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So now I’m home after playing on the boats with Jari. Jari plays on the ferries three or four times a week and I join him when I need some spending money. It’s an altogether pleasant way to spend a morning or afternoon. You do two or three tours–that’s back and forth from one dock to another, takes an hour–and, as Jari puts it, you basically “steal money from people.”

We ride the Kadikoy-Karakoy ferry because the Besiktas ferry is rigorously controlled by a musician’s mafia of sorts and they organize who can play at what time, and security doesn’t hassle them in exchange for 3000 liras a month of protection money. On the Karakoy ferry, security is a little more scrupulous about kicking off musicians, as it is technically illegal to play on the boats, but they only do one sweep through all the boat cabins at the beginning of the trip. As soon as they leave, we get out our instruments and play some songs.  We have tactics: we play a slow American folk song to make our presence known, we play a Turkish song to speak to the stirrings of their Turkhearts, and then we play a more lively finish. And then Jari plays a Bach prelude, and I pass the hat. And the we go to the upstairs cabin and do the same thing. You can make more than 200 lira for less than three hours of work, which is pretty good. Our friend Ulas plays for ten hours a day, but he has the downside of being by himself, being Turkish, and playing mostly Beatles songs on the guitar. He makes about 300 a day. Today he told us that he was paying six months of rent and he was a thousand lira short. “What’s the last day you can pay?” I asked “Today,” he said, and took a pull from his cigarette. “Fuck,” I said. “Good luck. What will you do if you’re short?” “I have no idea,” he said. “I’ll talk to them, ask for three more days or something.”

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I teach this kid, Can. (It’s pronounced John, because this is Turkistan) and our lessons consists mainly of me making the kid do his homework. He’s a kid motivated mostly by the desire for dominance, victory, his appetites, violence as spectacle, a caveman morality. He has been given everything he wanted immediately, and therefore has no boundaries, nor has he expressed empathy. When we first met, he would hit me, fart in my face, shriek for the live-in Ethiopian servant to bring him water right next to my ear, refuse to listen to a word I said. He is the child of rich parents. Being rich in this country, I do not know why, makes you insane. Can’s parents seem like pretty okay normal people, but then again they have a live-in servant from Ethiopia and also hired a person (me) to make their son do his homework. (This is because, I suppose, they know what kind of experience it is, and can afford to make someone else do it.) It pays 1200 lira a month for very little work, which is my rent + groceries, so I’m keen to hang onto it.

So twice a week I have to make sure he does his homework. He doesn’t do it unless we make a deal–do three exercises and we play a few goals of soccer. At the promise of getting to play a game with Teacher, he gets excited, and will legislate the smallest detail of the deal to make sure he gets maximum game time for minimum effort. He also leaps at any chance to humiliate or injure me, so sometimes the deal at first would be “do an exercise and you can shoot me x times with a nerf gun, where x is equal to the number of answers written correctly.” His handwriting and reading are pretty bad and I think he’s ashamed of not being able to write legibly, and so rather than try and fail, he screws around. After a month and a half of my influence, I’m actually pretty proud of what we’ve managed to do. I’ve given up all hope of coaxing out his better impulses. Mostly what we’ve done is set boundaries so that he understands it is in no way normal or okay to be a little shit to me. If he farts in my face, shit-eating grin spread wide, to test me, I leave the room and tell him it’s rude. Any hitting is met with “don’t do that,” any shrieking for the live-in Ethiopian servant is immediately met with “don’t shriek in my ear, and if you need something either get it yourself, or ask for it politely and not like a goddamn animal.” To get him to finish the homework, I write the answers in nice cursive on a separate sheet of paper and then he copies them. I stop him and make him fix it if it’s not written with care. His handwriting looks a lot better now, I think. His tolerance for work has increased, and we’ve gradually front-end-loaded all the work to the beginning of the lesson and the football to the end (rather than interspersing it throughout), and gradually moved away from the violence/mortification of teacher games. My limits for meeting a student halfway, it should be apparent by now, have really hit bottom.

On Thursday of last week, I’d observed all these positive changes and with a little pride, rewarded him with a full fifteen minutes of football after homework. We played a match in his room, he won 21-20. He begged me for one more goal as I was packing up, and I kicked the ball directly into his left wrist by accident. He crumpled to the floor, howling. “Get up,” I said. “You’ll be alright. Don’t whine.” We walked to the kitchen to get an ice pack, and then did reading practice. Since he took the ice pack off while reading the book (though still kind of sniffling) I figured he was fine.

Last Saturday, I got to their house and Can was ensconced in the sectional couch, watching TV, furiously ignoring me. His mom was like “Did you see, Can?” with a big smile. I looked closely. He had a cast on his left wrist. “Oh, what happened?” I said, as I had not put it together. Of course, it was from the football. His mom told me that he had complained a lot the next day, and so they went to the hospital and got it xrayed. His arm was fractured.

Though she did explain her husband was angry with both me and Can, she seemed pretty understanding, and asked me please no more football in the lesson. No roughhousing. I figured since I hadn’t been called and fired or sued during the interceding few days, like what would have happened in the normal universe, I was all too happy to agree.

“Oh, maybe he’s scared of me now,” I said with a grin.

“Yes! Haha!” she said. “You are arm-breaker teacher! New title!” She turned and called out to her son. “Ok, time for lesson, Can!”

Can was really angry at me, didn’t want anything to do with me. I apologized, said it was an accident, accidents happen when you play football inside your room, again said sorry. I didn’t actually feel bad, but y’know, it’s good to model what appropriate behavior is. He didn’t budge, didn’t look at me. I promised him he could put a boxing glove on his good hand and take a swing at my head for every answer he got. His eyes lit up and he got that shit-eating grin again.

Epilogue: the following evening I got a text from his mom asking what my email address was. I braced myself, expecting a summons or something. Her next text was “how can i make a kiwi bird costume for Can for school. i can’t imagine”

 

 

 

My guitar was purchased for three hundred dollars in Seattle, WA, at a guitar shop that only opened after I had finished college. It is (or was? Couldn’t tell you if it’s still there or not) on the corner of Pike and Broadway, just next to Ballet, my favorite cheap Vietnamese restaurant in the entire world. I offered the man there three hundred in cash for a four hundred and twenty five dollar guitar, presaging my pazarlamak days here in Istanbul by a few years, and he frowned, and said “Deal. Ok.” I suspect that nobody else had shown interest.

It is a beautiful guitar. I can only pass down what I know from apocrypha. It was made in Colombia a hundred years ago in a local factory, purchased as a quinceanera present, but after an accidental snapping of the guitar’s neck it languished in someone’s basement for years upon years, accumulating a century’s dust, until it was uncovered. All the strings were no doubt snapped from age, and the mounting had worn away. It was retrofitted with new parts and new strings, the broken neck was repaired, it may have been varnished again. When I strummed it for the first time in the shop, I felt it resonate in a peculiar way. It was a lovely sound. I was about to travel to Turkey for the first time and I wanted a larger more adaptable instrument than my Ukulele to accompany me as a bardic tool and good luck token. Obviously I know nothing about guitars. Many have complained that the strings are too high, too hard to press down, it’s too small (it’s three-quarter size, but for the traveler in me that was a selling point). Whatever. Often the story in my head animates the real world, and I let it. Who wouldn’t?

While I was flying back to America this last November, the guitar head got snapped off again in the overhead compartment. A brute’s carry-on was shoved into it, or perhaps during a turbulent episode a heavy bookbag crushed it. Who knows. I opened it in the Toronto airport to show it off like a proud father and his four year old ballerina, and all the strings were curling up, free of tension. The problem was located soon after.

The luthier in Brooklyn quoted me $250 for its repair, because it required “special tools” and “a lot of specialized labor.” Power to her. She and her partner had rented some warehouse space in Gowanus and they were sharing the cavernous room with a seamstress. Guitars hung from racks like suits at a dry cleaner’s. I felt like I’d wandered into someone else’s novel, playing a cameo role. I told her I couldn’t afford it, said I’d check if there were other prices around, and she said that was just what it cost. I checked around, and she was right; lowest I found was about $150. I hesitated.

Were I a member of the Gowanus ‘hood I’m sure I could have cut a similar deal with the luthier. But my story is over here in yeldeğirmeni right now. And I can always drop down the carnival hole of Turkish social life and a chain-smoking old man would fix it for peanuts. So maybe I hesitated because I knew I was coming back.

But even better: Ayşegül offered to put it back together! She’s putting the finishing touches on it today; she talked to her luthier teacher, Uğur, and he offered some advice for gluing the head back on. (she also fixed my Ukulele two years ago when I stepped on it) I will trade her for this one bottle of Georgian chacha. That’s my kinda story.

 

 

Often while commuting from place to place in this tumultuous mess of a city I’m forced to screen the whole thing out for sanity. Even popping in headphones doesn’t fully kill the noise. BUT, I had some time today and took the scenic route. There’s no “look” to the monster. My flat (Orkun’s flat) is in General Hasan, and it is between a ritzy boulevard of banks and covered garden restaurants. Just down the slope past our building is an open rotting pit with a collapsed rusty factory, slowly and agonizingly being converted into a parking lot. The corrugated steel around the site has been there ever since I moved to Istanbul in 2013. So you walk from Bitter Almond Avenue (the ritzy one) through the seedier General Hasan (my sketchy hood near the pit) and across the river into the ramshackle, filthy, desperately poor Idea Hill, where I get the bus. Idea Hill is a discombobulation of dirt mounds and car shops next to an open gutter canal, full of sewage, also in agonizing slow reconstruction. It smells curiously of burning plastic. On the road to the bus stop, I found a fenced-off garden hemmed in by the highway and my side street. I saw Atatürk’s face on a man-sized flag hanging from a dead winter branch. I saw maybe 20 ragged damp Turkish flags strung up in this fenced-off garden. It was perhaps a homeless camp, or a shrine. It had furniture, a tent, a mirror nailed to a tree underneath a portrait (again, of Atatürk) also nailed to a tree. The sidewalk was no one material, a composite of brick, cobblestone, open earth, cement.

So I cross the bosphorus on the bridge. It’s spectacular. You know this. The sprawl and linger of the grey clouds drifting above the overgrown peninsulas of the city, the churning dark boil of the water below.

At Well-And-Chain I popped out of the bus and decided to walk to rehearsal in Etiler. Well-And-Chain is a wealthy banking district with tall skyscrapers. The one right next to the metro is Tat Towers, a completely unnocupied piece of prime real estate. It was purchased and constructed by a Turkish mafia don who got caught with bad building permits, and so it exists in legal limbo, unable to be rented or sold or destroyed. It is called Tat Towers because the building’s shape is literally two towers separated by a smaller structure. TaT.

And while walking through the flashy European neighborhood of Etiler, I found a delightful park in the middle of the avenue. There was an ugly cubist ogre sculpture leering at the passing traffic. Then, for Valentine’s day, the municipality had strung up hearts all around from the branches. But also, because the municipality is lazy, their Christmas decorations were still up.

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And then, a man walked by pushing a shopping cart full of electrical cords. It is his job to hook up the lights. His name is Murat.

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Here is Murat.

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Super weird. Last year there was this whole fish bazaar here, under a motley panolply of tarps. Vibrant. Whole thing got bulldozed into oblivion one morning when nobody could protect it. Had some of my favorite restaurants, too. At the time, the government said it was an illegal market and this was their justification for destroying it on the sly. Over the last year or so a few of the balık ekmek guys set up their operations again, careful to creep in and position their mangal grills on short towers of Styrofoam packing crates. I haven’t been back here in awhile. Now there’s a cheap wood tourist “historical fish market” glitz mall. It looks more like the remade mercantile facades on the galata bridge, or in the grand bazaar, or spice market. I asked one of the fish sellers, can I ask you something? Of course, he said, ne demek. What happened, I said, I haven’t been here in a while. We made a new çarşı, he said. I asked, was the last market illegal? No, it’s the same fish sellers, just a new çarşı, he said, and flicked his cigarette into the gutter. A new historic karakoy balik pazar, standing where the old one stood. There’s never an easy answer in this town.

A few months ago, of course, the government took over the leases of about 80 shopkeeps in the grand bazaar and turned them out into the street, and then installed its own partyline friendly shopkeep buddies inside the old covered market.

I have been back in Istanbul for six days now–I landed the evening of the 13th, and it is now the evening of the 19th. It feels like waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay longer has gone by.

Since I arrived, I have done the following things:

forgotten the turkish words for "yesterday" and "seven"

tasted homemade cider

was given a nice new jacket by Adair because he had a spare which someone had left in Turkey with him (and I had tragically forgotten my leather jacket in Boston)

walked home in a storm, got soaked

sang a song about crawdads with Fatih, the melancholy cider-maker and professional translator (both french and english to turkish) ("My mom teaches turkish and when she has a question about turkish, she comes to me. I’m word crazy.")
woken up to snowy istanbul
ate syrian food with orkun and jari
convinced orkun to try improv for the first time–he and jari went up together and they had the funniest scene of the night, a speed retelling of cinderella

got convinced to go to an audition, and got the part of Leo in "The Producers"

was offered freelance work at my old job when I saw my old boss at the pub

taught two private lessons to a nine-year old rich kid who doesn’t want to do his homework, and my job is to make him write adverbs in cursive and then we play soccer in his tiny room

ran into some french musicians whom jari knew and who were throwing a cultural convention at a hostel, and we offered to cater their first night’s event

schemed up a menu for 50 people with jari

negotiated with a cashier at BIM for the temporary use of a shopping cart to push ten kilos of vegetables around the street

got taught the Kurdish words for bread, almonds, cheese, apricots and olives by an old man in the cheese shop

forgotten the Kurdish words for almonds, cheese, apricots and olives (bread is naan, so that one was easy to remember)

made a curry in a giant vat in a hostel kitchen

helped jari make like 200 lime crab harissa briks (I was in charge of frying them, he in charge of folding the filling into phyllo dough)

met 40 people from all over the balkans and europe

played music with jari for 40 people all over the balkans and europe

spoken french, bosnian, turkish, and a little spanish with new people

It’s addictive, you know? This city. I’m glad I came back.

"Have you ever spoken up when you saw something going wrong that was wrong? Were you scared? What ended up happening?"

Curiously enough the only thing I can think of off the top of my head is when I was sitting on a high windowsill near the gym with Anthea Carns during lunchtime at Steller, and a bunch of tenth graders picked up a sevie and tried to trash can him. Can him? Shit, the lingo is fading. Put him in a trash can. Steller usually had a low bullying quotient because 1) it was a lottery school, so you had to want to be there, and 2) there was no coercion from the staff to do anything in particular, least of all go to class. Canning had been described to me as one of the school’s offbeat traditions, a long list which included the overnighter*, the SDLs**, the murals***, or the all-school-hug.**** I don’t remember the sevie’s***** face, only the glee with which Sam was depositing him into the trash can. It was a waist-high cylindrical number, not of tin but gray plastic. Probably because it had been included in the list of things that make Steller the special school it was, and because I thought Sam and his bunch were particularly cool, I encouraged the operation. "Yeah, do it!" Can’t even remember exactly what I said.

Anthea spoke up. "Hey, c’mon guys, if he doesn’t want to do that don’t can him."

I was speechless. Sam and the boys stopped, set the kid down and walked away without acknowledging the telling-off they’d gotten.

At the time I had the kind of crush upon Anthea Carns which only an eighth-grader can have–heavier than cosmic bodies and faster than the trucking speed of visible light. What she said was so obviously the right thing to do — sticking up for someone being stuffed into a trash can — and I was mortified. Not only did it not even occur to me, it had not even occurred to me in front of her.

I remember nothing else from that afternoon, nor do I remember any other lunchtime conversations with her (and I think we ate together most days), except for the time when I built up the tidal wave of courage it required to pull her aside into the airlock and tell her I liked her, which of course went nowhere because I hadn’t really planned as to what would happen after that moment. There were a lot of missed romantic moments in Steller airlocks.

*;**;***;****;***** the overnighter was an all-night party at the school where each classroom was a screening room for different movies/videogames; the SDL was a period where everyone in class was doing their own course of learning, I did Norse Mythology, creative writing, and chess, for instance (stands for Self Directed Learning); the murals decorated almost every wall of the school and were done entirely by students, and the few designs I remember include a skiier going downhill, a rising Japanese sun thing, a sci-fi robot woman; the all-school-hug was a periodically-instituted game where some people in some class would stand up, link arms, and then form a massive human chain, going in and out of every room in the school to collect people before going out onto the field and looping in a giant spiral and collapsing in giggles (the school only had 13 classrooms and 300 students, so this was not so difficult; sevie is of course a seventh grader. Steller is named for Georg Wilhelm Steller, the naturalist.

As a bonus, here is an essay about Kierkegaard. Happy birthday!

https://aeon.co/essays/happy-birthday-kierkegaard-we-need-you-now