Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station is a monstrosity. Built in the early 1990s by overeager developers, the structure is six floors of wasted space and ugly construction. Buses from major cities arrive at the top floor, which is filled with kiosks and vendors hawking everything from french fries to CDs. But the rest of the building is empty.
Planning to meet up with friends for a morning flight to Athens, I arrived in Tel Aviv close to 10 p.m., groggy from having fallen asleep on the bus from Jerusalem. In my limited Hebrew, I asked a security guard where I could catch the bus to my friends' suburb, Givat Ain. "Bus 53," he said in Hebrew. "First floor."
From the sixth floor, where the Jerusalem bus had let me off, the station winds its way down to the basement like a demented Guggenheim, a sloped boulevard filled with empty shop windows and few people. I was angry with myself for setting out so late as I wandered through the deserted station. With my fleece and backpack, I might as well have wrapped my body in an American flag, I looked like such a tourist.
Down in the eerie, ill-lit basement, filled with derelicts and garbage, I saw no Bus 53. There was no sign, no one to ask. I was beginning to be afraid, but I kept walking.
Then I saw her. Among the random men strolling aimlessly through the station, a woman came toward me dressed in a bulky black sweater that hid, barely, some kind of back deformity. I stopped her and asked about my bus. "Sure," she said in Hebrew, "Bus 53. Givat Ain, right? I used to live there. It leaves from here." A man standing next to her looked at his watch and interrupted. "Yes," he said, "but it stopped running at 8 p.m."
Maybe it was obvious that I was on the verge of tears--nothing like the intrepid traveler I'd been mere hours before. The woman took one look at my face and said, "Come with me." It didn't seem like there was an alternative.
As we walked to the other end of the terminal, she told me her name was Shuli. "Come," she said, as a bus pulled into the station, "let's go." I didn't even ask where, just followed her, suddenly unable to do anything else.
The bus took us through the darkened streets of south Tel Aviv, factories and graffiti eventually giving way to anonymous communistic middle-rise apartment buildings. Shuli chattered away, half in Hebrew, half in English. Then, abruptly, she pressed the "stop" button and we got off in a quiet residential neighborhood on the edge of a four-lane highway. She led me across the street to a little park with a phone. "Call your friends," she suggested.
She was right--it was quite late, and my traveling companions would be worried. I dug around for my phone card and found the number. Shuli took the phone away from me. "Your Hebrew," she said in broken English, "is getting bad. You are tired. Let me tell them the story." Which she did, asking them to meet me in the center of another town, where the bus I would be taking next would go. She brushed my thanks aside.
We sat and talked until another bus pulled up. Shuli boarded with me, telling the driver the whole story--how she'd found me, about my rusty Hebrew, where I was going--and made him promise to look out for me.
Then she got off the bus. "But Shuli!" I yelled from the window, when I realized she wasn't coming with me, "I don't even know your last name! Why did you do this? Why did you help me?"
"Good luck in Greece, Sarah," she called back. As the bus driver shifted gears to drive away, she waved until I couldn't see her anymore.