladies, that was for the guys. Keep reading.)
11:01 We pull up to CNN where one of the big execs is waiting outside. Peres and his entourage jump out of the car and I’m free for an hour. I’m not even exaggerating — between watching the road and listening to the guard, from the time we left the Capitol to the time we arrived this minute, my eyes did not land on Peres or anyone else in the car for even a second. The entire cast of The Love Boat could have been in the car and I wouldn’t have noticed. (And what the hell was a pursor anyway and was Gopher his real name? And whatever happened to Charo? You know you’ve made it big when you are recognized only by your first name.) By the way, there’s a big FOX News billboard directly across the street from CNN Center. That’s priceless.
11:20 The two drivers and two cops chow down in the CNN Center food court. Mmm, Arby’s. Why do the sandwiches always look bigger in the picture?
11:49 Ted explains to me that generally speaking, a driver needs to be ready to take off as soon as the passengers arrive.
12:02 We get the call-they’re on their way down. Ok, I’m camped out in the driver’s seat just like Ted instructed, AC pumping full blast, all ready to go as soon as they get out to the car. I hear my boss yelling, “Open the door!” So I whip open my door, run around to the other side, and as I turn the corner of the suburban, I do my best impression of Derek Jeter sliding into third base. (Unfortunately, the comparisons end there.)
Dad, you were right, I was wrong. I do need new dress shoes, ones with traction. By the time I pick myself up, they’ve opened their own doors and one of my co-workers is laughing. The only way I could possibly look cooler is if I hike my pants up to my armpits. (Dad, that’s a joke. It’s not stylish.)
12:10 We arrive at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Not only is my knee bloodied but Ted points out the nice tear in my suit pants. Nothing says professional like a hairy leg playing peekaboo out of your slacks.
I may not have served in the army but I have spilled blood for Israel. Please rise for the singing of “Hatikvah.”
12:17 One of the Chamber of Commerce staff finds some black electrical tape to temporarily hide the visible hole in my pants. I don’t need Peres thinking his driver is Shlomo the kibbutznik. I lock myself in an office, remove my pants, turn the left leg inside out, and do my best to cover the hole from the inside with the tape. What’s that phrase about a pig in a prom dress?
12:22 Someone knocks on the door. Yeah, this is great. I can just see it…
“Uh, yes, just one second please.”
“What are you doing in my office?”
“Um, I’m taping up my pants.”
“Jim, can you get security please?”
12:45 Ted tells me a story about how when he lived in New York 30 or so years ago, he caught his jacket on a cab door and ripped it. Nice story. I check my pants. Nope, they’re still ripped.
1:30 Next stop, Hyatt Regency. The motorcade pulls up. As we walk inside, some out-of-town bystanders say in their best country accents: “Who was that?” I was tempted to say the ghost of Dale Earnhardt just to see their reactions. The entourage goes to their rooms to sleep.
1:47 A group of Israelis and myself sit down in the hotel restaurant. Unnamed Israeli proceeds to eat a small packet of jelly with a knife. You can’t make this stuff up.
3:15 An hour and a half of Hebrew. My head is hurting. “Yesh li k’ev rosh gadol kacha v’Exedrin katuv al hakol.”
3:30 Two new cops show up. The second string.
3:55 Peres and friends exit the side door of the hotel. The string of cars head to the house of one of the richest Jewish donors in the city for a small reception. As we exit the highway, some crazy driver actually drives into the motorcade while yapping on his cell phone.
4:25 We arrive at probably the richest house I have ever been to in my life which sits on top of a hill. Wow — Ted and I are invited inside.
4:35 This place is phat. I just coughed on the couch and devalued it by ten million dollars.
4:37 Um, excuse me, ma’am, but do you have any single granddaughters?
4:45 As Peres addresses the group, a few people, as Jews sometimes do, whisper, and make noise while Peres is speaking. Ted holds my leg to prevent me from lodging it into their skull.
4:47 We can barely hear him. After all, he is 80-years-old. He looks great for his age but he’s certainly not dunking from the free throw line anytime soon. He’s a sweet, grandfatherly type. After a few minutes, his personal assistant walks up, fixes the microphone, and suddenly we can hear him.
Peres: “Can you hear me?”
Audience: resounding “Yes!”
Peres: “You are so polite.”
Peres mentions that when he was last in Atlanta 25 years ago, it was almost a shtetl. Crowd laughs.
He says that the new Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, though certainly not a supporter of Israel, is a responsible man. How does he know this? Because he has negotiated with him. Mazen also believes that the intifada has done his people harm. Peres says that the Arabs are the way they are. We can’t decide that since we don’t like the Arabs, we’re going to make peace with the Swedes. We have to make peace with the Arabs.
5:05 It’s pointed out that the national director of the Anti-Defamation League is in the crowd. (He happens to be in town the same day and stopped by.) When Abe Foxman is merely a spectator, you know you have a great keynote speaker.
5:45 We leave with the police escort into the heart of Atlanta rush hour traffic. Out of our way, soccer moms.
5:55 He said my name! He said my name! No, he didn’t. He said “eventually.”
6:10 Without the cops, we simply could not have done have of what we did today. It’s incredible how quickly they lead us through traffic.
There’s a Georgia Tech professor in the car escorting us up to McCullum airport where Peres arrived this morning. The two of them discuss nanotechnology for 30 minutes, one of the topics that Peres came to Atlanta to talk about, as one of the primary foci of his center is technology (he’s big on nanotechnology these days). “Dude, can we talk about something interesting? Like shwarma?”
6:15 Wait! Someone asked me to turn down the AC. I think it was him. Those might have been the first words we’ve exchanged today. I can’t recall for sure.
6:17 Someone cuts into the motorcade again and the lead cop firmly points at him to, ahem, get the hell out. That was some visual bitch-slap.
6:40 Peres et al take a 30-minute flight to visit President Carter at his home in rural Georgia. (That’s almost kind of redundant.) As an important unnamed Israeli wishes those of us who are staying goodbye, he backs up towards the plane, trips over a pylon, and almost falls flat on his tuchus. Hilarious.
6:42 There’s something beautiful about watching a plane take off from the rear in the middle of the country. Of the things I’ve witnessed in my life, that ranks up there with watching a cow give birth. Actually, that was more just freaky.
6:50 Ted and I start driving back to town in one car, leaving one at the airport. For the first time all day, I don’t have to follow anyone.
6:51 Ted reminds me that I’m not following anyone when I start to turn right after some random car.
7:15 We throw out some ideas for restaurants. He wants something close. I’m in the mood for someplace nice. We settle on Hooters.
7:25 For the love of God, what kind of a place makes you buy fries separate from the burger?
8:10 We drive back towards the airport.
8:20 My friends Ben and Julie call, the first friends I’ve talked to all day. They laugh at the pants story.
9:45 Ted and I have been in the tiny airport lounge now for two hours waiting for the group to return. I’m starting to get delirious. Ted catnaps. It’s been a long day and I need a shower. If Shimon wants to hit the club scene, he’s on his own.
10:35 The group arrives one hour late due to thunderstorms. Apparently Shimmy and some others polished off half a bottle of whiskey on the return flight.
10:36 They walk towards the car. It’s late at night, everyone’s tired, screw protocol. I walk right up to Mr. Peres and welcome him back. My boss, as I suspected he would at some point, finally has the chance to introduce me and says some kind words. I shake his hand. Wow, that was incredible. In Hebrew, I thank him and tell him it’s a once in a lifetime honor that I’ve been given. I think I said that right. Hopefully I didn’t accidentally say “your mother is a ninja turtle”.
I also told him “kol hakavod” for his speech which translates, not literally, to “good job”. Later on, as I suspected, I confirmed with someone that that might have been too informal.
11:10 We’re almost back to the Hyatt downtown. As we get close, I swear to God, someone in the car suggests that we take Peres to Hooters. Someone else then says that we should take him to the Cheetah. Peres replies in his Hebrew accent: “What is Cheetah?” I tell you, give someone an accent and have them remove the articles from a sentence and I’m laughing for hours. That’s the phrase that pays, folks: “What is Cheetah?”
(For the non-Atlantans out there, it’s exactly what you think it is.)
11:15 Back at the hotel, an unnamed Israeli can’t figure out how to open the door of the suburban. Instead he repeatedly raises and lowers the window.
11:55 After dropping off a few people at home, I head home. While trying to look in my side mirror to park the car, I hit my head against the window. It’s been a long day.
Early in the morning…
6:29 The trip is coming to a close. I get dressed and put on the same traction-less shoes again. I’m just asking for trouble, aren’t I?
6:45 While waiting for an unnamed Israeli in the parking lot of the apartment complex, I win a $50 gift certificate from a local radio station by being the first to name one of the cars named in “Baby Got Back”. The phone was dialing half a second after the question. (I answered “Mercedes”)
7:00 We pull into the Hyatt with two new cops. These cops are all mammoth.
Benji: “You guys are all big. Do they make cops my size?”
I have a feeling that if you’re on their good side, they’re fun as hell. If not, watch out.
7:30 Group gets into the car for their final meeting of the day. I welcome Mr. Peres into the car. We drive towards Home Depot to meet with one of the co-founders, a rich Jew who has more money than you and I have. Unnamed Israeli briefs Peres on this guy in English so someone else in the car can understand. Nothing’s funnier to me than two Israelis conversing in English.
7:51 The cop has us going every wrong way possible. Apparently we got the big, oafish ones today.
8:15 Ted, the cops, and I get a mini-tour of the headquarters. They don’t call it a corporate office, they call it a “store support center” or something. Whatever — it’s orange and rich. We eat at the cafeteria. Eggs, hash browns, and sausage for $2.49? I guess there are some good things about corporate America. I’m so used to the escort, I just cut off some woman walking to the cashier. I’ve become completely oblivious to everyone else around me.
8:22 The lead cop tries to justify going the wrong way on the highway. Dude, I was driving in neutral yesterday. You don’t have to say another word.
It’s so funny how the two founders of a home improvement store are Jewish. I didn’t think of that, I’m just the most recent to write it down.
8:45 I call my friend Jonah to ask who created the Segway, that new-wave scooter thing. It’s Dean Kamen. Peres couldn’t remember his name yesterday.
9:23 As we’re waiting outside for them talking with the cops, I bring up the small locked case loaded in the back of the suburban with the luggage, which we assume contains a weapon. Cop #2 makes some joke about what the Israeli security guard would say if he caught us fooling around with it. The cop does his best foreign language mumbo jumbo “blah blah blah” line in an Indian accent.
Well, at least our local law enforcement officers are large.
9:30 Peres et al get into the car for the last time and we make our way down to Hartsfield Airport.
Benji: “Mr. Peres! Remember yesterday you wanted to know the creator of the Segway? It’s Dean Kamen.”
Peres: “Yes, Dean Kamen. Todah lecha.”
Go, Benji! It’s your birthday! Get busy!
Points to Jonah. Some of you other guys didn’t answer your phones.
10:00 We arrive at the airport and quickly say our goodbyes. I shake Mr. Peres’ hand again, tell him how meaningful it was, and luckily get a picture. If I hadn’t gotten one, I would not have been happy. Everyone says their goodbyes and in a couple of minutes, they’re on the plane to Washington, D.C.
10:10 Ted and I drive back to the consulate with no police escort. It’s almost like when you take off your roller skates and it takes a while to adjust back to that alternate reality.
10:15 50 Cent comes on the radio. It’s full circle. I love when that happens. “Don’t try to act like you don’t know who we be neither.” I’ve heard better English in Gaza City.
And that was that. I guess this recap ended up being more about me than the guest of honor. I had naively hoped to get to know Shimon Peres just a little bit but with such a hectic schedule, it wasn’t possible. All in all though, it was fun. I can tell my grandkids that I spent a day driving around the former Prime Minister and someone who has truly played a major role in the growth and history of the state of Israel. I hope you have enjoyed this recap as much as I enjoyed living it.