MEHMET ZAMAN SAÇLIOĞLU
The dolmushes that leave from Kadıköy and go to Bostancı veer suddenly away from the shore as they round the point at Moda and turn into one of the district’s somewhat older side streets. This street takes you down the hill to Moda, and from there to Yoğurtçu Park.
The street, which used to be very congested at several intersections, was not at all liked by dolmush drivers coming up the hill. There were traffic lights at only two places here, one at the intersection with Moda Caddesi, the other at the intersection with Bahariye Caddesi. At the other intersections, young kids who had just got their driving licenses (and some that had not succeeded) created a hazard, showing off in their fathers’ cars.
The experienced old dolmush drivers, who drove cautiously, slightly hunched over the steering wheels of their aged, rattletrap cars, collecting fares and dispensing change, approached these hazardous intersections with their left foot on the clutch and their right poised to hit the brake at any moment.
One day a man started directing traffic at the most treacherous of the intersections. Although people were slightly taken aback at first, they soon grew accustomed to his presence. Clean-shaven, with glasses, a long raincoat and a whistle in his mouth, the man flawlessly executed the hand and arm movements of a bona fide traffic director – stopping cars and giving them the right of way, making all the cars wait for an elderly woman and then saluting her politely – and before long he was a fixture at the intersection.
The local shopkeepers, the neighbors who observed the proceedings from their windows and the drivers who regularly used the street soon realized that the man was a harmless idiot. What else could he have been? What could a traffic director with no monthly salary, no rank, no social security, no weapon, no uniform and no forms for writing up tickets be other than an idiot?
It was, in all probability, the corner grocer who was the first to determine that this man, who stuffed a slice of kashar cheese into a half loaf of bread for lunch and attempted to direct the traffic on the one hand while eating his lunch on the other, was an idiot.
The first time he entered the shop, the man wished the grocer a polite good day, put in his order, and made a couple gestures to the cars from a distance to show that he was on the job even as he stood waiting at the door of the grocery for his sandwich to be made. To the grocer, who asked him who he was and why he was directing traffic here, he replied: “Can’t talk now, I’m on duty.” He paid without taking his eyes off the street and, taking his sandwich, resumed his post in the middle of the intersection.
The grocer watched the man briefly and then got absorbed in his business. Towards evening while he was waiting on a customer, he heard a horn honk and looked for the man but was unable to discern anyone in the intersection. It surprised the grocer to see that this intersection, which had functioned all by itself for years, had abandoned its old habits and quickly adapted to the traffic director only to revert to chaos again on his departure.
After the first few days the traffic director’s working hours fell into a regular pattern. With his whistle, his hand and arm movements and a smile on his face, the man, who took his place at the intersection at 7:30 in the morning, directed traffic without a break until five in the evening and disappeared at precisely 5 p.m. On Sundays the intersection was untended.
In the end, everyone came to accept the man, who observed his weekly working hours punctiliously and solved the traffic problem on the street. Now and then at midday while he was eating his lunch the man would utter a few words, but he never took his eyes off the traffic. He never made school children, pregnant women, or old people wait to cross the street but immediately stopped the cars, not giving the go sign until the pedestrians had reached the opposite curb.
Before long the grocer stopped accepting money for the man’s lunches. He felt indebted to this person who toiled with boundless energy and a smile on his face with no expectation of anything in return. In any case all the poor soul ate was half loaf of bread and a hundred grams of kashar cheese.
- Why won’t you take the money? he asked. Am I a beggar? The grocer was prepared for all possible questions.
- I beg your pardon, brother, but the department of traffic told me not to take money from their officer, he said. They are very pleased with your work and they are going to pay for your lunches from now on, he explained, squelching any further objections.
This reply prompted the man to take his work even more seriously, to the point of extending his work day by another hour. The grocer gave the same reply to questions about the man asked by people he didn’t know who entered his shop as first-time customers
What do you mean an idiot, my good man? He is more intelligent than any of us. Some so-called great men take office saying they are going to administer the state and then make a hash of it. The man has been directing the traffic all this time without a hitch. He doesn’t take a penny for it and he doesn’t complain either. God knows, I can’t tell who is crazy and who is sane. I used to have a shop boy. I paid him good money but he was lazy and a thief to boot. I couldn’t even get him to work for tips. This man has invented a job for himself. Who in the world has ever seen a volunteer traffic director who worked without pay? Let the department of traffic come over here and see what a real traffic director is!
Some of the customers were taken aback and said, “Well, if he’s not an idiot, then what’s he doing here?” And very few of them took a lesson from his example.
One noon when he was getting his lunch, the man took a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it and handed it to the grocer.
- Would you mind putting this up in your shop window?
- What does it say on that paper? asked the grocer, and then he started reading it.
“Traffic director to be hired for this intersection. All those interested are requested to apply to Officer Cemil after six in the evening. Signed, Officer Cemil.” At the bottom was an enormous signature in scrawling letters.
- What happened? Are you leaving?” asked the grocer, saddened.
- Not for now, replied the man. Actually I do have to go. On my way here this morning I saw an accident down below. There used to be a lot of accidents there as well, so it’s even more hazardous than here. But it wouldn’t be right to leave without finding somebody for here.
- I see, said the grocer. But let me write this in big letters for you. This is very small, it won’t be noticed.
The man was pleased and grinned from ear to ear.
- Okay, he said. God bless you! Then he bounded five or six paces into the street and took up his position.
- Cemil, wait! the grocer called out after him. You forgot your lunch!
- Thanks, brother, said Cemil, and dashing back with the same exuberant step, he grabbed his sandwich and returned to his post.
The grocer noticed that the smile on the man’s face did not fade for several minutes. When he had a little free time, he took a largish piece of paper and wrote in large, neat letters:
“Our esteemed traffic director is seeking an assistant. Those interested are requested to apply to Mr Cemil after working hours.” He stuck it on the inside of the window so that Cemil would see it. The sign took its place above an ad that read, “University graduate gives tutoring in math and physics to middle and high school students”. Cemil stood up straight and tall.
No sooner had the grocer opened his shop the next day and brought in the bread and newspapers from in front of the door than Cemil entered.
- Did anybody apply for the job? he asked excitedly.
- No, it’s too soon, replied the grocer. Wait a few days until people see the ad and tell their friends… There’s no hurry. Somebody is bound to turn up.
- They will tell them, won’t they? There are so many people out of work, said Cemil. I keep seeing them wandering around in the streets, begging. Thank god I’ve got a job. I’m fortunate. But I should get to my post. Just look how the cars are whizzing by. Then he dashed into the middle of the street and took up his post. Fixing his eyes on the grocer, who was watching from the door of his shop, he gave him a crisp military salute.
The next few days were trying for the grocer. Cemil barged into the shop behind every departing customer to ask excitedly:
- Did they inquire about the ad?
Two weeks passed and Cemil found an easy solution to the problem.
Whenever a customer left the shop, he sought out the grocer’s face behind the shining lights. Raising his right arm upward and outward, he wagged his head from side to side as if to ask what happened? And the grocer in turn jerked his hand up and his head back to report ‘Negative’. These signals had become almost second nature when Cemil stepped into the shop early one morning and said:
- Take the ad down. I’ve found a fellow. He’s agreed to take the job. He’ll be here today.
The grocer was surprised.
- Really? he asked. Who is it?
- I met him yesterday. He’s a poor devil. He seemed to be looking for work. I told him traffic provides the lunch and there’s no salary and he accepted. He’s going to come at noon. I’m going to teach him the job, don’t you worry. I would never turn this place over to him without training him well.
“Good luck with that,” muttered the grocer under his breath. “Two hundred grams of kashar a day means five kilos a month. Oh well, I’ll regard it as alms. I just hope this fool doesn’t start dragging others into my shop.”
Although it was noon, no one had shown up. Shading his eyes with his hands, Cemil peered down the street from time to time. Towards the hour of the afternoon prayers he entered the grocery looking desperate.
- The poor fellow probably couldn’t find the place, he said. Let me eat my lunch at least. If he had come we were going to eat together. I’ll have to bring him along when I come tomorrow. Brooding and preoccupied, he waited for his sandwich. The grocer made the sandwich without saying a word, putting less kashar than usual inside the loaf of bread. Cemil took his lunch and returned to his post all agitated. Despite all his misery, he devoted his full attention to directing the traffic until six p.m. Then, leaving his post with a look of weariness on his face for the first time since he had appeared, he stepped into the grocery.
- I really wonder, he said, why this boy didn’t show up. I hope nothing happened to him. I’m going to find him tomorrow and bring him here. But if I’m late, take a look at the traffic now and then, will you? A red Ford with the license number DZ 300 has been passing through recently around eight in the morning. The driver is very reckless. Make sure he doesn’t cause an accident. Okay, see you tomorrow. Good evening.
Towards noon the next day, Cemil came into the grocery holding a young man by the hand.
- Look, he said, smiling. This is the friend I told you about. Osman… Then he turned affectionately to the boy.
- Look, Osman, this man is our very esteemed brother. He also fixes our lunch.
The grocer contemplated the boy’s face in horror. He was a true psycho. A filthy, slovenly, genuine psycho with a naive grin on his face, snot running from his nose, a wool knit cap on his head and tattered shoes. He was probably homeless to boot.
Cemil pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped the boy’s nose and turned to the grocer:
- Pay no mind, brother. He is going to learn. Let him sit here for now and watch me. We’ll start slowly and then pick up the pace, he said.
The grocer drew a deep breath and looked at the two of them with pity and astonishment. Then he fetched a soft drink crate, spread a thick sheet of oilcloth over it and set it outside the door of the grocery a slight distance away.
- Bring the young man over and let him sit here, he said to Cemil, so he doesn’t get in the way of the people going in and out. He’ll be able to see you better from here.
Cemil took the boy by the hand, brought him over and sat him down on the crate. He stuffed the handkerchief into the boy’s hand.
- Wipe your nose when it runs, Osman, he said. Or you’ll turn the grocer’s stomach.
Then he dashed into the middle of the street and resumed his post. From there, as if it had only just occurred to him, he called out to the grocer, who was standing in front of the door:
- Did the red Ford cause any trouble?
Then he called out to the boy:
- Watch me carefully. Don’t miss any movements.
Cemil raised his hand, waved his arm and blew his whistle until noon. He stopped the cars, then let them go, in short, he showed Osman all the fine points of his art that day. And Osman watched, sometimes Cemil, sometimes the people passing by in the street, and sometimes the flies that alighted on his knees. When his nose ran, Cemil came running. “Wipe your nose, Osman,” he would say, taking the handkerchief from the boy’s hand, wiping his nose, then thrusting the handkerchief into his hand again and dashing back to his post. When it was noon, he approached Osman looking tired but happy.
- You saw, didn’t you, Osman? he asked.
The boy grinned and wagged his head quickly from side to side a few times.
- It’s not that easy, Osman, said Cemil, drawing himself erect. You have to be very careful. If you aren’t, there will be an accident. This is an intersection. When an accident happens, the intersection gets congested all of a sudden. Up to now I have not let a single accident happen. You too are going to learn this job.
Osman was still wagging his head. Cemil stepped into the grocery.
It’s noon, brother. Let’s have our lunch. I wonder if traffic sent over lunch money for Osman, too?
They did, said the grocer, looking very serious. Then he cut a fresh loaf in two, put a little kashar inside each half and opened two sodas.
- And this is a welcome drink for Osman from me, he told Cemil.
- The soda is from our brother, the grocer, Cemil whispered in Osman’s ear as he handed him the sandwich and soft drink. Tell him thank you.
Osman wagged his head again with the same stupid grin.
Cemil called from outside the door.
- Osman thanks you, brother.
- You don’t need to thank me.
Cemil helped the boy eat his sandwich. He was grinning at Cemil and trying to chew at the same time. But now and then when he forgot to chew and saliva drooled down his chin from his gaping mouth, Cemil would wipe the boy’s chin with the handkerchief in his hand.
Chew! he would say.
When the boy had eaten half the sandwich in his hand, he was full. Cemil got a piece of newspaper from the grocer, wrapped the remaining bread in it and stuck it in Osman’s pocket.
- You can eat it this evening, he said.
Then he added, ‘Lunch is over, Osman. I have to get back to work. Watch closely so you learn the job quickly. Look, he admonished. We’ve eaten bread provided by the State. We have to earn our keep.
Osman began howling with laughter as Cemil was returning to his post. He was laughing at Cemil’s hand and arm movements.
- Don’t laugh, boy. Pay attention, Cemil shouted angrily from his post.
The boy stopped laughing and started watching.
- Look here. Over here. Don’t take your eyes off me, yelled Cemil.
When it was evening, Cemil came over to Osman. He appeared to be at the end of his tether. He took the boy by the hand and made him stand up.
- Come on, he said, we’re leaving. Let’s go practice those movements. He wished the grocer a good evening and they started up the street.
The next morning Cemil took his place promptly at the usual hour.
After glancing around for Osman, the grocer called out to Cemil.
- Good morning, Cemil. No Osman today?
- I’ll explain, brother, replied Cemil, at noon…
At noon Cemil explained while the grocer was fixing his sandwich:
- I showed him the movements yesterday evening, but he has no ability whatsoever. You noticed too that the boy is a little crazy. More than a little actually… But still I thought he could do the job. He would have learned a trade, filled his stomach, and been of use to his people and the State. He could have learned it, too. But he’s a slow boy. He learned the sign for stop. He raises his hand and holds it up, but he forgets he’s got his hand in the air. If you laugh, the boy will be hurt. But the cars are not going to wait for his arm to get tired. I told him if it had been before, it would have been okay, I said. There were fewer cars, life was unhurried. But this age is the age of speed. I realized that he had no intention of learning. So I said, “Don’t take offense, Osman, but I’ll put you in another job. Directing traffic won’t do/isn’t for you.” Keep it in mind, brother. If you hear of any job that would suit him, let me know. You’ve met the boy in any case.
The grocer nodded his head. It was all he could do to keep from laughing out loud. He gave Cemil the sandwich and Cemil thanked him. As he was going out the door, he turned back and said:
- Oh, let’s put that ad up again. Maybe somebody suitable will come along.
Translated by Virginia Taylor Saçlıoğlu
Original Text: “Dörtyol”, from the book: Yaz Evi, Istanbul,2002, Published by: İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları