The two boys huddled into the front seat of Karakaş Abi’s blue DeSoto, sitting close to each other as if the otherwise empty dolmuş were full. Karakaş took a drag from his cigarette, always precariously perched on his lips, and held his breath. He then turned his shared taxi onto Kurtuluş Caddesi.
“Günaydın,” he said cheerfully—good morning—after he blew a large puff of smoke out the window. It was drowned by a gust of black soot from a yellow and red IETT Škoda laboriously accelerating in front. Old and hoarse, the city bus was beginning its run from the nearby terminus in the meydan(square) near the boys’ apartment building. The bus pulled away rattling and trembling, while Karakaş, swiftly shifting the thin gear arm on the steering column to third, followed suit.
“Günaydın, Karakaş Abi,” chirped the boys.
Albert and Niso were ten and eight, brothers, both smartly dressed in white shirts, red tack-on papillion neckties, and blue sports jackets with their school’s Şişli Terrâkki insignia on the chest pockets. Their regulation gray pants could be long or short, depending on the weather. Today they wore short pants, this being springtime. It was the eve of the 23 Nisan holiday called Ҫocuk Bayramı (Children’s Holiday), so labeled by the father of their country Atatürk, who in 1927 dedicated the twenty-third day of April to the children of his new Turkish republic.
Kurtuluş Caddesi, the main artery of this quarter of Istanbul, was a two-lane street lined by apartment buildings, a prominent post office, grocery stores, delicatessens, butchers, bread and börek bakeries, patisseries, turşu(pickle) shops, barbers, hairdressers, banks, and one movie theater, Kurtuluş Sineması. It was busy with morning traffic. Karakaş drew more drags from his cigarette, turning it to a curving skeleton of ash that he skillfully controlled on his lips. The children were fascinated by how the spent cigarette defied dissolution.
Karakaş was a lean, handsome, square-jawed man in his early thirties, his thick black hair slicked back with grease, his upper lip adorned by a dark, pencil-thin moustache. His substantial eyebrows were the reason for his nickname, karakaş, which meant dark eyebrows. The boys did not know his real name and never thought to ask him.
The DeSoto turned left onto Nasip Caddesi, then a quick right onto Bozkurt, both side streets on the way to their next stop. They would be picking up a shy, dark-haired Armenian girl in Niso’s class named Hera.
They passed by a street vendor pushing a two-wheeled cart hauling freshly baked dough products. Despite being in a glass case, the enticing smells of simit, börek, poğaҫa, and ҫatal wafted into the DeSoto. The vendor stopped at a small kıraathane, a tea house on the ground floor of an apartment building, offering breakfast to several interested clients. All were bearded old men who sat on sidewalk chairs, tulip-shaped tea glasses in one hand, tespih (worry beads) in the other. Some were smoking nargile, creating languorous curls of vapor with the water pipes. Karakaş stopped, handed the vendor some coins and drove on, steering with a simit in one hand, working the gear shift with the other.
“Mmm!” said Karakaş. “This simit is good and fresh.” He tore two generous pieces from the small wheel of sesame-covered bread and handed them to the boys.
They stopped at Hera’s building on the corner of Bozkurt and Sahin, a slender structure with faded paint. Karakaş honked twice, leaning on the chrome inner rim of the steering wheel. He flicked a stub out the window and reached into his shirt pocket for a fresh one. Overhead they heard Madam Kirkoryan yelling, “She’s on her way.” No one looked up at the fifth-story window, for she did the same every morning. Soon a disheveled Hera, awkwardly hauling her school bag and lunch pail, piled into the back seat.
Karakaş lit the new cigarette with a fancy gesture, deftly using just his left hand to strike a match on a matchbox and light up the tip close to his face. Afterwards he shook the match dead, threw it out the window, took a deep drag, and started on uphill toward the Feriköy district.
“When I grow up, I want to smoke just like you,” said Albert, admiringly.
Karakaş gave the boy a smiling side glance as he pulled the DeSoto into Abide-i Hürriyet Caddesi, heading for Ahmet, a new client, a kindergartner.
“Don’t,” he said in a warm voice. “It is a nasty habit. You’ll be coughing for the rest of your life.”
They drove through Abide-i-Hürriyet, a gauntlet of two continuous walls, each lining a different Christian cemetery, one for Protestants, another for Catholics. They were tall concrete walls, hiding spooky secrets for the boys, who were curious but afraid to explore. It was Thursday and a lively pazar, a farmer’s market, held weekly along this stretch of the street, was being erected along the walls. The street was still easy to cross, for the pazar was not in full swing. By the afternoon it would be nearly impassable with thick crowds.
“Karakaş Abi, will you let me drive?” pleaded Albert. He was a dark-complexioned Jewish boy, in contrast to his blond, blue-eyed little brother, the two hardly recognizable as siblings. Quiet, shy, and well-behaved, Albert was Karakaş’s favorite, always captivated by the driver, polite and respectful as if Karakaş were his father.
“No,” replied Karakaş in a gentle voice. “In the afternoon, maybe. On the way back from school. And not here, not through the pazar.”
Albert knew this, but it never hurt to ask. Traffic in the morning was heavier and Karakaş had the daunting task of a tight deadline, negotiating a circuitous route with many pick-ups. In contrast, the afternoon return was leisurely and the two brothers, first to be picked up in the morning, were last to be dropped off.
“Citroen!” yelled Niso, starting the game they played each day with Karakaş. He pointed to a large black car that passed by, with a rectangular hood and prominent round fenders. It was an easy pick, for these 1950s relics, always black, were ubiquitous in Istanbul.
“Aferin,” said Karakaş—bravo. “It’s a 1954 Traction Avant.” He pronounced the name properly in French.
Not to be undone, Albert eagerly looked around and soon spotted one.
“Chevrolet!” he hollered. “Nineteen fifty-six.”
“You are correct.” Karakaş was the original teacher and final arbiter of this game, one that they privately played together, unbeknownst to the other passengers of the dolmuş.
The ’56 was easy to identify, and Albert’s favorite because it happened to be his birth year. The car was blue and white, with a distinctive black-and-white checkerboard strip around its windows, marking it as a dolmuş. Single round headlights with subtle visors and a simple chrome grille that blended with prominent bumpers gave away the model year. Back-lights with budding fins were also simpler than the full-blown wings that would appear in years to come.
The ’52 DeSoto they were riding in looked clumsy by comparison, with rounded profiles like an overturned tub, and a large chrome grille that suggested the exposed teeth of a ferocious animal. The car was now weather-beaten and dented in various spots. Its blue paint had faded years ago and chipped in numerous spots, revealing rust around the wheel hubs. Its quarter panels were loose and shaky in the uneven streets of the city. Inside, the vinyl seats were cracked and torn, revealing white padding within. One of the back doors did not close all the way, and rattled loudly. So did the side windows.
“What about this one?” asked Karakaş, as they crossed Rumeli Caddesi. The car had the same lines as the ’56 Chevrolet, but its headlights were framed with droopy ovals that looked like crying eyes, and its grille was down-curved like sad lips. It had a unique feature, however, that made it easy to identify: four round ornaments on each side up front, suggesting air vents of fighter airplanes.
“Buick!” yelled the boys in unison. The word was easy to remember because it sounded like the Turkish word for moustache, bıyık .
They picked up Ahmet from nearby Ebe Kızı Sokak, the wiry little boy energetically jumping in, his tiny red bow tie askew. They turned right on Efe Sokak back toward Rumeli, going past a tiny synagogue that the boys knew well; it was where their family worshiped.
“You boys are getting good at spotting cars,” said Karakaş proudly, as though the children were his own. He turned left into Rumeli and joined a long line of cars waiting to cross the grand Halaskârgazi Boulevard, at the heart of the Osmanbey quarter. At the middle of the intersection was a small, circular traffic island with a cylindrical white box in which a policeman with a loud whistle directed traffic. His forearms were highlighted with prominent white leather sleeves that flared out halfway to the elbow. His repeatedly upturned and downturned arms mostly favored vehicles in the grand boulevard that connected Taksim Square with Şişli Square, backing up Rumeli, a regular bottleneck in their daily morning commute.
The boys beamed with the compliment they had just received and ardently followed the policeman in the box, his upper body in constant motion, his legs concealed within the ad for Puro, a popular soap, that adorned the round box. He used a shrill whistle to move traffic, aiming it in this direction and that, but rarely in theirs.
“I read that in Western cities they have traffic lights instead of policemen,” said Albert.
“Maybe someday we’ll get some too, inşallah,” responded Karakaş, leaning on his steering wheel impatiently. “And then, maybe it’ll let us pass this intersection faster than this eşek.”
The boys giggled, for he had just called the policeman a donkey.
The dolmuş continued its rounds through Osmanbey and Şişli, stopping by numerous houses, loading up with boys and girls, young and old, thin and fat, Turkish and minority, all headed to school. The DeSoto then lurched toward Nişantaşı, the children inside piled like sardines, their raucous cacophony emanating from open windows.
Amid the din inside, Karakaş turned to Albert, now sitting closer to him in the tightly packed car, and whispered, “I am getting my own car soon. I won’t be leasing this piece of junk from Fazıl Efendi any longer.”
“What brand is it?” asked Albert, also proud, both of the good news and to be the only one in on the secret.
They soon arrived at the back gate of Şişli Terrâkki Lisesi, along a small cobblestoned street, and the DeSoto lined up behind several other dolmuş also filled to the gills with students that they all chaotically disgorged. The kids dispersed onto the sidewalk and into the gate, some running, others standing, waiting for their mates, all unruly, as the school kapıcı (doorman) tried, with no success, to calm them into some order.
* * *
“What did you learn at school today?” asked Karakaş as he steered the DeSoto carefully among the lively crowd at the farmer’s market on Abide-i Hürriyet. The cemetery walls on each side were no longer visible behind the colorful stalls of fresh fruits and vegetables, all covered with makeshift cloth awnings supported on precarious wooden poles that leaned every which way. Only Karakaş, Albert, and Niso were in the dolmuş. They had dropped off the others and did not have to bother with little Hera, who had been picked up by her father. It was now one-on-one with Albert and Niso, the time Karakaş liked best.
“I learned more English,” said Albert. “Our teacher Gülay Hanım is very nice.”
Karakaş slowed down behind a small horse-drawn cart carrying erik, the green plums fresh in season. He closed his window to muffle the noise of barking vendors and bargaining customers.
“Say something new in English.”
“I, you, he, she, we,” recited Albert assuredly.
They stopped behind the cart as a crowd assembled to buy small paper bags full of erik.
“I am so proud of you,” said Karakaş. “Someday you will speak English fluently, and you will be an important person.”
“And when I am, I will remember you,” said Albert grandly.
Karakaş lit up with a broad smile that he concealed from the boy, looking at his side mirror, away from Albert. He then composed himself and tenderly petted the back of the boy’s head in a common gesture of paternal approval.
They started up again, passing a large stand crammed with salami, Turkish and French sausage, various white cheeses—a virtual deli. Nearby a vendor stood behind a wooden barrel piled high with crisscrossed cucumbers. He peeled them, cut them each in half, and poured ample salt on each. Another crowd of customers spilled into the street, waiting their turn to buy this popular snack, impeding the dolmuş.
“I can speak some French,” interjected Niso, pulling his head in from the open passenger window.
“Really?” said Karakaş with phony delight. “Say something to us.”
“Kes köse?” trumpeted Niso proudly, pronouncing Qu’est-ce que c’est? with a Turkish accent. And then, with a giggle, “Kes kafanı, koy kümese.”
It was a tired old joke, cut your head and stick it into a chicken coop, a nonsense phrase that rhymed.
They all laughed.
“My father has been taking night classes in English and he has a giant dictionary,” said Albert.
“Wow,” said Karakaş. “Does he help you with your lessons?”
“Not really. I think I already know more than he does.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it. You’re such a bright boy.”
Albert beamed. He impatiently anticipated the end of Abide-i Hürriyet Caddesi, for it was after this that Karakaş usually offered him the steering wheel of the DeSoto. The crowd was thinner along this last stretch of the pazar, filled with vendors that sold shoes and other clothing items.
“Karakaṣ Abi, how come you don’t have any children?” asked Niso.
Stalled behind another dolmuṣ that was picking up a passenger in mid-block, Karakaṣ placed his cigarette in the open ashtray on the dash and smiled at the boys.
“Never had the chance,” he said, a bit downcast. “Can’t support a family with this tired old car.”
The dolmuṣ ahead moved on, and Karakaṣthrew the DeSoto into first gear. “Besides, I have all you children. Every day. What do I need my own for?” he declared, more cheerfully.
“We learned the meaning of Ҫocuk Bayramı,” said Niso, changing the subject, his wispy blond hair blowing in a light breeze from the open window.
“And what is it?”
“It’s the date when the first Turkish Congress started,” said the boy with an air of weightiness. “That was the beginning of our republic.”
“And Atatürk dedicated it to children, to us,” added Albert, sitting close to Karakaş in anticipation.
“Aferin,” said Karakaş, smiling at the boys with squinty eyes as the smoke he exhaled enveloped his face. “Don’t ever forget how wise Atatürk was. He knew that the future of our nation, all our hopes, lay with you, our children.”
Finally they turned off Abide-i Hürriyet Caddesi, leaving the pazar behind, and headed toward Kurtuluş Caddesi. Here, traffic was light at this hour.
“Do you want to drive?”
“Yes!” shouted Albert.
Karakaş edged closer to the door, making room for Albert, who, familiar by now with the routine, inched in and grabbed the steering wheel on the right lower side. Karakaş continued to operate the gas and clutch, and let Albert shift gears. Albert knew the gear positions by heart, and the two operated the car as a well-practiced team as the DeSoto glided along the slightly downhill cobblestoned road. The uneven surface often caused the car to veer right.
“All right now, a bit this way,” said Karakaş, gently correcting their course leftward. Albert was intensely attentive to the road, delighted at having the steering wheel.
“Can I drive too?” asked Niso.
“You’re still too small for this car,” said Karakaş. He never gave the wheel to anyone other than Albert. “Maybe next year, when you are older.”
Niso clapped his hands, unaware that the opportunity would never come.
Kurtuluş Caddesi, on the way toward the meydan, was straight, a safe place to indulge Albert. Karakaş let him steer halfway and then said, “Let’s stop for refreshments.”
He pulled up to a turşucu, his favorite basement pickle shop. “Wait here a minute,” he said, as he dove down the stairs.
Soon he emerged with a glass of thick, opaque turşu suyu, pickle juice, and two bottles of Uludağ gazoz, ginger-ale, for the boys. They drank the refreshments with gusto, the DeSoto parked during the break, facing colorful posters of Türkân Şoray at the sinema. She was the most glamorous of all movie stars.
“Aahhh!” exclaimed Karakaş as he swallowed a big gulp of juice. “Turşu suyu is not for little boys like you, but I hope when you grow up you will appreciate how delightful it is.”
“My father let me have a sip once,” said Albert. “It was too sour and it burned my mouth.”
“Yuck,” said Niso, and tossed his head back for another gulp of gazoz.
“Your mother told me to have you back by four thirty,” said Karakaş. “It’s banyo day.”
It was Thursday, and their mother always yelled down during the morning pick-up, reminding Karakaṣ from her seventh-floor window that the boys needed to return early for their weekly bath.
“Mom is always worried on Thursdays,” sighed Albert.
“And she should be,” responded Karakaş. “You know running water shuts off at six p.m. and doesn’t come back until you’re in school the next day. How is she to give you a bath with no water if we’re late?”
Karakaş took his last sip, lit a new cigarette and started the DeSoto back up. They were only a few minutes from home. He did not offer the wheel to Albert who, already satisfied, did not ask for more.
“We have a busy night tonight,” said Albert. “After we take our banyo we will all go to my aunt Ester’s for Pesah.”
“Ah, yes! Tonight is Hamursuz Bayramı, isn’t it?” said Karakaş, using the common Turkish phrase for the Passover holiday—feast of matzo. “Do you know what it’s all about?”
“It’s about Jews being released from slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert, hungry,” recited Albert.
“Indeed,” Karakaş responded. “And you know your Musa Peygamber, Prophet Moses, is as sacred to us in the Müslüman religion as he is to you.”
The boys knew. Religion was Karakaş Abi’s favorite subject, the accomplishments of Atatürk being second. His respect for the other religions of Musa and Isa Peygamber, prophets Moses and Christ, was well known to the boys, indeed to all the children he carried back and forth to Şişli Terrâkki.
They arrived home to Іşık Apartıman. As Albert and Niso exited the car, so did Karakaş. They all looked up for the familiar face of Madam Süzet, their mother, perched out of the seventh-floor window high above.
Karakaş waved at her. “Good evening, happy holidays.”
She waved back. “Thank you for bringing them home early.”
Niso quickly disappeared through the apartment door. Albert lingered a bit.
“I’ll have my new car soon,” said Karakaş, “after you return from the holiday.”
Albert nodded, eyes wide, then turned and ran in the door.
* * *
It was a smaller gathering than usual—Moiz and Süzet, Albert’s mom and dad; Ester the hostess and her husband, Leon; and Şimon, Ester and Süzet’s bachelor brother whose boredom with the ceremony exceeded Albert’s. Şimon urged the yarmulked men at the table to get on with their alternating recitations. At one point Leon, taking his turn in the Ladino recitation of Exodus, read a passage that caused everyone to pause and smile.
“Ke pezgada la ambre en tyerra de Kenaan,” he read with sing-song melisma—how heavy was the hunger in the land of Canaan.
They all stared at Ester’s table, her best finery merely a backdrop for the large plate of ritual appetizers in the middle—karpas, harosi, maror, zeroa, beitzah. Şimon cleared his throat loudly, and they all broke into laughter.
Soon harosi was served, a concoction of sugared chopped apple, walnut and cinnamon in a lettuce wrap that was the boys’ favorite. Leon and Moiz sped through the rest of the ceremony to the dinner of pot roast with potatoes and vegetables that followed, with matzo instead of bread and an unleavened cake for dessert that was flat, sweet, and crunchy with crushed walnuts.
Afterwards the men remained at the table with after-dinner drinks while the women cleared up and retreated to the kitchen. The boys played in the living room.
“My cousin Jak knows a hardware merchant in Tahtakale who is looking to sell a 1964 Volkswagen,” said Moiz, Albert’s father.
He was tall and stocky, with a dark complexion and thick, dark hair, his unruly eyebrows curving out at the edges like moustaches. A stiff, serious man, Moiz had a booming voice that trumpeted his impeccable Turkish diction, a language he preferred to the more commonly spoken Ladino Spanish among adult Jews. No Turk would ever guess he was Jewish unless he told them his name.
Leon, Ester’s husband, took another sip of rakı. “Only four years old. Not bad. It should be in good shape.”
Older than Moiz by a decade, he was short, stocky and bald, a chain smoker and heavy drinker, gentle and philosophical in disposition. His Turkish was tinged with a Jewish Ladino accent. He lit an unfiltered Bafra cigarette, wiping out the match with a swift shake of his arm and leaning back as he took a deep drag.
“It’s about time you drove your own car to work,” he said to Moiz, smoke pouring down his nostrils. “I wish I had gotten a license before I retired.”
“Believe me, it was not easy,” said Moiz. “I waited for this driver’s license for how many years now? Five?”
“Nooo, more than that,” said Şimon, who was nursing a glass of whiskey on the rocks.
“All those years of commuting to Karaköy from Kurtuluş in buses and dolmuş,” complained Moiz.
“You’ll have to figure out where to park the car in Karakӧy,” said Leon.
The women came in, Süzet hugging her husband from behind and giving him a little peck on the cheek. “He’s getting us a car!” she said buoyantly.
“You won’t believe what dolmuş I got into the night before last, on the way home from work,” said Moiz.
“What? Was it one of those new Impalas? Great looking cars,” said Şimon, who was a car aficionado even though he didn’t own one.
“No, no. Not that. It was an old DeSoto.” He paused as the women returned to the kitchen.
“The driver… it was Karakaş Bey.”
The boys were on the divan by the windows overlooking the busy Valikonak Cadessi, playing IETT-bus, their favorite imaginary game. As usual it had begun with a fight to decide who would be the driver versus the conductor. Albert, being the older brother, customarily won, as he did tonight. He sat at the edge of the divan holding a large, round pan cover with outstretched arms: his steering wheel. He huffed and puffed in imitation of the old Škodahe was driving, periodically interrupting with a grating noise as he changed gears, his tall, thin, imaginary gear shaft rising from the floor to his right. Pouting, Niso sat at the back of the divan, the conductor, waiting for passengers, doing nothing.
The Škoda did not reach its second stop before a row erupted, Niso crying and demanding that he be the driver. He tried to pry the steering wheel from his brother’s arms. After a brief tug of war, Albert gave up and ran to the dinner table, hoping the grown-ups would settle their dispute.
“That ayyaş,” Şimon said, himself tipsy, having emptied his whiskey glass—that drunkard. He was referring to Karakaş.
“He was surprised to see me in the back seat,” said Moiz, who neither drank nor smoked. “He is such a kind man. He didn’t charge me for the ride home.”
“You would think the devil himself was an angel if he saved you a few liras,” quipped Leon, sipping his milky rakı.
No one noticed Albert, a few feet from the other edge of the long dinner table.
“Yes, I have heard rumors that he is a drunk, that he spends all his evenings in the meyhane,” said Moiz, frowning as he referenced the bar. “But he is punctual and reliable, and my kids like him.”
“And he charges less than the other drivers,” Şimon quipped, jabbing his brother-in-law.
“I hear he fills the kids’ minds with a whole bunch of Muslim religious nonsense,” said Leon, who, despite having no children himself, was well connected to the rumor mill, and cautious about Muslims.
“It is harmless stuff,” said Moiz, annoyed to be put on the defensive. “My kids tell me most of it, and believe me, it is better than the garbage they get in religion classes in their school.”
“Still,” insisted Şimon, “he is a drunk. I know several fathers who won’t let their kids near his DeSoto.”
“A devout Muslim,” chuckled Leon, “who drinks nightly and lectures the virtues of his religion to non-Muslim kids every day.”
Frustrated, Moiz turned away from them. It was then that he saw his older son, who stood frozen at the end of the dinner table.
“What’s the matter, Albert?”
“It’s unfair!” the boy cried.
“No, Albert is unfair,” screamed Niso, running in self-defense. “Why should he always drive the bus?”
It was the strangest looking car Albert had ever seen. Black with chips and dents here and there, with a gray interior, the car was long, very long. Up front it looked like the others, a long hood that curved down like an inverted bathtub. But behind, it featured a roofline that slanted all the way back to the rear bumper, uninterrupted, not even for a trunk, its back window consequently facing the sky.
It looked like a giant cockroach.
“It’s a Nash Ambassador,” said Karakaş, beaming with pride. “Nineteen-fifty.”
Albert and Niso stared silently, standing in front of their apartment building, the first ones to see their new dolmuş on its virgin run to Şişli Terrâkki.
“And it is all mine,” said Karakaş jubilantly. “No more leases.” Despite his new acquisition, he was still dressed in his customary wrinkled white shirt and well-worn gray sports jacket with various patches.
Inside, the car was more spacious than the DeSoto, the seats wider and longer, with plenty of standing space between the back and front seat. No longer would the kids be packed in like sardines. Some could sit and many could stand, as if they were in a bus.
Albert and Niso sat next to Karakaş in the front seat, as usual. There was an ornate dashboard with a complex radio assembly that could be elegantly covered with a draw-down chrome curtain. Niso reached for the buttons.
“Uh, the radio doesn’t work,” said Karakaş. He quickly pointed to the steering column.
It was tall and had an odd gauge assembly precariously perched atop, by the steering wheel, big and bulbous, tapering at its back end. The boys had never seen a car with monitors off the dash. Karakaş placed a key on the dashboard and turned the ignition on. Nothing happened.
“Watch this,” he said.
He pressed the clutch all the way down and the engine shuddered to life. The boys leaned over to look, trying to guess the source of the magic.
“There is a button on the floor that the clutch presses, and it starts the engine.”
With a single motion Karakaş lit a cigarette, threw the match out the window, pulled the gear arm mounted in the steering column into first, and drove off into Kurtuluş Caddesi. The car was noisy and had bad shocks. It waved up and down raucously on the cobblestones.
They went through their usual rounds through Feriköy, Osmanbey and Şişli, picking up puzzled kids who stared at the odd car before they entered. They made little noise that day, no arms hanging out of the open windows. They exited in silence, slightly baffled looks on their faces, and thoughtfully entered the gates of Şişli Terrâkki.
* * *
After Çocuk Bayramı the end of the school year approached quickly, punctuated with more holidays—19 May, the Youth & Sports holiday, and 27 May, commemorating a recent military coup that overthrew a civil government and executed its prime minister. Summer break was around the corner. Istanbul was mostly sunny these days, as was Karakaş Abi, proudly driving his Nash.
“Here, do you want to try?” Karakaş offered Albert the steering wheel as they left Feriköy on the way home from school one day. Albert leaned over.
The steering wheel was large and white, with two spokes arranged like a chevron. The perfectly round speedometer gauge peered through the top of the wheel. The car steered stiffer than the DeSoto, Karakaş coming to Albert’s aid more frequently as it veered in every direction.
They drove straight down Kurtuluş Caddesi, without stopping. Karakaş took back the wheel after they passed the sinema, now featuring a Fatma Girik movie. As they approached home, he turned to Albert.
“Albert,” he said, “you are a well-educated boy and you know so much English. I want you to do me a favor.”
Albert looked at Karakaş expectantly, proud of being recruited to aid an adult.
“I want you to look up the meaning of the word Nash,” he said. “This car is the most precious thing I have ever owned, and I don’t even know what its name means.”
“I will do that,” promised Albert.
* * *
After supper Albert’s family gathered around a large radio in the living room to listen to a half-hour Ladino Spanish broadcast from Jerusalem. News from Israel was a nightly ritual that Moiz, ardently Zionist despite his loose piety, keenly insisted on.
The boys were bored with the news. Albert slid away and returned with his father’s large, leather-bound English dictionary that Moiz had carefully wrapped in parchment paper to protect its precious cover, as he did with all his books. Albert leafed through it.
Nary, nasal, nascent, nasty….He looked up at his father who was absorbed with a last bit of news about a kibbutz that had received shell fire. Albert waited for the newscaster’s familiar sign-off.
“Dad, do you know the meaning of the word nash?”
“What?” replied Moiz, startled. “What language is that?”
“Nash?” pondered Moiz. “No, I have never heard that. You’d better ask your English teacher, Gülay Hanım.” He stood up and headed to his armchair where the day’s Cumhuriyet, his favorite newspaper, awaited him.
* * *
That weekend the boys stood in front of their apartment building, once again staring at another new car with its happy owner. It was a 1964 blue Volkswagen, its compact shape resembling a ladybug.
Moiz opened the hood, curvy and elliptical, to reveal a trunk compartment. The boys stared wide-eyed at the spacious emptiness where the engine should have been. They then walked to the back, where a much smaller, flatter cover, also elliptical, hid the compact engine where the trunk should have been. To each side, perched on the rear flaps, were red elliptical tail lights, the modern shape distinguishing the car from older models that featured small, pointy, round ones.
“Come inside,” said Moiz, opening the passenger door. The tiny car had only two doors. He folded the front seat and guided his boys to the back, a tight space for adults but comfortable enough for Albert and Niso. They eagerly jumped in, exploring the beige interior curiously. A break in the front seats afforded a nice view through the windshield. Ahead a narrow, unadorned dashboard featured a simple radio. A slender gear shift rose from the floor, like the Škoda buses, with a rounded handle that had various gear positions inscribed on top.
It was all new to the boys, this peculiar little car, accustomed as they were to the boat-like interiors of the Istanbul dolmuş, their engines up front, trunks in the back, and gears on the steering column.
Moiz settled into the driver’s seat, closed the door and proceeded to pretend he was driving, mouthing burringengine sounds, his hands playfully working the steering wheel and gear arm, his foot pressing on the inert clutch.
He then turned to his boys, grinning. “How do you like your new family car?”
The boys stared at their father, speechless.
* * *
The last day of school was always the most exciting for the boys. Kurtuluş Caddesi seemed more alive. Even the bumps of the Nash seemed less jolting.
“What are your plans for the summer?” asked Karakaş, as he turned into Bozkurt toward Hera’s, his voice hoarse as always from smoking.
“We’re going to Büyükada,” shouted Niso excitedly. Their father had rented an apartment on the biggest of the off-shore Princes Islands, a popular summer resort.
“I wanna ride donkeys every day,” said Albert with glee, “and swim, and play with my summer friends.” The island did not allow motorized vehicles. Its horse-carriages and donkey rides were popular with city dwellers.
They approached a street vendor with a large pack of lamb legs strewn over his shoulder yelling “Paҫa, paҫa.” Karakaş skillfully steered around the legs and their owner.
“Well, I’ll be here in hot and humid Istanbul, working this car for a living.” He slapped the dashboard of his Nash fondly as he reached Hera’s apartment house. “And I’ll be happy, too.”
“She’s on her way,” they heard Hera’s mother yell. They did not bother to look up.
Karakaş turned off the engine, took a deep drag from his cigarette, and held his breath momentarily. He turned to Albert sitting next to him, smoke blowing out his nostrils.
“Did you look it up?”
“I am sorry,” said Albert, “I could not find it anywhere. It was not in the dictionary. My father and Gülay Hanım did not know anything about it.”
Hera scrambled in and Karakaş, turning forward, put his clutch down and brought the old Nash to life. “Never mind,” he said thoughtfully, trying to hide his disappointment. They drove on to Feriköy, Niso and Hera fighting with each other between the front and back seats.
A majestic new car passed them: a wide, white dolmuş with an elongated profile, modern tall roofline, and spacious windows. Its front grille dazzled with double headlights. It was a head-turner, and Albert did just that, catching a glimpse of its expansive trunk with stunning wings on each side, caught frozen in mid-flap like a giant bird. Elongated horizontal tail lights conformed to the shape of the wings.
“Impala,” whispered Albert with admiration, as it glided by.
“Nineteen fifty-nine,” added Karakaş, as he rotated the lever on the driver’s door to open his window and spit out his spent cigarette. “That’s Mahmut’s car. I know him. He leases it from a rich Greek who has a textile business in Marpuççular.” His voice was tinged with envy.
“Do you think there will be more new ones like that in Istanbul?” asked Albert.
“I doubt it,” Karakaş responded. “They are so expensive. Most of us will have to make do with külüstür cars.” He caressed his front dash again—a külüstür it may be, but this jalopy was his.
They drove by the two cemeteries on the way to Osmanbey, Karakaş silent and thoughtful.
“I am certain that someday you will discover what it means,” he said to Albert, as they waited for the traffic officer in the cylindrical Puro box on Rumeli and Halaskârgazi. “You may be grown up by then.”
The policeman whistled at them and the line of cars inched forward, only to be obstructed by a horse cart full of metal scrap several car lengths ahead. Karakaş honked his horn and others joined him in a cacophonous chorus. It was to no avail. They had to wait another long turn to cross the impossible intersection.
“Then you’ll look up your old Karakaş Abi,” he said, turning off his engine to save gas.
Albert nodded attentively.
“And you’ll come and tell me what Nash means. Promise?”
“I promise,” said Albert.
A coastal fog that regularly shrouded the golf course lifted late morning, revealing well-manicured greens on the water’s edge, the golf course ending in short, sandy cliffs that zigzagged along the shore. The sea lapped gently, a forest of kelp lazily swaying back and forth with the waves. From the water’s edge, the golf course seemed endless as it extended south toward a bay, its rocky southern seashore filling the horizon.
“It’s going to be a fine day,” said Albert as they walked the course, looking at the cars on display.
He was tall, square-featured and handsome, with dark dreamy eyes and a touch of white in his temples. He walked confidently.
“Duesenberg,” called out Tiffany.
It was an imposingly long car in the 1920s style, with ornate white-walled tires. The spectacularly wide mud flaps that joined together into a running board along the bottom of the vehicle gave it a luxurious, horse-carriage look. It had huge, round chrome headlights alongside a narrow grille, under which protruded a pair of authentic horns: two small trumpets. At the apex of the grille, diagonal stripes of side air vents pointed to an unmistakable hood ornament, a cross between a flying bird and a bolt of lightning. It was a two-door, with a canvas top and an actual trunk, a piece of baggage tacked to the back.
“Very good,” said Albert. “Nineteen twenty-eight.”
“You’re a good teacher,” said Tiffany, beaming. She crossed her arm tightly around his as they meandered around the vintage cars dotting the golf course.
“You are a good student,” he replied. “I haven’t known many women who cared about cars.”
Tiffany was elegant in a chiffon dress that complimented her slender figure. A matching wide-brimmed hat protected her straight blond hair from a light ocean breeze. Her blue eyes were concealed behind Gucci sunglasses. She walked gracefully despite spiked heels on wet grass, aided by her husband.
Albert strolled at ease around vintage Mercedes, Bentley, Cord, Pierce-Arrow, Hispano-Suiza, Issota-Fraschini, Jaguar, Packard and Duisenberg cars, milling with a growing crowd dressed as though at Ascot, all in their Sunday best. There would be celebrities among them, some showing their own expensively renovated cars.
Albert wore a simple one-tone tieless shirt with sleeves rolled up, no jacket, no fancy plumed hat. He didn’t care much about the people assembled here; his interest was in the cars. He was not a golfer; the car show was the only occasion on which he experienced Pebble Beach.
“The Concours d’Elegance is the car show,” he said to Tiffany, “the most prestigious of them all.”
“I can see why.”
They stopped to admire another sleek two-door, this one more compact, with a rounded hardtop that gave the carriage a cockpit-like look. Its front mud flap swept down in a seemingly endless diagonal toward its rear counterpart, allowing a small step into the car. The front grille, rounded atop, was flanked by giant round chrome headlights, like the Dusie but with no horns beneath. The bright red at the hood, side panel and doors gave the black car a racy feel.
“Nineteen thirty-two Bugatti,” said Albert.
“Maybe you should buy something like this,” Tiffany suggested.
“No,” said Albert.
“You know price would be no object,” he admonished her.
She did. She was just ribbing him.
“Sometimes I think you’re in competition with your brother in New York,” she said.
“Niso?” He chuckled scornfully. “What does he know about cars!”
“Don’t tell me that fifty-nine Cadillac he just bought is not impressive.”
“He is just a show-off,” said Albert. “We used to love Impalas from that era when we were kids. He’s just one-upping that.”
“What will it be for you, then?”
* * *
The next day, another foggy one, they gathered in a giant tent atop a hill gently rising inland from the Pebble Beach Golf Course. It was filled with cars to be auctioned. Clutching the thick auction catalog, Albert steered Tiffany toward what he had been searching for.
“Ah, there.” He took her by the hand and stepped up their pace.
“What a strange-looking car!” Tiffany exclaimed.
It was beige below and maroon above, a big long car with a clumsy curving line atop, a curve uninterrupted until it reached the back bumper. Wheel wells hid the tops of the white-walled tires. It had a rounded front, with simple, single headlights and a small, indistinct elliptical grille.
“My God,” said Tiffany, “it looks like a giant insect from some science-fiction film.”
Albert barely heard her. The car, he quickly realized, was in excellent condition—shiny, rust-free, well restored. It was a two-door model. Albert opened the driver’s door and looked in. Tiffany angled to the other side and looked at him through the passenger door.
“Wow, it’s huge inside.”
“Come in and sit with me.” They settled into the spacious front seat, Albert behind the steering wheel.
“You could easily sleep here,” she said, astonished. “It’s as big as our bed.”
“Check this out.” Albert pointed to a bulbous attachment on the steering column that looked like a shell casing when viewed from the side. Tiffany sidled close to her husband and peeked from a driver’s perspective. It had a round glass surface visible through a wide aperture on the top half of the giant steering wheel, displaying a semicircular speedometer above and three small round gauges below.
“Wow!” she said.
“Yes, the gauges are not on the dash.” Albert smiled.
They both instinctively turned to the dash, a simple affair with few knobs. He slid up a chrome curtain to reveal a radio. Tiffany clapped her hands as if she had just witnessed magic.
They stepped out and walked around the car one more time. The back was on a nearly horizontal slope, a wide rectangular back window, edges rounded, facing the sky.
“This looks like a Volkswagen from the back,” said Tiffany.
“How can a driver see anything through the rear-view mirror with this back window?”
“Style was more important in those days than function.”
“Don’t tell me you want to buy this ugly creature.”
“Yes, I do,” Albert said, turning to a page in the catalog. “It’s being auctioned in about two hours.”
“What is it?”
“A nineteen-fifty Nash,” he said, reading from the catalog. “ ‘Charles Williams Nash was a co-founder of General Motors, who bought Jeffrey Motor Company in 1916 and named it Nash Motors in 1917.’ ”
A portrait of the man, distinguished in middle age, balding, with thick eyebrows and a tidy mustache, accompanied the article. Dapper in a cravat around a stiff white collar, Mr. Nash gazed at Albert.
Albert looked up from the catalog thoughtfully. That was why “nash” had not been in the dictionary.
“How on earth did you get to fancy a car like this?” Tiffany hugged him, breaking his reverie.
He gave her a light kiss. “It’s a long story. Let’s go get some lunch before the auction.”
They sauntered out of the tent, aiming for a stylish grocery store downhill, across the road from the Pebble Beach Lodge.
“That car will be mine this afternoon,” he said to Tiffany, squeezing her hand.
The coastal fog had not cleared yet and they plunged into a humid, hazy forest of redwood and pine. It was quiet here, despite the buzz of the Concours d’Elegance all around. They felt alone.
“I made a promise,” he said to her, “many years ago. To someone back in the old country.”
They came upon a muddy patch on the path, Albert stepping in it first, then holding Tiffany back. They walked carefully around it, Albert’s left shoe smudged half-way up, sticky. He didn’t seem to notice.
“A promise I never fulfilled.”
Tiffany caught the note of despondence in his voice. She knew her husband’s moods well and this one surprised her, for he had only ever been buoyant around antique cars.
“I never saw him after that promise,” Albert added. His voice was barely audible.
After the small blue VW had entered their lives, there had been no need for a dolmuşto take them to school. It was his father Moiz who now waited impatiently at the back-up on Rumeli before Halaskârgazi, cursing the police officer in the Puro box. Sometime later, after he graduated from Şişli Terrâkki and was attending a different school in Nişantaşı, Albert overheard his Uncle Leon, who knew all the gossip in town, mention to his father that Karakaş had died. Albert refused to believe it. His uncle was wrong; he was confusing Karakaş with some other dolmuş driver.
The air was misty and wet. Tiffany noticed drops on her husband’s face but could not discern if it was the fog or otherwise. Albert held her hand tight and watched his steps, careful to avoid another muddy one.
They came upon a line of horseback riders on a trail within the woods. Albert and Tiffany stopped and let them by, observing the riders’ silhouettes in the thick fog. Outmoded transportation, thought Albert, like the dolmuş of Istanbul. The horsemen passed by slowly, as if in a dream.
Albert and Tiffany made their way down to the main road by the lodge, busy with cars, golf carts, and people milling about. Here the fog was thin, and everything was clearly visible. There was a line to get into the small deli that also served as a wine shop and mini-mart, luxurious and pricey. They joined the well-dressed socialites seeking gourmet snacks.
Albert was no longer hungry, but Tiffany had to be. He held her hand tightly, deep in thought. Just before they entered the deli he stopped and looked back up the hill, as if to make sure that the tent they had left was still there. It was, shrouded in a haze, but still discernible.
In a bygone era, a half century ago, the shared taxis, or dolmuş, of Istanbul were the backbone of its public transportation. The fleet was mostly old American cars of the kind that survive only in Havana, Cuba, nowadays. It took considerable Internet research to bring the back streets of European Istanbul to life as I explored hazy childhood memories and one of the first heroes of my life. The mystery of the meaning of “Nash,” however, is still quite vivid, for I lived with it for decades.
After completing this story in 2014, I had a brief sojourn in Istanbul and took the opportunity to walk the back streets of Kurtuluş, Feriköy, and Osmanbey. As Albert predicted, the frustrating intersection of Rumeli and Halaskârgazi is now regulated by a light, the traffic police of Istanbul in their round boxes long relegated to the ash heap of nostalgia. I looked for a suitable apartment building of my imaginary passenger, little Hera, on Bozkurt Street, and found one. The street had not changed much. Nor had the stretch of Abide-i Hürriyet between the two cemeteries, where, for the first time in my life, I visited one of the two.
At one corner of the street I discovered a group of crusty old Turkish men examining the wares atop a wooden cart full of shoes, pushed by a street vendor. I asked them about the old Thursday market, the pazar of Feriköy. They told me that it still exists but at another street father down the hill. Abide-i Hürriyet was too narrow and dangerous for pedestrians; it was good for Mayor Fatma Girik to have dictated this change. Thinking I hadn’t heard correctly, I asked them to repeat the name. Yes, indeed, the movie star of my childhood had later in life become the mayor of Feriköy, and a very good one, apparently.
An area that required no research was Pebble Beach, which I have visited on countless occasions, including for several Concours d’Elegance.
With this story I say goodbye to the charming old American cars that once muscled their way through the streets of Istanbul. They are extinct now, as are the dolmuş of my childhood. Today those taxis are all yellow vans, more practical to be sure, but without any of the stories and memories the old dolmuş held.