OK, maybe he watched too many movies. Movies like “The Dark Knight,” “X-Men” and the “Spiderman” franchise. All the DC comics stuff. Barış couldn’t get enough of them.
You could argue that at age 40, Barış was a little too old for comics, that he should be into sturdier material, perhaps historical figures. There was after all “Fatih,” for example, which many of his countrymen viewed as a fine series on the great conqueror. At least he was a real person.
But no, it was the superhero that concerned Barış, who was a bit of a geek – short, balding, and unmarried.
In the mornings, when Barış took the metro across town to his job as an IT manager, he liked to fantasize, to use the different powers of his heroes on his journey. When he was racing alongside other Istanbullus through the crowded metro station at Yenıkapı, he became Flash, swishing around the corners of the station at light speed.
By night, when he took a solitary walk in his Üsküdar neighborhood to get some Pepsi and chips from the bakkal, he became the Caped Crusader, patrolling the dark Istanbul streets for knife-wielding muggers, child rapists, and glue-sniffers.
And when he took his annual holiday, usually to visit his parents in the town of Muğla, Barış steeled himself (for he disliked travel generally) for potential bomb attacks at Sabhia Gökcen Airport by imagining he was Wolverine. His sharp steel claws ready to slash open the throat of the first unlucky available terrorist, and with his Wolverine intelligence quickly locate and disarm the bomb.
We won’t play amateur psychologists and try to analyze the reasons for Barış’s superhero fantasies. It would be easy to say that they were manifestations of a lonely, single, middle-aged man’s unfulfilled dreams, that he lacked a wife who would keep an eye on him, children to command his maturity. That he had no one to reign in these childish impulses. Or that he vicariously hoped to transcend his nature, which was as peace-loving as his name Barış suggested.
Let us instead just take Barış and his superhero fantasies at face value. After all, he isn’t hurting anyone, right?
Well, he wasn’t, until one morning on the way to work. As was his custom, Barış bought a cup of coffee at the metro station near his office. He liked to have the coffee outside, to look at the traffic along the busy boulevard, and daydream before starting the day.
That morning he was doing that, when suddenly some nearby commotion caught his attention. Loud voices, an agitated scene. Turning (irritably, actually, for the scene interrupted his daydreaming) Barış found a heavily pregnant covered woman shouting at a man. The man appeared to be a beggar, and was hitting up the woman for spare change.
“Hadi git!” the woman shouted, waving the beggar away.
The beggar responded with a volley of curses, his face rough and unshaven.
Barış generally was a timid man who shook at such confrontations. Ordinarily he would have turned away, drowned out the commotion by plunging ever further into his dreams. In fact, he was in the process of doing that when suddenly he was shoved. Fortunately, he had just placed his hot coffee on a bench so it didn’t spill.
The shove was accidental – the beggar was so occupied with getting money from the pregnant woman that he walked into Barış by mistake.
Nevertheless, when it happened, the already stressed beggar turned on Barış.
“Watch where you’re going, abi!” the beggar shouted, tossing a few swear words in.
It all happened very fast. Before Barış knew what he was doing, he picked up his fresh coffee and flung it in the beggar’s haggard face.
Screaming in pain, the beggar stumbled a few steps. The strange scene might have escalated, but then a security guard from Barış’s workplace came along and ordered the beggar to leave.
“Thank you!” the relieved pregnant woman said. “I couldn’t get rid of him!”
After the woman left, the security guard laughed and clapped the still-stunned Barış on the back.
“Way to go, man!” he said. “That was really quick thinking!”
By lunchtime, word of Barış’s exploits had become legendary in the office. His colleagues all came by and offered salutations, commendations on his having saved the pregnant woman from the clutches of a madman. As in all big cities, very little sympathy was reserved for the beggar. After all, his colleagues reasoned, the beggar was a healthy-enough young man. Why did he need to be begging? Why harass poor pregnant women for money? No, our Barış had done the right thing, was the general consensus.
As for Barış, he replayed the scene in his head a thousand times. Like most naturally shy and timid men, he had very few opportunities to act the part of the hero. Over lunch in the cafeteria, where Barış found himself the center of gossip, he couldn’t decide which superhero best fit his coffee heroics. One could say that he had played a very passable Clark Kent, saving Lois Lane from a stray bullet. But then, the hot coffee trick had a certain flair, a quick-thinking wit, that one could also associate with Neo of “Matrix” fame.
In his own eyes, Barış rose in measure. By four o’clock he had even struck upon an idea: Why not devote himself to crime fighting more often?
This was something he could do. Of course, he needed to work at it, practice. Why not a crime a week? A crime a day? Surely in a city the size of Istanbul, that was not too ambitious. There was crime everywhere, one just needed to seek it out.
You might think, reader, at this point that some issues need to be addressed. For example, should Barış have a superhero name? Should he wear a uniform? Should he seek counseling?
Actually, Barış opted to keep his regular street clothes. He liked the idea of being just a regular guy, anonymous. It would be too obvious, too cliche, too conspicuous if he had a definite super-identity. I mean, come on, Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city. You see women in burkas passing beside women in mini-skirts. On the metro, you will see tall African men standing beside groups of short Chinese tourists. Along the iskele in Kadıköy, you find extremely wealthy Arabs having the same fish sandwiches and lemonade as the most beat-looking collegiate backpackers, and so on.
But even in this colorful environment, a guy walking around in a ninja outfit, or wannabe Superman garb, is going to stand out.
So with this reasoning, Barış chose to retain his modest appearance.
The next day, after his first rescue, Barış set out for work. He walked with purpose, scanning the metro, alert for potential pickpockets or sexual harassers. But as he always commuted early, the metro at that hour was not very crowded. The few people aboard the metro were half-asleep, or just playing games on their phones. One pony-tailed fellow even had the temerity to read an actual book.
Nothing happened on the streets of Fatih either, when he got off the metro. Walking to the office with his fresh cup of hot coffee, Barış looked about desperately. Surely, there had to be another aggressive panhandler, like the day before. But no … perhaps word of his exploits had gotten ‘round.
It was frustrating. I mean, just when you decide to become a superhero, everybody becomes so well-behaved all of a sudden. It was like the reverse of “Where’s a cop when you need one?” Where was a crook when you wanted to be a crime fighter? It was like they all just disappeared into the back streets of the city.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Barış’s heroics of the day before were already forgotten, and most of his colleagues instead chatted about the World Cup, or about the upcoming anniversary of the failed coup attempt. One of the girls in the office had gotten some new hair extensions, and that was the hot topic, as the girl paraded around the office, declaring herself to be “Carmen, the great singer from Spain” and her colleagues even posted pictures of her to their Instagram accounts.
Alas, Barış was already forgotten.
Something had to be done to reclaim his superhero status.
Well, if Muhammad doesn’t go to the mountain, then the mountain goes to Muhammad. So thought Barış as he left the office. He had to force the action to be an action hero.
That evening, instead of going home to his usual delivery pizza and latest pirated movie download, Barış set out for Taksim. This busy square is the heart of the city’s entertainment district. Even on a Tuesday, the square was lively and crowded with tourists, especially in mid-summer. Plenty of potential action.
The square was festooned with red and white Turkish flags, in honor of the upcoming coup attempt anniversary. It was hot and bright, with many tourists wearing shorts and t-shirts, armed with smart phones. Street musicians pounded out sweet, undulating melodies in the July evening.
It was pretty chill, unfortunately. Maybe he was looking in the wrong places. Feeling decidely Spiderman-ish, Barış fortuned upon the notion of heading to Galata Tower. The proud ancient tower, gazing high out over the Golden Horn, was a touchstone of the city. It was the kind of place that beckoned a superhero to come and show his powers.
He stood in line, bought a ticket, and joined the tourists in climbing to the top of the tower. It was windy up there, the view spectacular. Far below, the boats in the Bosphorus looked tiny and distant. The sun was just going down. Wouldn’t it be great if somebody – any run-of-the-mill tourist would do – suddenly lost their balance and fell off the tower? Well, not fell. Just slipped and nearly fell. Then he, Barış, could be there to catch them, haul them relieved back over the edge. That would get lots of video, Instagram posts, even YouTube. Barış’s heart swelled as he imagined the headlines: GALATA TOWER HERO RESCUES TOURIST or ‘TURKİSH SPİDERMAN’ SCALES TOWER.
But sadly, no one slipped. The tourists showed an irritating level of respect for the laws of gravity, and even held onto the rails. You’d think at least one idiot would try leaning over the side, but not on this occasion.
Around 10:30, Barış decided to throw in the cape. Dejectedly, he walked back down the hill. He got the Kabitaş tram, which took him to the ferry station at Beşiktaş. From there he boarded the ferry to his home in Üsküdar.
As the ferry set off, Barış looked out at the lights of the city, the Maiden Tower in the distance. He felt depressed. His career as a crime fighter had gotten off to a sad start. Maybe he needed a new approach. Perhaps a Facebook page? No, a phone app. Then people could contact him directly when they needed assistance – a kind of online Bat Signal.
The ferry was about half-way to Üsküdar when Barış noticed a guy about his age standing nervously near the exit. The man appeared to be in a daze, muttering to himself. Alarmed, Barış rose. Maybe the guy was ISIS! Maybe he had a bomb that he was getting ready to explode that very instant!
Barış hatched a plan as he approached his adversary, who was still glazed-eyed and muttering to himself. He would, if necessary, push the man overboard into the dark waters of the Bosphorus. Hundreds of lives would be saved.
But just as Barış got in the guy’s face, and started to pat the man down for explosives, the man came out of his reveries. “Na’piyon?” the man said, his eyes now sharp and alert, sizing Barış up. He shoved Barış away rudely, evidently mistaking Barış for a pickpocket.
There was confusion, and people awoke from their ferry trances to regard the scene, these two balding, middle-aged men shoving and shouting at each other for apparently no good reason. A garson serving tea managed to intervene, as well as a few other strong-looking young men.
Arriving in Üsküdar, the two men were handed over to some policemen. Upon questioning, the victim indeed claimed that the suspect Barış had tried to pick his pocket, and he had the backing of the youths. When Barış, his heart racing with confused fury, said that he thought the man had been a suicide bomber, he was greeted with head-shaking disbelief. “You’re psycho!” his victim shouted. “You’re the terrorist, not me!”
Barış was forced to hand over his ID to the police. Bear in mind that the country at that moment was still technically under a state of emergency. Police can and will stop and even detain citizens for any reason at all.
Showing his wallet, which had several hundred liras, Barış was able to satisfy his accuser and the police that he was not a pickpocket, and in fact gainfully employed as an IT manager.
Since terror attacks are nothing new to Istanbul, such accusations are not taken lightly. The other guy also handed over his ID. Both men were briefly detained, questioned. Finally, the police determined that the whole incident had just been a case of mistaken identity, and sent the two parties on their way with a warning about “not inciting the public to violence.”
Unfortunately, the whole incident was caught by a number of ferry-goers on their phones. The next day, the Turkish social media was full of video. At work, Barış’s colleagues were gossiping about it the minute he arrived. Barış found himself summoned to the director’s office, and before he knew it, he had been placed on administrative leave. As of this writing, Barış’s future with the company – and his career as a superhero — remain up in the air.
As you might expect, Barış spends most of his time now at home. He’s re-watching “The Avengers” series, and thinking about going to see his family in Muğla for awhile.
What’s the moral of the story, reader? Crime-fighting doesn’t pay? Seek not Instagram fame and it won’t seek you? Don’t quit your day job? I don’t know. You make the call. But if by chance you should find yourself in Istanbul, on some dark night, trapped in an alley, you might hope that our Bariş is somewhere nearby, with a hot cup of coffee ready in hand.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul. He generally prefers old-fashioned crime noir and dramas.