The Obvious

simpler times

Posted in life by theobvious on July 3, 2018

I’ve been thinking of the time, a few years ago, when I was a digger at an archaeological excavation here in Jerusalem. True blue manual labor for about half a year, I think it was. The odd thing is that I remember enjoying it, even though every particular aspect of the work should have been torture for me. It was in the heat, in the dust, mind-numbingly physical, sometimes dangerous and very early in the mornings. And still, I have it stored away as a happy experience.

Oddly enough, I remember very little actual digging. I remember striving for an even line, and that the soil we turned up went into buckets, but I don’t remember putting it there (was it with my hands? No, we had these hoes, didn’t we). Was I allowed earphones? Was there conversation between partners on a square? No memory. I do remember the bucket chains, and the movement with which a bucket full of soil must be flicked so that it travels the correct distance and is easy to catch.

I know that we assigned value to things differently at the dig. There were “better” hoes, pickaxes, “better” gloves and hardhats, and every morning as we were standing in line to get our tools for the day, I’d hope to snag that particular pick I liked and those gloves that were marginally more comfortable than the others. But I can’t recall what exactly was better about those things.

I remember that the walk through the sleeping Old City was always magical in the morning and the walk back up the steep hill through throngs of tourists–always torture, but somewhat fun as well, feeling like a local, feeling like this was my own place. I walked a lot in those days. Vaguely I seem to remember that some of the days I headed straight for the zoo on the other end of town afterwards, changing into my keeper’s t-shirt after a quick wash in the visitors’ bathroom at the City of David.

It is very difficult to recall the exhaustion and the low pay, or if there was anyone there I disliked. There were also, I think, times when there was so little energy in me to dig that all I wanted was to wash pottery for a day (a very dubious privilege awarded only a few people at a time), but these now seem to have been quite rare. And unless I’m much mistaken, I had been hoping for some positive changes in my body shape from doing physical labor, yet all that I gained were permanent bruises on my arms from catching buckets. But none of this remains.

This time stays with me as a period of simple joys. The hummus someone would fetch for lunch (oh, those glorious 45? 30? minutes of rest, sitting down, and even doing the dishes afterwards was fine, getting sprayed by all the water in the heat). The deep conversations in the bucket chain (you always knew where best to stand for some fun in the chain) and the bucket-throwing competition (eventually I learned to throw up stairs, and that was such a sense of achievement). The rare occasions when the bosses allowed us a “popsicle break” and the Ben&Jerry’s cones bought in the canteen after work.

It’s curious how memory works. I honestly don’t know if that was a good time in my life or not. If the wages weren’t so minimal and I didn’t live much further away these days, I’d probably want to go back. Of course, if I did go back I’d likely soon discover that it was mostly terrible and want to quit. But right now I miss that time, and the zoo as well, which too has gone through the nostalgia filter in my mind.

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