Riding Around

By Cris de Oliveira


Awaking in whiteness and warmth, no matter the season. Sometimes the whiteness is bright, pulsating with the earnestness of summer, of a sun unable to wait any longer to give it another go. Or the whiteness is tinged with the gray of rain, of winter, of the moon’s hangover. Consciousness creeps in, always white, always next to him, an animal comfort of warmth and smell, tumbled in the complicity of sleep and love. 

It is 2015. Important rituals must be conducted by the front door before leaving. I nearly always think of my mother, who, during a particularly difficult year in which I kept falling ill or having accidents or losing things, told me to light a candle and ask the Virgin Mary for protection before crossing out the door. Instead, I ask my mom, 10,577 kilometers away, for protection. I think of the feel of her smooth cheek against mine, her freckles grinning on the tip of her nose, her fingers, cool like water through my hair. Instead, I count out the clatter of coins in my palm, looking for the exact change for the dolmuş. Palming the exactitude of 2,50 brings a flush of pleasure, and I feel prepared for the day, one step ahead of the scramble. When the ritual is disturbed by the imperfect reality of inexact fare, I crumple the 5 lira bill into the breast pocket of my jacket along with my metro card and student ID, unwilling to consider it longer than necessary. Cash flush and identity secured, there are books and pens and scarves and thermos and wallet and lip glosses to stuff into bags: it is a long-legged journey I embark on, and one never knows when fate is setting them out on an Odyssean mission.

Outside, by the flower stand where the sickly Casanova sells carnations and compliments, I wait for the dolmuş. Here I consider whether my outfit is warm enough, cool enough, flattering enough, even though it is too late to enact any changes (I am a muller, a situation overanalyzer, an every possible outcome considerer). On particularly sluggish mornings, I merely congratulate myself for having dressed at all, running a hand over the tumbleweed bedhead my mother calls the rat’s nest. The hunting down of a dolmuş must be like picking up a woman at a bar; they are either skittish, sleekly flowing down the street without a glance at you, or aggressively competing for your attention, all beeps and horns and lights and violently opened doors. I nearly always hit my head clambering into the funny car, the worker’s clown car, rushing to the last row so I am not stuck in the middle, am not the middleman of others’ fares and destinations to the driver. I know the words, but they come out slowly, uncertainly, poured honey; stickily stuck to the easy squeeze plastic of my mouth. My coins travel from cupped hand boat to cupped hand boat, satisfactorily clinking onto the driver’s dashboard. I pay attention, waiting for the driver to call my stop, to respond “there is” to his “are there for the metro bus?” to hop out to the second part of my commute.

Elderly women, women made elderly by poverty, always begging on the stone set street. I do not understand the words they use to plead, what the meaning of their needs are, and so am absolved of guilt by foreignness, by the inability to comprehend. Or so I tell myself.
Under the open tunnel passage way there is the man whose hepcat mustache sells hot simits with cautions, yelping out “dikkat!”
He is saying “ouch!” to get your attention, then says “careful, these are hot!” Omer tells me in one of the first mornings of his commute. I think of this every time I see the man, hear his car salesman selling warning. There are umbrellas sold, hats, hot chestnuts, water being proffered. The ping of the machine as it accepts, this time, my funded identity, the walk to the platform where one is either salmon struggling upstream for a prime door opening or lolling like a punk skipping school, waiting, waiting in the emptiness. The most frustrating thing is having a bus fill up - and by fill up I mean all the seats being taken, for no one wants to stand - and seeing the next bus, barren and cool and quiet like a long-forgotten section of the museum, idling in vain, the driver deliberately not advancing to meet us, until suddenly, until his vontade, his want, sets in. I have been knocked askew by grey haired grandfathers and bag laden babushkas in our communal efforts to get a seat in the bus. I have been bypassed and done the bypassing to jaunty, hairy men and their pirated cell phones, to the knockoff fashionista gays, to the overly made up women and their spider leg eyebrows, but I always, always get a seat. I may look tranquil and gringa - excuse me, yabancı - but I’m from Latin America, motherfuckers, get out of my way. 

The bus is a marketplace of odors, sold by the kilo to the closest bidder: rich, oniony vapor of an underarm, the most commonplace of all; the dirty ball sack, like sour milk and hair left in a plastic bag; the cheesy brine of a rushed breakfast; the cheap, but utterly, gratefully welcome, floral powder of a feminine neck. They assault you, nostril and maw and tongue, inch their way in, chipping away at the love for mankind you store within, chipping away every day more and more. But ah, nothing threatens to tear asunder your compassion for humanity like the lingering fart. Like a whirling dervish, it turns and turns and turns in the air, madly and ecstatically, its own skirts billowing and twirling, gathering up force and energy and heat in its movements, a hothouse of terror. The tell is always in the overly clenched butt muscles or in the beatific grin of post-release, but it is impossible to discern who among us sinners has perpetrated this greatest of atrocities. This is the moment when I recite “Walking Around” to myself, repeat the slow cadence of “sucede que me canso de ser hombre…” It is troubling, for I dislike Neruda, but no other poetic exhaustion will do, no Eliot, Pessoa or O’Hare for this very particular moment of my trek.  

It is in the metro bus that I learn to tell what each stop looks like, what they are called, the order they come in. I learn how to mimic the automated voice perfectly, mouthing “gelecek istasyon” immediately after the ring, chewing over the stop names over and over, as if I were a cow chewing cud, breaking the difficult down into bite sized syllables of logic.

Sö-ğüt-lü-çeş-me.  U-zun-ça-yır. 

Dominos in a straight line, knocking them down one by one with the impulse of my tongue. 

There is an elfin Syrian refugee boy who sells Kleenex packs, who tenderly, genuinely hugs the midsection of the tall man who buys a pack, who smiles a milk toothed smile at me when I do the same. Outside there is traffic, there is the police station or similar governmental building that looks like a 1980s conception of a spaceship, and my favorite part of the commute, the crossing of the bridge. I anticipate and savor the crossing, not only due to the multitudinous symbolic meanings we can ascribe to crossing a bridge and crossing continents, but because it feels like an accomplishment, like a reward for enduring Monday. The Bosphorus is all metaphor of melancholy, a comforting, restless flux that seems eternal and unchangeable, as if to gaze out at it today is the same as gazing at it a hundred thousand days ago or ten thousand days from now. It is intractable, a current of power and wild restrain guided only by nature, it spits on the man that tries to hold it down, it swallows him whole. All returns, all goes, all stays here. I look at its tiny V shaped bird wings, the smoke scrawl of boat funnels, the hieroglyphs of waves chasing one another, like a perfect miniature painting. 

Then arrival, and the spell is broken. 


The gathering of bags, the breathing of the weary, the push and pull, people refusing to allow you out or others in, another turnstile - ah, but how much better does it sound in Portuguese, catraca, onomatopoeic, the exact sound of the metal spokes turning around your swiveling torso. Now for the third step in our five-step commute - the five-point plan, tactical, synchronized, reminiscent of Wilson’s Fourteen Point Plan. Now there are escalators, and the descent is both Dantesque and delectable: a taking down into concrete mazes, more sets of escalators, more moving sidewalks for the lazy in a hurry, more signs for metro buses and exits and subways, an assertion of your surrender of will. However: as the gears go further down, the smell of bread rises to meet you. This is my second favorite part, a pleasure so deep and sweet that forces me to close my eyes, as if, in the way that small children believe it to be so, I can smell the smell better, can come closer to it, can seal it within the binds of my experience. 




Cris de Oliveira is a writer and editor living in Istanbul. You can read more of her work at criswritesit.tumblr.com.