Sunday, 18 December 2016

Shoeshine boy

The first thing I saw was the brush on the cobbles. A young man had appeared from a side street off Haci Ali Sreet and darted in front of me. He carried a narrow wooden box and a curved black brush a foot long had fallen out. I picked it up and shouted that he'd dropped something – my first mistake.
'Oh, thank you sir.'

I walked on, satisfied with my good deed which added to my feeling of well-being. That morning I had run five miles along Kennedy Cadde and had also located the Church of Saints Peter and Paul off Bankalar Cadde but only with the help of a man in a fibre glass booth looking after a construction site. Street name signs are scarce in some parts of Istanbul and on the way back from Mass I waved an appreciative sign of thanks to the man in the booth. That was just before I saw the brush.

As I walked toward Karaköy tram station I heard ‘Sir, sir' and turned to see the shoeshine sitting on a stone plinth at the foot of Bankalar Cadde with his box on the ground in front of him. He was gesturing me to put my foot on the small – foot shaped – platform that rose from the centre of the box.
'Please, please. I clean your shoes'
Imagining an act of gratitude for my act of kindness I agreed – my second mistake.

He immediately smeared my shoes in wax, ignoring my protests that the sides of the shoes were suede leather and did not need polishing. He continued to wax and polish. The fact that he ignored my protests worried me but I was too late; the shoes were fully waxed and polished. I had not needed my shoes polishing and had avoided all the shoeshines in Divan Yolu and was cursing myself – feeling violated – for not just walking away.

I thought I should offer him some token for his efforts but I only had four TR in my rear pocket. Coins which I needed for my tram token. I had my wallet with US dollars and a five TR note. 'Perfect' I thought, five TR would be enough. I took the wallet from my jacket – my third mistake.

Despite trying to conceal the contents of my wallet and deliberately keeping the section with dollars closed tight with my thumb over the dollars, the shoeshine spotted the dollars. Taking no interest in the five TR note I offered him, he managed to remove a twenty dollar note from my wallet and slip it into his left trouser pocket. I was shocked at the sleight of hand and before I could open my mouth to protest he did it again saying 'Eighty Turkish, both shoes'.

I lost my temper and admonished him loudly for removing money from my wallet. Eighty TR was too much and he already had several times that amount. He still had the second twenty dollar note in is hand so I snatched it back, shouting at the top of my voice; he looked scared and offered me some TR; but I was being hustled. He had twenty dollars in his pocket and, short of a fight, I was not sure how I was going to retrieve that. I looked him over, he was a half-starved street boy, skin and bones. All I wanted was to get away, so I turned and walked to the tram.

If I felt violated by the wax on my suede leather, that was nothing to my feelings on the tram. Worthless, betrayed and violated. I tried to rationalise the event and even to justify his actions – Stockholm syndrome. My sickness turned to anger and I longed to be off the streets of Istanbul.

Back in the DoubleTree Hilton on Urdu Cadde my wife was waiting. While I was at Mass she had been studying Google and local maps to see how we could spend our last day in Turkey. She had noted the Galata Tower and I agreed it would be good to see this landmark. I told her about the shoeshine. She seemed concerned about the loss of twenty dollars but not about my humiliation. Having agreed to visit the Galata Tower I asked where it was and looked at the map. It was almost at the spot of my humiliation by the shoeshine. I felt sick but agreed to go.

We bought our tokens and took the tram back to Karaköy. I showed my wife where we'd become twenty dollars shorter. We walked up Bankalar Cadde and followed signs to the Galata Tower. The queue to visit the tower was hundreds long and moving slowly so we decided to have lunch at Pepo Cafe and then explore the shops on the backstreets.

The shops bored us and we took an alternative route back to Bankalar Cadde. As we left the side street to cross Bankalar Cadde, a familiar figure walked past me to enter the street we had just left – Haci Ali Street. Walking quickly with head down, he had hoped not to be recognised, but my doubts were dispelled when I looked back and saw the box of brushes, cloths and wax.

As I recognised him he looked back and smiled. I took that to mean he thought I was going to be friendly but when I walked towards him he began to run. Instinctively, I ran after him. He must have been forty years my junior but he had not reckoned on meeting a middle-aged athlete. I nearly caught him immediately but his youth and knowledge of the back streets of Istanbul meant he could sprint where I could not. He was up the steep cobbled street and almost out of sight before he turned left into a side street. His initial speed could not match my stamina and I was at the corner before he had disappeared from the street. He turned off, again to the left and that was his first and final mistake. It was a dead end...blocked by a hole. The construction site near the Church of Saints Peter and Paul which extended down to Bankalar Cadde. This had been his escape route.

Breathing heavily, he stood a few yards in front of me, still clutching his shoeshine box. A wave of pity passed over me as I realised that this box represented his sole way of making a living. I had no idea what I was going to do, until he provided the answer. He tried to dart past me, back down the street and I stuck out my foot. He fell over badly, landing on his right shoulder on the unforgiving cobblestones. He landed on his back with his brushes and cloths strewn around him. From the way he cradled his shoulder I guessed he had broken his collar bone.

I walked over to him and as he tried to shuffle away, still on his back. Holding his arm up towards his shoulder to relieve the pain, he was unable to turn over and he wanted to be able to see me. I was looking down at his face. He was genuinely frightened this time. I placed my foot on his throat.

'Please sir, little girl back in Ankara, my daughter' he cried.
Now I felt no sympathy.
I pressed harder on his throat.
'Please, please'

I kept pressing with my foot and he began to struggle; letting his right shoulder go limp, he grimaced in pain trying to use his left arm to punch my leg. His legs flailed but were too far away to reach me.

I grabbed his left arm and continued to press on his throat and he began to choke. Soon he was lying in a pool of his own urine as his bladder emptied. Then he stopped moving and breathing.

Looking round, I expected someone would be watching, this was a tourist area and someone must have seen the chase. But the street was empty.

He was not heavy and I dragged his body towards the construction hole and looked down. Twenty feet below was a skip and I kicked his body over the edge, into the skip. The locals had been using the skip to deposit their plastic bags of rubbish and his body disappeared – engulfed by the bags. There was no sign of him.

I kicked the implements of his trade over the edge of the hole and all that remained of him was a stream of urine trickling down the sloped cobbled street. I made my way downhill, back to Bankalar Cadde.

My wife was waiting.
'Well?' She asked.
'Got away' I replied.


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