September 23, 2019

Can a shakshuka stain kill you?

The folks at Pico Café serve a mean shakshuka, that clumsy word made famous recently by Conan O’Brien in his television adventures from Israel. Shakshuka is a hot and spicy Israeli breakfast dish consisting of eggs submerged in cooked tomatoes. The one I ordered the other morning seemed to have an extra dose of the red stuff — the scourge of white shirts everywhere.

Maybe because my conversation with a friend got a little lively ( I think we were talking about Trump), I didn’t pay much attention to the pathway between the tomato sauce and my shirt. I’m sure you can see where this is going: At one point, I looked down and there it was, the dreaded little stain on my shirt.

I tried to clean it with a napkin and ice water, but that was like trying to make a peace agreement in the Middle East — beyond useless. My brain quickly processed the dilemma: Should I go back home and change my shirt, or should I go straight to the office and carry the stain with me all day, tolerating the psychic wear and tear that would involve?

Since my house wasn’t too far away, I voted for peace of mind and rushed home to change the shirt.

That decision almost ended my life.

You see, from my house, it was quicker to take the Santa Monica Freeway to the office. Had I driven from the restaurant, I would have taken Olympic Boulevard.

So, there I was in my clean shirt driving happily on the freeway under a glorious California sun and with the jazz music playing, cars to the left of me, cars to the right, cars all around.

There’s an odd feeling of safety these days when you drive these sturdy new cars with so many comfort and safety features. On a freeway, this illusion of safety is somewhat magnified, because everyone seems to be gliding along in their protective bubbles and in their own lanes.

Some drivers, as you know, love to explore new lanes, especially new lanes that go a little faster than the one they’re in. I’m one of those explorers.

A smart choice can lead to an accident. A wrong choice can save your life. We are all at the mercy of fate.

Since I was driving a new car, I wasn’t in tune with its blind spots, so, as I tried to shift into a faster lane to my left, I missed seeing a car that was already there. The mere glimpse of the car made me do a sudden and jerky move, and for one little second, I thought I had lost control of the car.

How can I describe the horror of that second?

I remember reading a French writer who described love at first sight as “when a second lasts a century.” Well, maybe that describes it — in a second that seemed to last forever, I saw death at first sight. I experienced the cliché of seeing my life flash in front of me. 

After the shock wore off, I started reflecting on the shakshuka.

One silly tomato stain made me change my shirt, which made me take the freeway, which put me in a position where I almost got into into a deadly accident. Could that little stain have triggered the end of my life?

These philosophical musings may be intriguing but, in reality, they have little practical value. We make choices all day long that take us into unknown territory. For all I know, the deadly accident would have occurred on Olympic Boulevard, in which case the shakshuka stain would have saved my life. We’ll never know.

I have a friend who met his future wife on an escalator in an airport. Had he gone to a restroom or stopped for coffee or done any number of trivial things at that time, he never would have met her. His life would have been entirely different — different family, different everything.

The smallest decision can lead to a life-changing, or even a life-ending, event. A smart choice can lead to an accident. A wrong choice can save your life. We are all at the mercy of fate.

Of course, none of that means we shouldn’t put the odds on our side.

In my case, my shakshuka adventure reminded me of the razor-thin fragility of life. It also reminded me of something else: Whether there’s a stain on my shirt or not, I really should learn how to stay in the slower lanes and just enjoy the music.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at