go out every couple of days, just to get groceries from the
supermarket. But even that is becoming an ordeal, since the
government imposed a four-day lockdown every week, from Thursday to
My wife and I figured we should do our shopping on Tuesday, get ahead of the rush. But everybody else thinks the same thing. There are queues outside all of the supermarkets, as only a certain number of people are allowed in at a time.
“It just makes it worse,” my wife observed. “Closing everything down for four days. Everybody is forced to run to the shops and it ends up being more crowded. How is that stopping the spread of the virus?”
We continued walking down the street, passing the Uskuruslar and Bim supermarkets. People stood patiently in the queues, wearing masks and holding their empty cloth shopping bags, waiting for the usher to let them enter. Fortunately there have been no shortages, except milk, but only sometimes.
The street was busy, with most people dutifully wearing their masks. At an intersection we stopped to let a city bus pass. There were only a few passengers on the normally packed bus.
“There’s no line at Happy Center,” I noted.
The supermarket was located not far from the waterfront, and looked out at a broad, flat plaza filled with people rushing about. There are three big mosques nearby.
“Ramazan is coming,” I remembered. “The mosques are closed.”
“Yes,” my wife concurred.
It was a strange thought, that the places of worship would be closed not only for the holy month, but at a time when many people probably could use prayers the most. One could ruminate on the mysterious ways of the divine, but we were more focused on shopping. Brilliant spring sunshine bounced off the plaza, and threw itself out to reflect on the surface of the Bosphorus. Ordinarily, it would have been a nice day for a walk. But with the mask, you couldn’t really breathe the fine air, and you were too mindful of the passersby, the immediate surroundings, to give your senses over to the arrival of spring.
Inside the Happy Center, a covered woman motioned us over. With rubbed-gloved hands, she held a gadget up to our foreheads to check our temperature. After checking the results, which came as a beep on the gadget, she nodded and let us pass.
“Let’s hurry,” my wife said. “I feel very uncomfortable here.”
Back at the apartment, our four month-old son was in the car of his grandmother. We wanted to grab our provisions in as fast and sanitary way possible, and retreat back to our cozy prison up on the hill.
We shopped hurriedly, stopping at the butcher counter to grab some ground beef, which we use to make Turkish meatballs, two dozen eggs, two loaves of packaged bread, processed cheese, and a host of chips and other snacks. We find ourselves snacking a lot more than we used to, what with the gallons of long afternoon hours that have poured into our lives.
At the check out counter, we were lucky to score a free cashier. She was another covered woman, wearing a plastic face shield atop her traditional Muslim garb. We packed our groceries in the cloth bags quickly and I handed over the debit card. Before I entered the PIN, the cashier doused the debit machine with a generous dose of lemon cologne, which I greatly appreciated.
Outside, we walked up the long , step flight of steps that resemble the famous ones in the movie, “The Exorcist.” (I call them “The Exorcist” stairs, as a matter of fact. Every time I climb them, I think of that poor priest flinging himself out the window into the satantic night and down those cruel steps to his death at the end of the movie).
With the weight of the groceries, and the atrophy in our muscles from all those hours sitting at home, we had to stop every few steps. We lifted our masks to gulp down the spring air, catch our breaths. Nearby, a black and white street cat regarded us. We recognized the cat since it always would hang around a nearby coffee shop, now closed.
The cat sat languidly, peering at us and the others making their way up the stairs.
“Hello, cat,” my wife said, stopping for a moment to regard it.
A few days earlier, we had stopped at a pet food store to get some Pro Plan for our cat. An old woman, the neighborhood cat lady, approached us and asked if we could buy her some cat food to distribute to the street cats. My wife bought it for her and she had thanked us. It was nice to know that someone was stil looking after the cats.
“The cats must be wondering, ‘Why are the humans acting so strangely?’” I mused aloud. Or maybe the cats didn’t care one way or the other, with that supreme feline indifference, mirroring the silence of the nearby mosques, the minarets pointing up toward the brilliant, opaque sky.
At the top of the hill we walked until we reached our street, the last street before the hill descended back down to the Bosphorus. Far away, we could see the mighty iron bridge, normally densely packed with cars, now nearly deserted. The Bosphorus too was placid, a deep blue in the afternoon sunshine.
The silence was interrupted by the sound of the workers down the street, where construction of a new apartment building has continued despite the lockdown. The brand new white brick facade lay behind a soft black mesh. The windows resembled eye sockets, looking in at the still unfinished interior.
“It never stops, does it?” my wife said. “In Istanbul, the construction never stops. It’s like even if it was the end of the world, it wouldn’t stop. Like we are building for the Apocalypse or something.”
“I know,” I said. “And in this market, who’s even going to buy the apartments anyway?”
I thought about that, and about the approach of the holy month. All the faithful who would not be allowed to go to the mosques. And yet they would find a way to make their prayers be heard, just as the construction workers carried on with their work on a building that would very likely sit empty for a long time, waiting for the market to bounce back. Imagine that developer, the investors, they must be pretty anxious, but they were not the ones doing the actual work. One could stop for a minute and ruminate on the question of faith, on perseverance, on building something that you might not ever live to see, like the cathedral in the Carver story.
But we were tired and in too much of a hurry to get home to our son to ponder the ephemeral universe. There was too much pondering nowadays anyway. We passed the workers, and retreated back to our building, where we quickly wiped down the groceries, showered – washed away the contagions of the suddenly hostile outside world, leaving our masks out on the terrace to soak in the afternoon sun from the garden.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.