By James Tressler
6:33 a.m. The lights of the early morning metro can be seen rounding the last turn into the station at Üsküdar. You can bet on it. Every morning it arrives like clockwork, every 15 minutes. Later, during peak times it runs every 10 minutes.
You can almost bet on the commuters as well. We proud band of early risers who each day arrive at the platform, waiting for the 6:33 are nearly the same to a man and woman. We all there for the same reason, to get the Marmaray, the world’s deepest underground metro.
The Marmaray runs nearly sixty meters beneath the Bosphorus, taking passengers back and forth from the European and Asian side. Most of the traffic goes to the European side, and comes back at the end of the day.
At that early hour, the vast city is still dark, and the waters of the Bosphorus are murky, oil-dark, except for the lights of the city, and the first ferry boats, which are also up and running, taking their share of passengers back and forth between continents. In that lonely, dawn universe, you feel almost as if you have the whole city to yourself.
Back down below, on the Marmaray, we board the metro. The interior is bright and virtually empty. We have our choice of seats. Later, it will be packed shoulder to shoulder, jammed with late risers, hurrying to get to work; luggage-carrying families bound for the airport; possible pickpockets hoping to capitalise on the huddled, distracted masses.
On the 6:33, we avoid all that. We’re like a band of brothers and sisters, the chosen ones. There is an unspoken bond (who speaks at that time of the morning?).
There’s Champ. Mid-forties, broad-shouldered, deep-chested Champ. Graying at the whiskers, staunch expression, deep-set eyes. Always dressed in work out gear. Beşiktaş team jacket, black Adidas jogging pants with the white stripes running down the side, black Adidas shoes. Perhaps he’s some high-level manager, or a dentist, or cop, or professor.
Then there’s Groucho. As you might expect, this middle-aged fellow somewhat resembles the late comic. Except in personality he seems to possess more of the Grouch end of that handle. Dark-suited, surly, his visage in a perpetual crouch, as if ready to spring. Most likely a mid-level accountant or bureaucrat.
Mousey is the lady of our group. She’s young, pale, bespectacled, always sporting a backpack. Short but surprisingly long-legged in her stride. She’ll pass you in a heartbeat. Perhaps she’s a student, third-year law, judging from her aggressive stride.
Finally, we have the President’s Brother. Dubbed such because he could, in appearance, almost pass for a close relation of Turkey’s president. Personality-wise he seems far more relaxed, urbane than his famous brother. Tall, rather regal, hands in the pockets of his long black coat. He never seems to be in a hurry, and prefers to stand on the train.
There are others occasionally, but generally this is our core group. What separates us from the rest, apart from our undying loyalty to the 6:33, is our position on the platform.
The amateurs, the day-trippers, the casual Marmaray users … alas, they just follow the crowd (not that there’s much of a crowd at that hour), and stand wherever. They don’t know how to use the platform scientifically.
The thing is, as we regulars know, to position yourself right in the middle of the platform, between the middle escalators. That way, when the metro finally arrives at the Yenikapı metro on the European side, ten minutes later, you are right next to the escalator. You can disembark immediately and start up the escalator, efficiently avoiding the inevitable gridlock that occurs with everyone getting on and off the train at once.
We regulars have developed a sort of morning ritual, a competition of sorts, to see who can get up the escalator first. There is no prize handed out, except the unspoken understanding that the winner owns the commute that particular day. Sounds small, I know, but in this city, sometimes you need every inch you can get.
As for Champ, he usually doesn’t settle for the escalator. Instead, he takes the stairs. He takes them two at a time, his knees high, his head bent low, breathing regularly, like Rocky Balboa ascending the Philadelphia museum steps. We’re proud of him, as we watch from our lazy, gliding escalator standpoint. (Except some mornings, the Champ settles for the escalator, too, to our great disappointment. “Come on, Champ!” we want to say. “That’s not the way to do it! Get up those stairs!”)
Groucho, on the other hand, is like a demon. He curls his dark moustache, fixes his eyes, dips his shoulder and sweeps right around you. He’d knock his infirm grandmother out of the way to get on that escalator first, I tell you!
We used to take a shortcut at the top of the escalator, cutting over to the side where the inbound passengers are supposed to go – shaving two key minutes – and Groucho was a master of this short cut. Until the metro police finally put a stop to that. They erected a fence to prevent us from using the shortcut. Groucho had a fit when that happened. Cursing loudly, Groucho was so beside himself that it took the threat of three metro policemen combined to finally convince him (very reluctantly, mind you) that the short cut was no more.
“Tamam! Tamam! Tamam!” Groucho shouted, burying his chin in his chest. He took the loss of the shortcut as though being robbed of a Divine Right (I was with Groucho on that one: in this city, we Istanbullus view all short cuts as Divine Rights, not to be taken lightly).
Our lady, Mousey, like Champ, usually eschews the stairs. She’s classy that way. She doesn’t seem to hurry herself. Don’t be fooled. Those collegiate, nonchalant steps conceal the spring of a tiger. She passes the huffing Champ in an instant. Over on the escalator, the rest of us eye her progress worryingly, and try to press our escalator advantage. And yet, Mousey always seems to be right there whenever we get to the top.
(As for our other companion, the President’s Brother, is usually lost in this race. He probably considers it beneath his dignity to be caught up in such nonsense. He’s probably right, Bless him.)
At the top of the escalator, we reach the turnstile. Here, you can either transfer to the Hacıosman metro, which takes you to Taksim and other places in the city centre, or you can get the metro, which goes to Ataturk airport. We all take the latter option. Passing through the turnstile, the race continues as we make a beeline for the down escalator for the airport metro.
Like clockwork, every morning we arrive with precisely 4 minutes until the next train. Actually, there is a second train that will leave in 12 minutes. Mousey and Groucho, for some reason known only to themselves, opt to go and get the second train (my theory: they can maybe sit in the car and catch a few minutes’ sleep).
The Champ and I, meanwhile, board the same train, and we actually get off at the same stop. We’ve never actually spoken, so perhaps he does not know how I follow his training regimen with such intense interest.
As for the famous President’s Brother, well, sometimes he sits in our car and sometimes he opts for the other, in his dignified, high-minded way. Probably has official business of some kind.
Arriving at our destinations, the doors of the train close, and the metro hurtles on, ready to deliver the next load of passengers to whatever share of destiny the day brings.
For a long time, I’ve played with the idea of a story about the Marmaray. Ever since it opened (what is it – four, five years ago now?) I’ve been drawn to the idea of this ambitious metro that each day passes deep beneath the waters of the Bosphorus, and like its ancient, watery colleague, brings worlds and peoples together.
And I was drawn too to these people, the ones you see every day, and with whom you never exchange a single word – and most likely never will – and yet with whom you feel this sense of brother and sisterhood. On certain mornings, if one or the other isn’t there, you miss them a little bit, and wonder and even worry about them. Did they oversleep?
Not a chance.
James Tressler is the author of Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman, and was a journalist for the Times-Standard in Eureka, California. He currently is living in Istanbul.