I’ve learned to read the way drooping clothelines form a sullen sort of grin in between the sagging building walls of the poor districts. Where the garbage men have thrown in the towel, the broken bottles pile up like glittering bird nests and somewhere in the distant dark night someone is kicking a can down the street. The cats are shrieking in either pleasure or in pain and I hope that the barefoot children playing outside my window are gentle under this early morning moon. My new roommate tells me that they are gypsies, that they are crazy, “Don’t give them any money,” he says. Though he does not say it scornfully, but as a stern father who will not let the world spoil the upbringing of his many countless children. I have often seen them, the little ones they call gypsies, wandering the tarp covered markets and patrolling the pockmarked streets where I am now staying. They are so young, so unbelievably young to be out on their own.
A girl no older than nine is looking after her brother. He is barely a toddler. She crosses two lanes of traffic on a busy road. She calls for her him to follow but he is afraid. She calls again and I can tell that he trusts his big sister. He has learned to lean on her judgement when navigating the complexities inherent in the big city. She is teaching him to survive after all, but I wonder if he understands the gravity yet. There is a gap in traffic and again she calls for her brother, impatiently this time. Without looking he rushes into the street towards the sound of his sister’s voice. The traffic honks, cars swerve, and others brake in a shuddering cacophony as I cringe on the sidelines of life on the precipice. A taxi driver yells out of his window and shakes his fist at the boy before speeding past his bare little feet that leap onto the curb of the median where his sister is waiting. It is a perfect spot to catch the attention of passing pedestrians who will have to wait for the signal before they can cross to other side of Tarlabaşı. An elderly man wearing a kufi and a long white beard joins the children on this narrow strip dividing rich and poor. The girl crosses her legs awkwardly as though she is uncomfortable with having to ask for a lira. Perhaps she is searching for the right Turkish words to use, she is Romanian after all. She extends her open palm to him. Her lips move like a recital. She is used to being ignored, reprimanded, or shoved away. I know this because I see it happen to children like her every day. The elderly man is not reproachful. He stoops low enough to see eye-to-eye with the children. He speaks with them for a few moments. The walk signal has already changed, but the older man does not notice. He pulls a few coins from his pocket and drops them into the palm of each child. He pats them on their heads and continues across the street. Their smiles are genuine as they count the coins in their hands. I am thankful for the grandfathers of the world who, no longer concerned with doling out instructions, share their lessons through the simple expression of their being.