Istanbul has a handful of hubs. Taksim is the king of them all, hands down. I could walk through Taksim at 3:30 in the morning and it would be teeming with people, more people than I would ever see in an American city even at rush hour. I don’t know where these people come from, or what they are doing at 3:30 in the morning when they should be home in bed, but there they are.
Taksim’s main square is surprisingly small considering how important a hub it is. When I was still back in Seattle, before I had ever set foot in Istanbul, I spent hours staring at maps of the city. I imagined Taksim would be a huge open area like Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where the concrete seems to stretch to the horizon and on a hot summer day you might want to rest up for a couple hours before venturing out to cross the square again.
Taksim’s square isn’t like that at all though. You can cross it on foot, from one end to the other, in three minutes. The impressiveness of the square is not in its size, but in how well it moves huge numbers of people into and out of itself. At each of the square’s four corners are major boulevards that carry a continuous stream of cars and buses into and out of the square, and in the center of the square stairs from the subway spew forth a never-ending flow of people like a natural spring disgorges water from the center of the earth.
Very few people actually hang out in the square itself. The surrounding neighborhoods host one of densest concentrations of restaurants, nightclubs, retail stores, and hotels anywhere in the world, and almost all of the people in the main square are going to or coming from one of those establishments.
Taksim is one of those places where the rich, the middle class, and the poor all come together to enjoy life and see and be seen. It is a place where society types head to the ballet while punk rockers head to a club while transvestites head to wherever it is transvestites go. Taksim is a place where you can fill your belly with street food for $3.00 while breathing exhaust fumes from a bus, or you can dine on the finest French fusion cuisine for $1,000 while taking in a stunning view of the city from a restaurant’s penthouse patio.
Taksim sits at the north end of one of the main tourist corridors, so it attracts more than its share of naive, slack-jawed newbies and the shady characters who prey on them. The side streets a few blocks north of the square are home to some pretty questionable bars, and battle-weary backpackers around the world pass along stories of unexpectedly pricey glasses of scotch followed by strong-armed trips to the ATM. Sometimes the stories even morph into tales of foreigners entering a bar only to be drugged and then wake up the next morning on a park bench with a kidney missing.
I suspect the missing kidney story is a hyped-up urban legend, a cautionary tale passed down from generation to generation of traveler. Real life itself is far less dramatic, but far more fascinating, and one thing I always found fascinating, if slightly annoying, about Taksim was its street urchins, its beggar kids. Many different species of street urchins rub shoulders with each other in Taksim, but few are as spirited as the shoeshine boys.
The shoeshine boys are always boys, usually about 7 or 8 years old. They scurry around the square carrying beat-up old wooden shoeshine boxes that look like they’ve been around for 50 years and always contain a few grungy brushes and at least one rusted tin of bootblack.
To the shoeshine boys it doesn’t matter what kind of shoes people are wearing. They could be wearing running shoes, suede moccasins, or even plastic flip-flops. The shoeshine boys will come running up alongside them chanting, “Shoeshine, shoeshine, shoeshine.” I never took any of the shoeshine boys up on their offer. I wonder what they would do if I stopped and said, “Well, yes, come to think of it, I would like a shoeshine.”
The presence of these kids was rarely more than a minor nuisance. I quickly learned to ignore them in the same way I learned to ignore 95% of humanity in an urban environment, the same way I learned to ignore the shady characters in Taksim asking me where I was from or if I knew what time it was.
It would be too much, though, if any of these people broke the invisible barrier and touched me. And one day, one of the shoeshine boys made that mistake.
I don’t know why I react so emotionally when a street person or a beggar touches me. Maybe it goes back to when I was a college kid in Chicago. I was coming home one night, entering the vestibule of my apartment building. I heard someone ask, “Excuse me sir, what time is it?” and I turned around just in time to see two street thugs leaping through the air at me. They got me down on the ground, beat the crap out of me, kicked my head repeatedly into the vestibule’s stone wall, and then ran off. If they had taken my wallet, at least they would have picked up a few bucks for their troubles. But they just wanted to beat up on someone.
Maybe it’s because of that experience, or maybe it’s because of something else. I just prefer that strangers on the street keep their distance, especially when they are beggars.
Anyway, 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.