Bumping into the wrong bus in Jerusalem

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On Friday, Feb. 20, as I was preparing for my morning run, my wife, Jody, called to me from upstairs. “Can you take a couple of letters and drop them at the post office?” she asked. “They’re birthday cards to be mailed to the States.”

“Do I have to?” I whined back, giving off a kvetch that would make my 5-year-old child proud. It wasn’t that I was opposed to doing Jody a favor. It’s just that I have my regular running route. It’s one that I’ve carefully crafted to avoid having to cross any busy streets or wait at a lengthy traffic light.

My route consists primarily of an oversized oval through the upscale parts of several Jerusalem districts in the direction of downtown. On my return I usually do a quick loop around our immediate neighborhood. Think of it as taking a leisurely jog round an Olympic-size pool, finishing up with a quick loop around the small hot tub off to the side.

The problem with Jody’s request was that the post office was already in the “hot tub loop” — and that was supposed to be at the end of my run. I wasn’t about to say no of course. So I fashioned a compromise: I would try a new loop in a new place. It was actually kind of thrilling. Something fresh to keep this creature of hobbit on his furry toes.

My new loop took me in the direction of Liberty Bell Park. As I headed toward the expanse of grass, basketball courts, and one strategically placed replica of the U.S. Liberty Bell, I took notice of the traffic. Fridays mornings in Jerusalem, with everyone rushing to buy last-minute groceries, flowers and the weekend paper before the Sabbath begins, are more often than not bumper to bumper.

That’s when I found myself running past a No. 14 bus that was going nowhere fast. As I passed it, I felt a sudden, inexplicable fear. Now, I’ve been neurotically careful not to ride public transportation for the past 3 1/2 years, since the most recent violence began in earnest. But a disturbing thought gripped me. What if a bomb exploded on the bus at the precise moment I was passing it on foot? I’d be no more able to escape harm than if I were sitting inside.

I put on a little extra speed and I was clear of the bus. Nothing happened. I got back home, lifted a few weights and jumped in the shower.

Two days later, on Sunday, Feb. 22, I was preparing to go out again when I heard the news. A suicide bomber had blown himself up on a No. 14 bus. Where? Just in front of Liberty Bell Park. Exactly where I had been running on Friday.

It never ceases to amaze me how coincidence, fate and especially what seem at the time to be minor decisions can have such profound repercussions in the long term.

In 1988, Jody and I were living in the Bay Area. Jody was downtown one day and in a hurry to get home from work. She got to the corner of one of those massive six-lanes-in-all-directions California intersections and was just about to cross when the light went yellow. For a split second, she debated scurrying across anyway, but then stopped short.

Just then, a bus went careening out of control and plowed into the people who were still in the middle of the street. Three people died as Jody stood in stunned shock.

Flash forward 16 years and I couldn’t help shake this thought: What if Jody had asked me to drop off the letters on Sunday instead of Friday? I very well could have been running past the No. 14 bus that exploded, not the one that passed safely by.

I completed my run and was walking up the stairs to our apartment when the phone rang. Jody picked up. It was our friend Lisa. She had called to see how I was. Why me of all the people she knows in Jerusalem, I wondered?

I heard Lisa explain to Jody that she had seen me on Friday, running just in front of Liberty Bell Park while a No.14 bus was stuck in traffic. And she was worried. Was I at home? Was I OK? She didn’t know that had been the first time I’d ever moved my hot tub loop to Liberty Bell Park.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can happen anywhere. But it seems like it’s amplified to an almost unbearable degree in Israel today, where even the smallest decisions can have tragic consequences on a daily basis. If you misplace your keys, will you miss one bus and catch the “wrong one”? What would have happened if my cousin Marla Bennett had stopped to talk to a friend in the corridor at Hebrew University on July 31, 2002? Would she have arrived at the cafeteria just late enough to miss the bomb that killed her?

It’s impossible, of course, to think like this. Playing the “what if” game will drive you crazy big time because all of it is so utterly unknowable. And you can turn the tables just as easily — sometimes the smallest decisions can turn out wonderful: a chance meeting where you meet the love of your life and live happily ever after.

In the grand scheme of things, all we can do, really, is take the time to fully acknowledge what could have been, and then move on to appreciate what we’ve got — with as much life and joy as we can muster in these difficult times.

Brian Blum, a freelance writer in Israel, formerly taught at San Francisco State University. He writes the syndicated column “This Normal Life.”