Letter from Istanbul: Go Easy and Shine, Brother
How does one survive in a city of 14 million souls? Sometimes, all you need is just a little patience – and the right man on the bar tap.
To much of the world, Istanbul is all the stuff you see in post cards: the majestic Hagia Sophia and Blue mosques, the sprawling city straddling two continents, Galata Tower, the ships and ferries steaming over the Bosphorous.
But it is a different city for those 14 million souls who inhabit it. Like most big cities (or, in this case, mega-city), there is a lot of grind. A lot of hustle, bustle, (hadi! hadi! hadi!), sweating, cursing, clamor. A vagabundance of desire, of worry, of rage, indifference – egos clashing, ambitions hurtling past you on the crowded streets in a mad dash to catch the next ferryboat. A cauldron of overwork and underplanning; a monument to money, acquisition and power.
This last bit is key: “Everybody in Istanbul’s a specialist, and everybody’s a manager” a Turkish friend wryly observes. The fisherman Quint in “Jaws” said it best: There’re too many captains on this island, Chief.
Too many people talking at once and, beneath the chatter, too much loneliness.
It’s Thursday afternoon. You’ve got an appointment with an important client at 5:45. Your driver turns up at a quarter to five. “Let’s go,” he says impatiently. Go, now? You’re in the middle of a fish sandwich, a late lunch.
Yes, now. He’s got three other runs to make before 6 o’clock. So what’s left of the sandwich goes in the wastebasket. It was a tad on the oily side anyway. You grab your bag, and follow the driver hurriedly to the lift. Your driver is a good guy. A young Kurdish man, he’s got at least four other brothers, you’ve lost count. Sometimes one of the brothers takes over when he’s too busy.
Outside it’s raining. The streets are jammed. On Thursdays there is a street bazaar, so the traffic is especially bad, even for Istanbul. It takes 15 minutes just to barely cover two blocks. Your driver is growing more and more anxious. He turns on the radio – Turkish pop – to settle his nerves.
By now it’s almost ten after 5. Your driver is ready to give up. There’s no way he’s going to be able to make all his rounds by 6, not at this rate. He tells you to walk up to the Minibus Avenue and grab a taxi. He’ll reimburse you later. He apologizes. It’s OK. You get out, cursing, and start walking in the rain. You almost knock over an ancient head-scarved woman tottering slowly along with an umbrella.
Up on the Minibus Avenue, past the bazaar, the traffic is bad too, but at least there seems to be movement. The problem is there aren’t any taxis. You scan the sea of cars and buses passing, looking for yellow, but there’s no yellow. It’s almost 5:20.
Cursing again, you grab one of the blue minibuses. It’s packed, and there’s no place to sit. You stand pressed against the side of the bus next to a young woman, a student. You hand her the correct change and she hands it to the next person, who then hands it to the driver. The driver, like most Istanbul drivers, is a master multi-tasker. He takes the change, dumps it into a small box, and shifts into the next gear while simultaneously opening the door to let in another passenger.
You ride the minibus until it reaches an intersection, where you jump off and start walking again in the rain. It’s now 5:30. You walk up a hill past a kind of slumdog millionaire neighborhood of tall apartment buildings and a large empty lot of weeds. It’s already dark, and the passing cars have their headlights on, and you have to be careful not to get hit.
You arrive at the company. The security takes your passport, checks your bag in the x-ray machine, and hands you a guest pass. On the lift up to the tenth floor you check the time. 5:42. Hot damn! Three minutes early. You have a triumphant moment to get your breath and wipe the sweat off your brow.
Upstairs on the tenth floor most of the staff have already gone home for the day. Your client’s desk is vacant, his computer turned off. A handful of employees are sitting around a computer playing NBA2011. You ask about your client. They see you standing there looking like an idiot. One of them comes over and asks if he can help. You ask about your client.
“Oh!” the man says. “His uncle died today. Sorry.”
Well, why the fuck didn’t he call and cancel the meeting, so that you didn’t have to haul your ass through this pissing rain and traffic?
What you really say is: “Oh, I’m sorry. Give him my best.”
Of course, they say. Thank you. Iyi akşamlar!
All we need is just a little patience. – W.A. Rose, postmodern prophet
The traffic going into Kadikoy isn’t bad. The journey takes about 20 minutes. The taxi driver dropped me at the bull statue in Kadikoy. I gave him a 5 lira tip (I was feeling elated at suddenly having a free evening). The driver was surprised, and he turned around and nodded thanks. My pleasure, abi. I walked up the hill on Bahariye Street past the Opera House and went to Little Bar Street. It was very early and the back room at the Hera Bar was empty.
Selçuk, the regular bartender, wasn’t there. A new face greeted me, a college kid with big frizzly hair. His name was Ahmet.
“Selçuk left for a new job,” Ahmet says.
“That’s too bad,” I say. Selçuk was a really cool guy. “Do you know where he went?”
“I don’t know,” Ahmet says shrugging as he pours a glass of Tuborg.
I take the beer in back. I read a Bukowski book and drink the beer. The Bukowski is really funny as usual and goes down well with the beer.
Ahmet brings me another pint. “What are you reading? Bukowski?”
“Do you like him?” I ask.
He makes the so-so sign with his hand. “Sometimes,” he says. “Much drinking, much sex.”
“Much comedy too,” I say.
“Yes, yes. Much comedy.”
We talk about his studies. He’s a third-year law student at Marmara University (the Haydarpasha branch, not the main campus in Goztepe). I ask which area of law he’s interested in.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Right now, I’m in my third year. Maybe I will finish – “ he shrugs and laughs – “maybe in five years. Right now, I’m working in the bar and –“
“Yes, it’s hard,” I say. “It was the same for me. In California I was a cook for five years in a restaurant while I was at university. Five years – and I hate cooking!”
“Ah, but you are a cook?” Ahmet is politely impressed.
“Can you cook any Turkish cuisine?” he asks.
“Ha! I can hardly cook any American cuisine.”
“Hamburgers,” he offers.
“But you know about Turkish cuisine?” Ahmet asks.
We talk about the merits of Iskender kebab versus, say, Adana kebab (he prefers Adana kebab), and agree that most of the best Turkish food is not to be found in Istanbul, but rather, further east. We switch to fish. Ahmet advises me carefully on where to find the best places. He writes a few names of small Black Sea towns in my notebook – names, which, in the interest of national security, I will not disclose here.
Ahmet sees my empty pint glass and brings a fresh Tuborg. He’s really friendly.
“So you really want to be a lawyer?” I ask, when he gets back with the beer.
“Yes, I think so,” he says. “Why do you ask?”
“Well,” I say. “You seem like a really nice guy. Most lawyers I’ve met are sharks, to be honest.”
Ahmet laughs. “So do you know many lawyers.”
“I’ve met a few.” I tell him about how at one time I was a journalist in California and had covered the courthouse for the Times-Standard in Eureka.
It was evening now, and the bar was starting to fill up. Ahmet had less time to chat. He went off to deal with the other customers. Some other students came in – also law students – and a couple of them invited me to sit with them. They were a pleasant young couple and we talked and drank beer until about 10 o’clock. We all had to get up early.
I paid at the bar and said good-night to Ahmet. It had stopped raining, and the streets were all slick, glowing in the moonlight. I felt very relaxed and calm, now that the day was over. I thought about all the hurrying around a few hours before, the traffic, the clamor, the rain, the wasted errand, I thought about Servet, my client whose relative had died. I thought about how there would be next week, and the week after that, and all the other ones.
But there was more than that. I also had the names of those cozy Black Sea villages that Ahmet had provided tucked away safely in my notebook. I would get away early some Friday soon. The season was starting, and the fish would be at their best. Ah, Ahmet my friend, you will go far in this world, even if you do settle on becoming a lawyer! Just go easy, go easy and shine. Don’t let all the hurry, the noise, the ambition, all the rest of it, drag you down. Go easy and shine, brother. Go easy and shine.
James Tressler was a reporter for the Times-Standard. His books, including “Conversations in Prague” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches,” are available at Amazon and Lulu. He lives in Istanbul.