Kindly Eyes

Yashar and I were both in deep stealth mode. I had stumbled my way through Izmir’s version of the Grand Bazaar, had found the sizeable agora, the market place that supported the first century Roman settlement. (I’m once again confirmed in my conviction that there could not have been anyone left in Rome in the first century when the empire spread so far so fast from England to Turkey, all on paved roads.) Now, in a decidedly down market area of Izmir close to the Roman ruins, I bought a freshly squeezed pineapple juice, and took it across the street to a seedy park so full of cheerful, chatting, chess-playing, backslapping, gossiping neighbors that I knew I could sit and photograph them for the rest of the late afternoon. You’ll see samples below.

Yashar figured as much. He knew I planned to stay longer than it took to drink my juice. So he presented himself like a new Assistant Professor on the first day of semester, CV close at hand. “You speak English, I hope,” he said, to open. Because I do, he sat down next to me and announced his intention to continue his study of English by observing mine, trying his, welcoming my corrections. “And in return, I will take you to the Castle”—Alexander the Great’s fortified hill that dominated this part of the ancient world in the days when Alexander was beating Darius driving the Persians from the Greek territories.

Yashar’s face is an unsettling set of contradictions. His eyes are dark and deeply kind. But his mouth lacks the two front teeth on the bottom row so that he looks a bit like a befuddled fish, except when his tongue pokes through on ‘-th’ sounds, and then he looks downright serpentine. He could use a shave, but the earnestness of his salt and pepper stubble gives him a grandfatherliness I’d like to borrow. His laugh wrinkles should be bottled.

He makes his living as a gardener in the Culture Park, a curiosity in Izmir that includes acres of green walks and pleasant, sedate sitting areas, an amusement park including a parachute jump, and three museums devoted to archeological artifacts. In the evenings, he strolls the neighborhood. As we walked together, he greeted just about everyone on the street, and everyone greeted him as well, old and young, male and most females. We talked about cruise ships that dock in Izmir three or four times a week. We talked about his children and mine. He didn’t explain the 14-year separation between his daughter and his nine-year-old son. He was amused that my daughters are just thirteen months apart, but he didn’t elaborate.

But I’ve had this Turkish conversation about children before. The first time happened in Istanbul a few years ago. As I walked along the shore of the Golden Horn, I passed a shoeshine man who, come to think of it, had a good salt and pepper stubble and deeply kind eyes. When he was three steps past me, I heard a small thump. He’d dropped his buffing brush but hadn’t noticed. I picked it up, gave it to him, accepted his thanks, and then accepted his offer to polish my shoes for free. After all, I had saved his economic life for the rest of the afternoon. That I was wearing sandals was no impediment to his gratitude. Two-thirds of the way through the first shoe, he began telling me about his children. Four. Always hungry. Always needy. Always losing their book bags. And while he wanted nothing for himself since I had already done him a great favor, I should recognize the pattern of doing something for nothing in order to prove my sense of generosity in the world. I should give him something for his children. All this he managed with the straightest of deeply kind faces.

Remembering this episode, the most expensive shoeshine in Turkish history, I wondered how long it would take Yashar to segue from children to my contributing to them.

About 40 seconds. But the view from the rooftop café outside Alexander’s castle was splendid. The sun was setting behind that last speck of peninsula west of the city. The dusk obscured the insufferable destroyer of all beautiful cityscapes: the forest of satellite dishes that converts every antique, or Byzantine, or medieval, or Ottoman view into a reminder that television IS contemporary cultural life. Yashar’s eyes shone kindly in the darkening sun, and the bronze tea (my treat) in the ubiquitous tulip-shaped glass turned to gold, and I said, “This is a business transaction, isn’t it?” “Yes, of course.” “Lucky for you, I only have 100 lira notes in my wallet. Is that what people give you?” “Sometimes a bit more.”

We walked arm in arm down the steep staircases and steeper streets back towards the agora. He was determined that I not slip, but if I fell “We go down together, friend.” We parted at the juice stand opposite the park, now quite empty except for a few young couples who had taken up residence when the older generation had packed their chess boards and gone home.

“We’ll meet again,” Yashar said. “You can find me by the parachute jump.”

“Good night, then.  And thanks for the company.”

“Yes, of course. Would you happen to have a five lira note? I’d hate to break the hundred for a taxi.”

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