Hanoi is a bit like Istanbul in this regard: you can cruise down silk street, make a right on leather street, cross lamp shade street, and make a perilous dive into chocolate street. I once swore there was a toothbrush street with a dental floss outlet at the corner, but I’m sure I made that up.
In Istanbul, the fancy stores on the fancy streets mask smaller, blackened, somewhat frayed shops and one-guy factories without which the Pradas and Guccis of the world could not exist. The street running straight uphill from my flat—yes, the one I’ve already complained about at least thirty times—is such a street. It is Shoe Street, and it dead ends at the back door of the great stores on the great streets. There’s a perpetual conversation, and perhaps some perpetual mutual envy as well, along this workaday street. The manufacturers shake their heads at the shoe repair shops because every pair repaired is a new pair not sold. The repair shop looks with suspicion on the manufacturer who persists in bringing out new, trendier models that lure people away from having those comfortable old loafers repaired one more time. The shoeshine man with his bronze foot rest and polish tote makes his rounds from shop to shop, getting some work from the repairman and offering a final glossing to the manufacturers’ wares. He often has time for an extra apple tea at the café around the corner. The wholesalers push and pull trolleys up the steep slope and disappear into the alley behind the posh street where the trams, taxis, Mercedes, and Japanese tour buses jostle for primacy. The Gucci store adorns its windows with the new shoes just in from down-the-hill.
The bustle is fantastic. The military precision is perhaps neither military nor precise, but there’s a sense of knowing precisely How It Is Done, and everyone participates.
This was the scene I passed and photographed on my way to the Yusra Community Center this morning. I had no idea I would spend my day sorting donated clothing, and even less of an idea that shoe street’s ethos of precision would teach me How It Is Done.
Today’s tasks were 1) separating out winter clothes irrespective of size or gender; just get them out of the 60 gallon plastic bags and into the cardboard boxes we could slide into the shelves in the overstuffed, over-narrow storeroom; 2) sort with some scrutiny the men’s clothing. These duds were to be separated into Pantaloons, T-Shirts, Buttoned Shirts. Then they were to be separated once more into small, medium, and large. And, finally, each pair of pantaloons and every shirt were to be held up before the searching eyes of four Syrian women, each one covered from head to foot in black, their robes well-fitted and their head cloths carefully draped. Watching for their decisions was like witnessing the Robespierre’s French Revolution or the Torquemada’s Spanish Inquisition. A quick nod directed a T-shirt to the private stash of one wife or another. A rolled eye condemned a tasteless shirt to the steadily rising refuse pile. I mean, who wears a Boston Bruins hockey jersey ? An exasperated cluck tells you you haven’t yet mastered the judicious taste that dominates the room. A squeal of laughter and an elbow poke of the neighboring judge greets a pair of pajamas so large two women could easily occupy them. A sudden almost-gasp when I hold up a button-down dress shirt obviously catches a woman in an unexpected reverie of, I assume, better days in a better house than this.
Slowly, I catch on and I begin to understand the senses of decorum, taste, expectation, self-requirement, identity and, finally, dignity and self-regard that have followed these women from Aleppo or Damascus. I find myself stunned but unable to share my recognition. Why should they have their dignity justified by me? And why should I not comprehend such dignified bearing as they do, without questioning or, perhaps, even noticing it?
Whoever coined ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ was an idiot. And who said these laughing, judicious, earnest, husband-knowing, vibrant women who let me into their decorum before they knew my name were beggars, anyway?