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Continental Divide 

A shoeshine in Istanbul

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
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Photo by Heather Ramsey
HAD THERE BEEN MORE PEOPLE around, I probably wouldn't have let the Turk shine my shoes. My wife and I were the only tourists waiting at the port for a ferry ride up the Bosporus -- the waterway that, remarkably, slices Istanbul between the continents of Asia and Europe. It was the summer of 1999, two months before the earth shook, and foreigners were hard to come by. This is partly because the Western press kept publishing reminders of the recent terrorist bombings -- as though such things don't happen in London or Rome. So this dynamic, ancient city -- former seat of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires -- was eerily bereft of visitors.

I never have my shoes shined in L.A.; the imperiousness of having someone kneel at my feet bothers me. And, after all, how much effort does it take to apply a brush to one's own shoes? But the shoeshine man was the only sign of human life, not including the ticket seller in his booth, who had now returned to his newspaper and cigarette. So there we stood on the pavement in the open air: Lena, smoking in the distance; me, straining to glimpse the approaching ferry; and this grizzled old fellow who appeared out of nowhere, carrying a stool in one hand and, in the other, a plastic canister brimming with the tools of his trade -- rags, brushes and polish.

All right. I felt sorry for him. He appeared not to understand English. He seemed desperate -- no, enthusiastic. His eyes were kind, and I could afford his service, for I was a millionaire (if one is counting in Turkish lire). It cost me about $7 to have him slop black goo across my suede loafers and buff them. When he finished -- about 45 seconds later -- they looked like they had been dipped in tar.

"What the fuck did you let him do that for?" Lena fumed, when she saw the destruction. That was before she got really mad -- understandably, since she had gone to some trouble to snag those loafers at a Macy's sale just before we left. "Don't you know this is a Third World country? They really don't care about you or your property."

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As though in America they do.

Still, she had a point. Istanbul had been deceptively hospitable. We had been followed in the street by Gypsy kids, but only because they wanted to sell us handkerchiefs. Tumbling out of a cab at the Blue Mosque, we were immediately befriended by a shill who offered us a guided tour -- if we would follow him afterward to his brother's carpet shop. The tour was a mixed blessing: informative, yes, but he granted us only 27 seconds to examine the mosque's 86,000 hand-painted Iznik tiles before urging us on to this brother's shop. Later, at a nearby café, the staff offered us complimentary apple tea if we would sit, like bait, to attract other Westerners. At first all this attention seemed flattering, but that feeling soon wore off.

It takes a kind of sophistication to handle privilege in a poor country, to say no when you can afford to say yes. Perhaps because she's Russian, Lena is more savvy about these things than I. Earlier, she had tugged me out of a taxi to protest a cabby's outrageous cross-town fare. As we strode off together arm in arm, the driver followed on foot, pleading, cursing, offering to barter. Our pace never slackened; Lena's flaring nostrils remained skyward. Yet I've seen her in L.A. giving dollar bills to homeless men outside the supermarket. We all have these intuitive barometers of fear -- fear of being taken advantage of -- with compassion at one end and indignation at the other.

Lena was so incensed over my shoeshine, she didn't speak to me for at least half the boat ride, during which she stared at Europe and I at Asia.

Anadolou Karag-i, the northernmost port-village on the strait's Asian side, provided something of a bridge for our continental divide. "Welcome to here restaurant," exclaimed the aproned proprietor, with a grin of broken brown teeth. As we sat on the upper terrace of his eatery, gazing over the idyllic view, dining on sea bass and mussels freshly plucked from the Bosporus, I broached the topic of the shoes. Perhaps he had never seen suede before, I suggested. "Are you kidding?" Lena bristled, declaring that his deed was reckless if not hostile.

And she was probably right. I'd make the same mistake again, though. Blind trust is my gift to the world. These are the lessons one learns abroad -- who one is and where one stands.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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