Thursday, 20 January 2011

requiem for a neighborhood

Requiem for a Neighborhood

Asmalimescit was my “hood.’ The one place on earth where I felt I belonged.  For the first time in my life I had a neighborhood, an area, a scene where I knew everybody and everybody knew me.  And just like me, everyone was mad.  But in a good way, (for the most part).  Mad, as in crazy.  Mad as in inspired with manic energy and given to bursts of spontaneous creativity and rants of far-flung ideologies.

It was a neighborhood of writers and painters and sculptors, film-makers and actors.  The hang-out for the disenfranchised, manic marauders and world-weary.  The meeting place of the blessed alcoholic geniuses, the cosmic-brained and the acutely sensitive.  They found this place and clung together in a cocoon of frenzied aliveness, flights of philosophy, table-pounding diatribes, while I danced on the sidewalks and washed my hair in the downpour of August rains. 

And it was all good.   

Asmalimescit was a neighborhood where no two chairs matched at the one or two cafes in the area.  Where everything was second-hand.  Where people shared what little they had.  Where you could order your tea or meal and pay the next day when you had money.  A place where whoever had a pack of cigarettes, left them on the table for anyone else to smoke.    

Yusef was always there.  His shock of silver-gray hair standing out from his head like a lion’s mane.  Stroking his kink of silver-gray beard and launching into parodies of foreign languages: hunched over, hands twisting and writhing like an old Ottoman Fagan, issuing phlegm-throated approximations of Arabic.  Or raising his arms and voice and yelling to the heavens: “Mama Mia!  Mama Mia!” as soon as he saw me.  Leaping to his feet, hugging me, swirling me around, dancing about on the cobblestone’s like a possessed Sufi fool spouting fake Italian.

Peyote Hasan.  The number 1 coolest dude that ever was, ever will be, roaming the dirty gray streets of Taksim.  With his wrap-around dark sunglasses, his stoop-shouldered slouch, and loping gate.  He was Mr.  Cool.  Mr. Number 1 Hipster. No one even a close second.  And we called his outside table at Ella CafĂ© his “office.”  He called me “Baby,” he called every female “Baby,” and it came as natural to his tongue as saliva at your first bite.  His longer than normal skinny arms spread out, flailing this way and that accentuating his story.  “Did I ever tell you how I lost the fuckin sheep?  Yeah, back when I was just a little kid in Iran and they sent me out to watch the sheep.  And I don’t know, I musta fell asleep or something and I woke up and the sheep were gone.  I mean, can you dig it, baby?  I lost the whole fuckin herd of sheep.” He’d sit, his legs crossed, one dangling over the other sucking down cans of Efes beer and laughing laughing laughing.  Bigger than life.  Cooler than cool.  Actor.  Entrepreneur.  Irreverent, irascible, and irrepressible.  Now nothing more than skin stretched over bones.  No food, only beer poured down this throat.  Office closed.

The street painter Erdem, his studio a table outside Badehane Bar.  In all weather, painting his abstract renderings of Istanbul’s old buildings.  Reading tarot cards and laughing his pursed-lip laugh.  Fighting a loosing battle with diabetes.

Musicians leaning against the flaking orange-painted bathtub on the corner of Sofyali and Jurnal Sokak, wailing on their saxes.  Singers joining in the chorus of well-known Turkish song, their voices carrying up to my third-floor window.  The straggly tree in the bathtub fighting for its life.

And what is Asmalimescit now?  One big nightclub.  A bar-to-bar, disco-bass-pounding scene where the wannabees hang to see the other wannabees and be seen by the other wannabees in all the glitzy shi shi slick metal-topped bars with their back lit liquor shelves and huge gas jet heaters warming up the outdoors as Istanbul’s elite sit outside on a winter’s night, smoking their cigarettes and sipping their over-priced mohitos.

And Asmalimescit’s legends?  Where are they now?  Angel-faced Derya with the calliope laugh growing fatter and darker, skulking the back streets dressed all in black.  Smileless.  Her sister, Seckin, squatting on her haunches on Istiklal, her back leaning against a graying building,  Her hair gray kink, pointy nose and chin like a storybook witch.  She brandishes her stick and frightens passersby.  The black sea has summoned them home and reclaimed them.  Giresun’s rains washing clean their sins.

And Kebire, the Queen of Asmalimescit.  My roommate and best friend.  With her shiny earrings and sparkly strands of beads, her shrieks of wild laughter, her unlimited generosity, her huge energy bringing together people and music and events. Where is she now?  Fifty years old and a babysitter in Berlin.

And the others?

I watch their hunched backs recede as they slink down dawn’s backstreets, their shadows  gobbled up by evening’s neon promises.  

Thursday, 13 January 2011

from my window

From my window...
 Just opposite our apartment,  neighborhood life goes on as it has for years.  Below every window there’s a basket on a long string, rope coiled up and ready for when the fruit and vegetable sellers come by in their trucks.  Loud speakers blaring: “Potatoes, tomatoes, cucmbers, eggplant, onioooooooooooon!”   Windows open,  housewives look down.  Most of the heads of these women are covered in scarves.  They yell down, inquiring prices and freshness:  “1 kilo patates ne kadar?  Taze mi?”
The baskets gets lowered.  The vegetable man places his produce inside.  The women pull them hand over hand up to their second or third or fourth floor apartments.  They haul them inside, take out their purchases, then relower them with money.
The woman directly opposite spends her days in her window.  Arms folded or smoking a cigarette she surveys the world below.  Yells at children who scream too loud while playing hopscotch.  Yells greetings to the other women who occasionally venture our from their homes.  Yells instructions to postmen.  Smoking coughing spitting and yelling.  Her cat sitting next to her on the ledge of the window.
Summer evenings the women come out.  They sit on the yellow parking rail or on the outside steps of their apartments eating sunflower seeds.  The ground is littered with shells.  They pull them from a bag, gingerly place them between their teeth, snap the shell open, tongues hooking the little morcel of seed, fingers pulling the shell out and throwing it on the ground.  The night clicks clacks with the sound of the shell bursting open between their teeth.  Click click click click.  Like busy insects.  They sit click and clack and gossip like fishwives.  Talking about this one and that one.  How my roomate Nefle doesn’t wear a head scarf and works.  How me, a foreigner lives with her and her husband.  Gossip gossip gossip.  Buzz buzz buzz.  Click clack click clack throughout the humid istanbul night.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

the man with the little head

there he was. standing in taksim square.  a man with a normal size body and a little head.  but such a nice little head.  short-cropped thick gray hair.  thick gray turkish mustache.  selling those little celephane packs of tissues.  a pleasant look on the face of his little head.  passers-by zooming by paying no attention to him.  the man with the little head just standing there.  celpack of tissues slighly extended in his hand. 

where do they come from?  these people.  here one day, another, and then gone.  not like the little old lady in the long brown coat and the brown and orange head scarf who has sat day after day for at least the last seven years (that's how long i've been seeing her).  seated on her little wooden stool.  a plain bathroom scale at her feet waiting for someone to come by and use her scale. i've never seen anyone use it to weigh themselves and  pay her for the service.  i only see her sitting there, hunched over, occasionally adjusting her headscarf, tucking a recalcitrant strand of hair back under her scarf.  pasty-skinned and patient as a buddhist monk she waits daily.

the changes she must have seen.  sitting day after day on istiklal caddesi.  watching the raging river of people spill past.  ebbing and flowing like a tide.  in winter bundled up head to foot in black.  umbrellas bent, pushed against the winds that hurl themselves off the golden horn and the bosphorus.  in summers of most recent years, scantily-clad girls in provocative european styles: short shorts and high boots, low-cut tops and plenty of eye-liner and lipstick.  In years past, men walking hand in hand like innocent young lovers, women arm in arm in twos and threes.  little ma and pop kebap shops now replaced with dazzling western restaurants.  mac donalds.  burger king.  kfc and three starbucks where the trendy walk past our little old lady who waits in vain, while the youth of istanbul sip double mochas, their knock-off prada sunglasses lying on the table next to their foamy drinks.   

and the man with the little head offers packs of tissues, then disappears into crazy gray night.