You may recall that I did “next to nothing” on Saturday #65. To be honest, I was feeling a little blue, missing the gang that I had spent the last three months with on a Dragoman truck, and I was perfectly happy to mark the one-year anniversary of leaving North America with a low-key day in Istanbul. My stated goal for Saturday #66, however, was to ramp up the EQ (excitement quotient) by a notch or four. Did I succeed? I’ll let you decide.
I got up around 9:00 on the morning of Saturday #66, put on my new jeans and a freshly laundered t-shirt – which contrary to much speculation did not disintegrate when introduced to a real electric washing machine for the first time in three months – and I ventured down the street for… breakfast at McDonalds.
After two Egg McMuffins and a Turkish tea (they don’t even sell coffee), I crossed the street and ordered a grande Americano at Starbucks. Black. Extra hot. I figured that a Pumpkin Spice Latte might be too wild and crazy for my first visit to a Starbucks in Turkey. Baby steps, Mike. Baby steps.
Then you know what I did? Well, I walked back to the hostel and I played online Scrabble for three whole hours. I know what you’re thinking: A full morning of adrenalin pumping action like that must have really tuckered you out, Mike. Well, yes it did. So just after noon I laid down for a 90 minute siesta.
By 3:00 p.m. I was ready to take things to another level so I borrowed a damp rag from the hostel cleaning lady and I wiped down the inside and outside of my backpack. Then I sprayed my hiking boots with Dr. Scholl’s and, wait for it… installed new laces.
After a while a little voice said, “Slow down, big fella, you don’t want to go too hard in just your 10th day off the Dragoman truck.” So I sat on the edge of my hostel bed and deleted at least 30 emails from my iPhone. Then I noticed that I had six new unplayed hands of Scrabble so I took care of that and still had time for a 45-minute pre-dinner snooze.
I figured there might be some interesting people to talk to over dinner at the local kebab house, but no such luck. The couple seated to my left spent an hour staring into each other’s eyes and caressing each other’s hands. They simply weren’t candidates for conversation. The couple to my right were two casually dressed gentlemen from Coral Gables, Florida. You’d think that I’d be able to strike up a witty conversation with them, wouldn’t you? Nope. They were well into their 80s and both apparently left their hearing aids back at the cruise ship. After 10 minutes I still hadn’t established their names. The restaurant had free wi-fi so I gave up any hope of a having a meaningful conversation and launched five new random Scrabble games instead.
After a third glass of Cabernet I paid my bill and headed back towards the hostel. As I walked across Taksim Square I calculated that I could have a nice long shower and still be in bed by 10. It was at that point that it dawned on me that I might be suffering from travel burnout. I don’t actually feel burned out, I told myself, but on the other hand I have been in the city for a week and a half and I haven’t done much more than buy an iPad, upload some photos and bag a new personal High Word Score.
So how could I pump up the volume on a mind-numbingly boring Saturday? I know, I’ll find the dingiest of dive bars and I’ll swagger in like I’m the new Sheriff in town. I’ll sit at the bar, order a double and I’ll strike up a conversation with whomever is sitting directly to my left. I’ll force myself to talk to that person for at least 30 minutes, no matter if it’s a 70-year-old woman with no teeth and her hair in curlers, a cut-rate hooker in a too-tight and too-short leather skirt, or the head of the Istanbul chapter of Hell’s Angels. If I talk to just one random person in the sleaziest of Istanbul bars there’s no telling what might ensue. “No guts, no glory, no story,” as I like to say. (Actually I think that was a line from a Cohen Brothers movie, but I digress.)
After passing the Gezi Park entrance to the Taksim Metro Station I dodged six lanes of traffic on Cumhuriyet Caddesi and ducked down the first alley on my left. Some of the steel clad doors were guarded by muscular and particularly swarthy Turkish bouncers while others were guarded by men. Some doors were even propped open with cement blocks, allowing big clouds of shisha vapour to billow out into the alley. I picked the third door on my left because it was September 3 and there were no doors on my right.
Less than five minutes after ducking into the alley I found myself seated at a dimly lit bar, a double shot of some indeterminate liquor in front of me, and already chatting with Tommy, a short, middle aged man in a sharp suit who sat on the first stool to my left. The only light was provided by a string of red and green Christmas lights that hung above the bar and a single fluorescent tube in the cigarette vending machine across the room — and even that was partially concealed by an “Out of Order” sign. As you can probably imagine, it was a little hard to see Tommy in this inky blackness but for some reason I had the distinct feeling that we had previously met. This wasn’t as far-fetched as you’d think as Tommy said he was from America. When I asked where, he said with a hint of pride, “Arthur Avenue, The Bronx.”
Tommy didn’t have a lot to say until I mentioned that I had previously worked as a handicapper at a racetrack in Canada. He stared at me for a few seconds then said, “Let me unda-stand this. You tellin’ me you set the odds? At a racetrack? In Cana-der?”
I had his attention now!
“Well, not exactly, because in pari-mutual wagering the bettors determine the odds,” I told him. “I just comment on the odds and what I think might happen in a race. At least I did when I was working. I’m sorta retired now,” I confessed.
I knew his mind was racing and he likely didn’t hear that last part.
“Okay, come with me. I buy you a doner, You like doner?”
“Yes sir,” I said, meekly.
One lobe of my now shisha-infused brain was saying, “Tell him you have to go to the bathroom and just slip out the door when he’s not looking.” Another chunk of grey matter sent a little voice saying, “You wanted some excitement, some action, an element of danger, maybe some material for a future screenplay. Well, here it is, on a platter.”
That voice must have spoke the loudest as I found myself following Tommy down a dimly lit hallway, through a curtain and out the previously unnoticed front door onto a busy street. Tommy had his hand on my shoulder, guiding me into the open front door of a busy doner shop that was two or three doors down. At least the shop was brightly lit, crowded, and apparently safe, I thought.
As Tommy stepped ahead to order two doners and two Cokes, I got my first good look at him. I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Was this some kind of a joke? In front of me stood a dead ringer for Joe Pesci’s character from Goodfellas. What was his name? Wasn’t it Tommy? Tommy DeVito? I was pretty sure the guy in the restaurant wasn’t Pesci as he would have aged since Goodfellas was shot in the early 90s, but man did this guy ever look and sound like him! After a minute I started looking around for concealed cameras, convinced this must be the Turkish equivalent of Just For Laughs or Candid Camera. Was I being set up by the producer of my old horse racing show in Canada? Was this the work of Rodney Wade, a friend from the Dragoman truck?
I was about to ask ‘Tommy’ who put him up to this when he did something that instantly silenced the entire restaurant. The cashier was standing at the till, chuckling at the sight of this short man with a pompadour and a polyester suit that would have been pretty sharp in 1979. I didn’t hear the first part of the exchange but it was clear that Tommy had his back up. He glared at the male cashier and lowered his voice a few octaves to a more menacing tone. All I heard was: “What do you mean, funny? Like a clown? Do I amuse you? Huh?”
Tommy had the attention of everyone in the joint, particularly me. I had my iPhone in my right hand and I managed to get a burst of four shots in about four seconds. The cashier was trying to placate the crazed little man with the offer of a free salad. Tommy was fixated on the cashier and didn’t seem to notice that half the patrons were quietly slipping out the front door. Time to follow suit, I thought.
I was back at the hostel within five minutes. Within 10 minutes I had played “ZINES” for a Triple Word Score. Nothing funny ’bout that!