Late one morning in Istanbul I was walking back to my apartment in Harbiye from a teahouse in Taksim. The normal phalanx of shoeshine boys started running after me, chanting, “Shoeshine, shoeshine, shoeshine.” After a block or two of me ignoring them they gave up and fell by the wayside, all but one who pursued me with unheard-of tenacity. This kid would not take no for an answer.
He walked alongside me for an extra block or two and then, from the corner of my eye, I saw him dip two of his fingers into one of his dusty tins of shoe polish. He scooped up a good-sized chunk of the black gunk and held it up in the air. He waited until I glanced over at him, and then he smiled at me mischievously and glanced down at my shoe.
I knew what he was going to do next and I thought, “Oh no, you don’t.” But oh yes, he did. As we walked next to each other, he reached down and dabbed that big glop of shoeshine on the top of my shoe.
That was when I completely lost it.
I laid into that little boy with the longest string of obscenity I think any kid anywhere has ever heard. And when I was done cussing him out, I escalated my verbal barrage to threats of bodily harm. I threatened to kill him. I threatened to kill his friends. I threatened to kill his brothers, his sisters, his mother and father. I threatened to scorch every square inch of earth that kid had ever stepped foot on. I threatened to forever turn his world black and burn it to the ground like some post-nuclear hellhole.
When I was a kid that age, if someone had yelled at me with a small fraction of the fury I was showing I would have pissed my pants, but that kid stood his ground. He rocked back onto his heels and stared at me with wide-eyed shock and horror, and his face was white with fear, but he wasn’t going anywhere. He was a brave kid.
When I was done with my tirade, I pivoted abruptly and stormed off down the street without looking back. I walked briskly and kept a stoic face, trying to hold back the shame and embarrassment welling up inside me, trying to look normal for each new crop of strangers passing me on the street.
The walk back to my apartment took less than ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity. When I got home, the moment I heard the door click shut behind me, I collapsed to my knees, dropped my forehead to the floor, and started crying. What on earth had possessed me to act like that? I had just blown up at a little kid on the street in broad daylight. I had just threatened to snuff the life out of a little boy barely tall enough to reach my belt. I hadn’t even been in Turkey for three months yet. What was I becoming?
Even a traveler needs a change of scenery every now and then, and right there I decided it was time for me, too. The next weekend I hopped an overnight bus for Sofia, the capital of neighboring Bulgaria, for some much-needed R&R.
By the way, one night about a year later my girlfriend and I were walking down a side street in that same neighborhood. I had my arm around her and it was winter, so I had pulled my cap down low, the brim hiding my face from the wind, my chin tucked inside my collar. There were some beggar kids hiding out in a nearby doorway, and as we approached we caught their eye. A couple of the older ones skipped out to approach us.
Spotting their approach in my peripheral vision, I slowly raised my head, showing my face and making eye contact with the beggar kids. They stopped dead in their tracks and their faces froze as they whispered a panicked warning to each other, “Stop, stop, it’s the crazy one.”
This is an excerpt from Matt Krause’s book A Tight Wide-open Space. In 2003 Matt met a Turkish woman on a flight to Hong Kong. They started going out, and within a year Matt found himself adjusting to a new life in Istanbul. A Tight Wide-open Space is about that adjustment — going through the culture shock, becoming one of the family, learning to love the country. The book is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and for the Kindle.