“FIRST CHAPTERS OF MEN DON’T CRY”
I started this school in 1970, when I was an eleven year old boy with a seemingly extraordinary mind for having passed the tests to enter the most prestigious colleges of the country. For the simple reason that the school was on the other side of the Bosphorus I was a boarding student. At that time, neither Istanbul’s first bridge had been built, nor did the population of the city have reached two millions yet.
My mother couldn’t hold back her tears as she spread the sheets on my new bed the first day. Yet I was calm; almost like I was eager to know of the truths to life as soon as I could and become a real man standing on his own two feet. I remember my new mates all begging to stop their parents leaving them, and crying out their eyes on that sunny Sunday. Knowing that all these wouldn’t change anything, I stood strong with a smile on my face, bidding farewell to my teary-eyed mother patting my head.
That day was the beginning of an exciting adventure for me; but I have to confess that being a boarder was a hard thing. Although there were many nice and funny sides to be away from home, you needed to spend at least a couple of years in the dormitories of this rough world to become a man who didn’t cry.
By the time we reached the age of fourteen, leaving behind all those obstacles, we’d all became pretty sophisticated. You become what you see; we had turned into potty-mouthed, heavy-smoking and wine drinking street dogs just like our senior brothers were; tough and handsome... The wine we swigged, of course, was nothing but a plastic-capped Dogkiller, and the smokes were ninety-kurush-a-pack non-filters.
Winter came early towards the end of 1973. It was only the middle of November when it snowed, making it difficult for the non-boarding students to get to school. For us boarders it meant nothing more than a change of scenery, caused by a big white blanket of snow in the yard of the old pine trees leading all the way to the shore. We were stuck inside studying in the cold study rooms under the bright, flickering fluorescent lights and going to bed early so that we could wake up before dawn the next morning. There weren’t things like TV or anything else to entertain us in the evenings. Some of the mornings, we would wake up an hour before the usual time and head down to the yard to play some soccer excitedly.
That was almost all the show we got…
Rarely done by the lower-class boys, though, there was another exciting thing to do; to escape from school at night time. The usual destination was an all-night teahouse by the sea, which offered nothing that could be of interest for children our age, except for a pool table and a black-and-white television. It was more a place for retired or jobless men who play cards and smoke water pipes aimlessly, but hell; the important thing was to escape over that fenced, long wall of school. It was hard to find anything more creative to do at the time. We weren’t old enough to go to brothels or whore-houses like the senior boys did.
To escape from the school for a boarding school kid was a maturity test for becoming a real bummer, and passing this test wasn’t an easy thing to do: the enemy had taken every kind of precaution there was. They were severely cautious during the time when we were to graduate from junior-high in March of 1974 they even chase the tomcats on the roof away.
But though they possessed all the boundless opportunities of the government, they knew nothing about the mind and abilities of the new generation, and yet they haven’t met the brains behind Zorba the gang…
“Tell me the name of the Italian delegate of the United Nations…”
I leaned both of my hands on his chest. “Fuck off, boy! Are you kidding? Everybody’s onto the Japanese delegate now,” I said. Pushed him right down on the broken desk he’d stood up from. He was pinned to the desk.
You had to show some manners to a jerk that makes such old-fashioned jokes.
“Who’s the Japanese delegate?” he asked.
He was dying of curiosity. I whispered the name in his ear. His small eyes narrowed, and he burst out his laugh that resembled a girly shriek. The other pubescent freaks in the study room perked up their ears, and I started to laugh, too. On occasions like this, we used to laugh like a mad on purposely just so that they would say, ‘Hey, those guys are having a lot of fun’ and envy us.
Delegate jokes back then were the thing made-up names we invented out of Turkish words that sounded like the respective country’s language. As you might assume, there wasn’t one out of these names that wasn’t in some sort of dirty slang when pronounced.
In one of the classrooms of the old building that each held thirty people, twelve of us were studying. The front seats were always empty in this study hall. Then came the hard-working boys right behind the front row; they actually did what we all were supposed to do there. Lastly, the right corner of the back row was occupied by us, members of Zorba.
The fact that we had that name, it didn’t mean that we were bullies or anything; we weren’t. The Turkish word for ‘bully’, Zorba, happened to be made of the first letters of our names. As for the gang part, well, it’s not like we could call ourselves a soccer team or an orchestra, so we had to be a gang. It wasn’t very likely that we would carry out illegal business in a boarding school anyway. Our fields of interest were limited to gambling, sports or fight organizations, and artistic cultural activities like comic book publishing. From time to time, we did carry out activities that weren’t one of the usual, but exceptions didn’t count.
Our first letter, Ziya, was the class rep. We used to call him the ‘Division Clerk.’ He knew a lot about official requests and bureaucracy and he covered up for guys who cut class. He was the only serious and hard-working student among us, one of the members of ‘absolute necessity’ for every gang of representation, so that we did not clash with the inner-laws of the system. A pimpled, white skinned boy with brown wavy hair, Ziya was a guard at our class soccer team, a largely built guy but fast runner.
That short, blond, blue-eyed member of the gang, Oguz, who was twitchy as Jerry Lewis, was a non-stop talker. He cursed and talked dirty all day long, telling jokes and selling Disney and Lucky Luke stickers that stuck with the help of some water. He was known as the ‘central distributor’ of the school for trading of goods like these. Since he was ultra-hyperactive, there wasn’t any crime or incident he wasn’t involved in, including gambling organizations. His cheeks were raw from the continuous slaps he’d gotten from study hall surveillants.
Renan, the so-called ‘intellectual’ of the gang, was a dark, scrubby haired thick guy with drowsily looking eyelids. Although the only stuff he read was trash novels, he considered himself well-informed on every subject. Whenever there was a fight, he would carefully take off his big black-rimmed glasses, hand them to someone trustworthy, and roll up his sleeves. The owner of the grocery store across from the school was his brother-in-law, so he was in charge of transporting the illegal goods we imported from there and clearing them through customs into our dorms. He was an irreplaceable asset to the gang if only for this reason. He could only be a substitute player for the soccer team because of his eye-glasses.
As for me, I had nothing special about me other than self-confidence, a cool, calm and collected personality, and a talent for creative planning. I was a skinny, pale kid with curly brown hair. I read a lot but hadn’t started to wear glasses at the time. On the soccer team, I was positioned for the ‘strategic missions’ in the forward field.
Ayhan was the star of the gang, a tall, muscled, dark-haired guy who had blossomed into a handsome young man a little earlier than us. Captain and striker of the soccer team, a good writer and cartoonist, and a clever, good-hearted guy with lots of common sense. The shy expression on his face in his first day of school was why nobody gave any attention to him but me. That same day, we became some sort of Siamese twins.
He was my best friend, right from the heart.
The last year of junior high, we were all around fourteen years old and there wasn’t any other group of boarders living a worse life than us. We had embraced gambling, wickedness and generally being punks; every kind of nuisance there was, early on in our lives, and they had become things we wouldn’t give up.
See, its not the way you think; it wasn’t like I was the leader of the gang. There could be no leader of Zorba; we took pride in our leader-free, anti-authority institution. Procedures for any event were settled by the gang member who knew the most about the particular event.
Since Ayhan was the earliest to reach physical maturity among us, he used to solve any problems that needed physical power. He was also the chief editor of our magazine. I was the creative power of the gang, I would design the working and operational plans of our various businesses and bring them to the table. The gang had a pluralist voting system going on, and there were two of us who used to carry out the forgery and smuggling decisions: Ziya and Renan. The organization of any kind of gambling, sales and marketing, or collection was meticulously carried out by Oguz .
As boarders in the same class, twelve of us in total, we slept in two side by side dorms each holding six of us. The gang consisted of the permanent holders of five beds in dorm number 13.
The sixth member, the one who ran our errands, was our slave.
People who think that slaver societies have vanished in modern times are ignorant and know nothing about how schools are run. An oppressive and primitive regime lived on with all its cruelty in our school. The weak and unarmed boys were given hell in the dorms and study halls, they were the subject of all mean jokes and torment, and they were forced to do all the dirty errand jobs.
That night, during the dinner break between the two study halls, Ayhan was giving evening instructions to the Arab, our dorm slave. “Arab, boy… Quick, go grab the bottle of wine from our common locker and hide it under the bed. And don’t get caught. Cover it with a track suit so nobody sees it.”
“What was the number of the locker it was in?”
Ayhan got angry at him and shouted, “Twenty-six. Still can’t learn one simple locker number? Do we have to beat you every night, you stupid bastard?”
The Arab was famous for his out of focus, silly questions and making the gang angry by asking them. We were suspicious that he did this on purpose.
“Just asking, mate,” he murmured, bending down his thick eyebrows. “Is the key in the mopboard next to the locker?”
The number of lockers that our gang had used to hide things were never voiced out loud and the rumor around was that the lockers actually belonged to the upper class boys instead.
Rightfully, Ayhan went crazy with rage. “Come here right now!” he called Arab down in front of himself, and gave him two slaps from where he sat. The sound that came out of the kid’s dark cheeks echoed off the classroom walls. At times like this, Arab’s jaw would clench shut and his face would freeze, but he never let a tear escape from his eyes.
“Please don’t hit me, mate…”
“You’ll get two slaps every day ’cause you’re spoiled, boy. Look at this fucking dog! If you go around shouting this dorm’s secrets ever again, I swear to God I’ll beat you all night long. Understood?”
“Now get lost!”
I remember so well, in one of those moments Oguz had entered the study hall. Because there was ‘jungle’ at dinner, the only thing he ate was some dessert and he was half-starved. This time it was him who called Arab to his side just as he was heading out. Arab could only say, “Yes?” with a distressed voice.
“Bring me toast and coke from the canteen on your way back. Make sure the toast’s well-pressed, as thin as a piece of paper,” he ordered carelessly.
“Sure, mate,” he said, waiting.
Sticking his hand in his pocket, Oguz grabbed a handful of coins left over from the daily gambling session. He took a few and handed them to Arab. “This should cover it.”
It was hard to survive boarding school life without knowing the unwritten rules well. If there was ‘jungle’ going on in the cafeteria, and if you didn’t have any money to buy food from the canteen, you would definitely starve. We lived under an order in which the strong and the fast left the weak hungry.
The ‘jungle law’ was a kind of a ‘marshal law’ declared by the authorities of the senior classes, for the times when we had something good on the dinner menu. For rare dishes like steak, lady-thigh meatballs, stuffed rice, and for sweets like shambaba cake or fruits like bananas, this declaration was made by our senior brothers who were the grand authority. Under jungle law, as soon as the dinner bell rang, there were exclamations of ‘Allah Allah!’ and a dash to the twelve-person dinner tables, where the quickest to reach them had the right to consume as much food as they could get.
I was a tiny, skinny boy who hadn’t physically matured yet. To survive among my peers, I had to be on the ball. When it was the jungle law, I found ways to sneak out before the bell rang and to use my wits to keep from going hungry. I got so cunning by the third year that when I needed a haircut, I would take a look at the barber’s apprentice, not the barber himself…
The barber can’t cut his own hair, but isn’t it obvious he would cut his helper’s?
THE STUDY HALL
Jungle law had been declared during dinner because of the special grilled meatballs, and after dinner three punks from the next class showed up in the study hall. Oguz immediately started quizzing me about who the Japanese delegate of the UN was. I acted like I didn’t know the answer. He was glad and tilted his head back like a samurai and yelled out the name of the Japanese guy, which was nothing but a heavy swearing. The assholes couldn’t stop laughing, so Oguz took the opportunity to sell them the NGA from the week before and got fifteen kurush out of them. As a matter of fact, fifteen bucks was only the price to read the magazine, two hours later it was collected because there was no other copy.
Our surveillance teacher got mad at us as he entered the room and saw the magazine and the commercial activity going on in class. We gathered ourselves and sat down on our chairs. It was eight-thirty. We have eaten our dinner, have had some fun, and now began to think about what in the world there was to do during the last hour long study session. I went over to sit next to Ayhan. We’d been publishing a weekly humor magazine called NGA. We’d draw sketches of filthy humor with a pencil and create that single copy which was then passed on to everyone. It had gotten to be really popular. In the beginning, everyone had wondered about this underground magazine that was being published for nine straight weeks and its strange name. We put the meaning of the name on last week’s cover. We considered it very creative:
NGA (n., slang) the moan-like exclamation uttered by young men while jerking off.
We used to draw a film poster for the cover of each issue. This was very serious work, with the film’s amazing name in great big letters at the top along with the names of the made-up movie stars who were acting in it—these were all cartoon versions of people from school—then graphic sketch works scrawled under that. And that week’s film was A Streetbus Named Desire, starring Mike Fake, Growshot Hawshot and Jenifer Buttfucker, in which the players were passionately ‘rubbing up’ against each other inside a bus in as dirty a way as we could draw.
At the bottom there were notes about the guest stars and movie theater, like, ‘This film is playing to a closed house because the audience didn’t come,’ or, ‘Our refreshment counter offers delicious sodas that aren’t even flat,’ or, ‘This movie was shot in there: There Film Studios.”
That was more or less the format of NGA.
The cover for the last issue was done, and now we were working on a mini-series strip making fun of Star Trek, the most popular TV show of the year. Ayhan had his tongue sticking out and was drawing some pictures, and I was telling him all the funny ideas I had. The magazine had to be ready tomorrow.
The star of the NGA version of Star Trek was Mesut the Donkey. He was the slave of dorm number 11, the one next to ours. A hilarious guy… He would try to rebel against the local authority, who were the dorm gang- he’d rat people out, he’d tell on them and cry in the principal’s office, but he still couldn’t get out of being a slave. In our comic strip, we drew him as someone from the planet of the donkey-heads, who was doing clown duty on the Starship Enterprise. Donkey was the anti-hero, who starred in replacement of pointy-eared Mr. Spock. He would mess around with the ship’s devices and break them, or some space meteor would hit him on the head, or he would fall over into a crater on a satellite of Jupiter. Pretty much every kind of thing used to happen to Mesut in this unique plot.
It wasn’t enough for us to be cruel and make all the slaves like the Arab and the Donkey suffer. We also thought we were entertaining everybody by insulting the slaves in our miserable little magazine. This one time, the Starship Enterprise was damaged while in orbit over Mesut’s planet. A crew of three -including Mesut- land on the planet with the research craft to explore and find argonium crystals to repair the ship’s engines.
“Boy,” I said to Ayhan, “now they should run into some male donkeys with giant penises. Mesut can speak their language, right, and explains the situation, asks them where to find the argonium crystals.”
Glaring at me with a serious face, “Yeah, and then what?” he asked me roughly. He was trying to tell whether I was serious or not.
“Then the donkeys throw the whole crew in jail because Mesut says a dumbfuckthing that pisses the donkeys off. They tie up Mesut and ask, ‘Mogambo or Death?’ When he says he prefers Mogambo, they shoot him in the ass with an injector made of donkey dick. After that...”
“Whoa there!” Ayhan cut me off, which wasn’t very polite, but he must have thought my idea was way too much. “Don’t be an idiot… The Donkey gets the magazine tomorrow and he’ll go straight to the principal’s office. Then we’ll be in deep shit.”
“So just because it’ll make dear Mr. Mesut the Donkey mad, we just don’t publish the magazine?? We’ll punch him in the mouth a couple times and he won’t be able to say anything,” I spitted out.
I was teasing Ayhan. He was the one who liked to get in fights to show off and act tough, and normally he would be the one to suggest this, but now I was acting like we had switched roles. We laughed a little and he reminded me of the infamous joke I shocked him with on his first day back from Izmir staying at our house.
Ayhan’s family was from Izmir. When his father, some high-level bureaucrat of the government, was assigned to Istanbul, Ayhan transferred on the second semester of prep year from Bornova High School to ours. He had some problems mingling in with us in the beginning, but he had a warm, honest and tough way about him that eventually won us over.
Despite our many opposite characteristics, I and Ayhan’s friendship was a real one. It was really different from the way it was with the other members of the gang. We were like brothers; each one made up for what was missing from the other and tried to make school life easier for each other. We had definitely learned that the most important thing someone needed at the school was his friends. A boy was torn away from all family ties and brought to a place ruled by completely different rules and relationships. The only way he could adapt to his new situation was with the help of the friends he found there. A friend was everything at boarding school. You shared your food and your money, you kept the wolves at bay, and you were there for him on his lonely nights.
Notebooks, textbooks and classes were secondary for a boarding student. Our real life was in the dorms, study halls, schoolyards, and hallways, where we had to learn to stand on our own two feet, and had to get on with our lives without mom and dad. Boarding students discovered how heavy the existence of authority was, how cruel the oppression of the upper classmen could be, how mercilessly you had to compete to survive, and how slimy social relations could be—and we learned. Nobody cared in this world if you were taunted, sad, bullied or crying; the weak were meant to be tormented, they were destined to the loneliness.
Our school had its first graduates in the early 60s, and our older brothers used to tell us that the rules were more strict back then, and to be thankful. In those years when there were no girls admitted to the school, I could easily imagine how the boys set up a tough, cruel and loveless system. It was an inhuman thing for such a system to become tradition, where guys even one year ahead had authority over and the right to beat up the younger ones. The guys all took up what they went through themselves, and they took the torment they went through once out of the younger ones.
Toward the end of study period, we were still working on NGA and the surveillant chewed us out a little for the noise we were making, so we had to shut up. A bit later, study period was over and we poured out into the halls of upstairs and went into the rooms where we would sleep. One life was over, a new one was beginning.
Sometimes for a polar bear to survive, a fish in the river will sacrifice itself. In a way, living was like this. There was a perfect balance between death and survival.
In fact, there was no difference between matter turning to nothing, and matter coming from nothing.
During our childhood in the 60s, Istanbul was more of a livable city with fewer problems in the country in general. It seemed like we were poorer but happier. The year 1974 turned out to be a turning point in the fate of Turkey. The country was hit badly by economic breakdown that began with the embargoes after the Cyprus Peace Operation and became a real mess with the war expenses. Istanbul, this way, had entered a time of corruption, decline, and mass immigration from the villages to the metropolis.
A year before, the Bosphorus Bridge had opened in Istanbul. The bridge was the beginning of a new period for the boarders. The pleasure of the ferry boats was replaced by the Kadikoy mini-buses. Lots of boarders took the advantage of this new situation and changed over to being day students. Before the bridge, boarders of the whole school would come together on the 8:00 a.m. Karakoy ferry every Monday morning.
At those times, we would sit in the wonderful atmosphere of the ferry’s first-class lounge, order tea, and chat all the way. Our upperclassman brothers used to treat us pretty nice there. We would discuss the news in the papers, and the lowerclassmen were even given the right to talk freely to the seniors, provided they didn’t keep the same friendliness going at school. When the day-students and teachers vanished from the scene in the evenings and the time of sovereignty came in the study halls and dorms, the senior boarders turned into real monsters.
My bed was in dorm number thirteen, and head to head with Ayhan’s. After putting on our pajamas and doing some wresting-fighting stunts with the other bastards, we’d go back to our beds once the bed-time call horn was blown. Under the warnings of the surveillants, we’d finish up all the festivities consisting of urination, tooth-brushing, and foot-washing in the gigantic troughs of our lavatory, and then we’d be stuffed back into our dorms. They’d push in a few late coming idiots and close all the doors; everyone was supposed to be quiet and go to sleep. Then came in the whispery chatting… Who the hell went to sleep at 10:30 p.m. anyway, for God’s sake?
Sitting crossed-legged on his bed, Ayhan turned to me and asked in a lowered voice, “Anybody in the hallway? Who’s the teacher on duty tonight?”
Standing up on my bed, I peeked out from the upper windows that looked out into the hallway. “All is well,” I said. “Mr. Necdet’s on duty tonight. Relax, man. C’mon give me a cigarette.”
He held over the pack to me. “Okay, you get the bottle out,” he said. I pulled out the 70cc Dogkiller from under the bed in the blink of an eye. That year’s red was as good as any French wine, frankly speaking. Although none of us had ever tasted any other kind other than that anyway.
Renan ran over from his bed on the other side. This bastard always had the habit of munching in on your stuff. “Hey, don’t forget your bro. Save a few swigs for me. There wouldn’t be any wine for you if it wasn’t for me.”
Ayhan was always generous, not just to members of Zorba, but to almost everyone. When necessary, though, he would teach Renan his lesson for being such a dog. “Man, we pay money for these goods. Your brother-in-law doesn’t hand out wine for free,” he said, roughly poking Oguz in the head. “Everybody bring a cup if you want to have some wine. Tonight we have straight up red. Where’s the corkscrew?”
What he called a corkscrew was a half broken nail clipper that was given to the Arab by the gang. As I mentioned before, a bottle of Dogkiller had no cork. When our noises got louder, our class rep Ziya started slightly grunting. Ziya was never in on this kind of stuff. A non-smoker and non-drinker, he was careful to do an enough amount of schoolwork to avoid being bothered by others. Our drinking, smoking and chatting until late hours made him uncomfortable, but he knew very well that the decent thing to do was to put up with it all.
With a poor, whiny voice, “Cut it off, you guys!” he just called out. “I’ve got orals tomorrow, you guys don’t have any mercy!”
Ayhan politely comforted him. “Alright man, we’ll notch it down a bit. You just close your ears and turn the other way. You won’t even know we’re here.” Then he threw one of his slippers to the Arab’s head. “Arab, give me that corkscrew over there. Put the slipper back in its place on your way,” he ordered.
Arab quickly got up to take the nail clipper from the hide place behind the radiator. He brought it to Ayhan. Usually, since we would chat for at least two hours before we went to sleep, we’d drink a little wine and smoke a few cigarettes in the meantime. Arab, who wouldn’t smoke, would sit in the cloud of smoke and sigh. He wasn’t allowed to say anything else.
Taking food, drink, newspapers, magazines, and other harmful materials into the dormitories was forbidden. For this reason, we would sneak stuff like cigarettes and alcohol in, the goods that weren’t even mentioned in the school regulations. The crime was the same crime, anyway, because the punishment was the same.
The favorite topics of our nighttime chats were girls and love. The events of the day would be talked over for hours, with endless and inexhaustible excitement. Tactics were hashed out, and everything that had to do with love and how it filled our little hearts was told and listened to.
Everyone in our dorm had a girlfriend. These love affairs weren’t like the ones you might know. The girls were not even aware of our love, or the way we would continuously think and talk about them. Oguz, who was deeply in love with the flirtiest girl in the class, repeated the same old story to Ziya every night.
“Oh, boy, I’ve got to get rid of this obsession. No way out…”
“So what did you do with your bird today? Everything went alright?”
Oguz’s face would fall and he would say; “No way man, she wouldn’t give me the time of the day. All she thinks about is that guy at Priest School, you know. That fucker is eighteen years old...” Miserably, he’d spread his arms out.
We used to call the French Lyceé next door the Priest School. Besides, as far as we were concerned, an eighteen-year-old guy was a sick old perve who could have been married with children and too old to be dating girls our age.
Renan would cut in with his usual bullshit, “Boy, let’s get some of our day guys to beat him up at noon tomorrow. I’m telling you, it’s the only way.”
Oguz would take him seriously. “If that priest had any fault I’d say let’s do it, mate. But God knows the boy probably doesn’t even have a clue who she is. And I would give my life for her. But no, there’s no justice in this world…”
We knew our way into everything -gambling, booze, acting tough, soccer, fighting, and any kind of manly thing- but when it came time for flirting with a girl, we just couldn’t manage. All of our babes were in love with other guys, some worshipped rock stars or they went out with good-looking upperclassmen. They didn’t even look at us.
To tell the truth these babes were pretty nicely grown. While we were barely growing facial hair, the girl with the smallest boobs was bigger than size 38.
While in the same age group, we looked like midgets by them.
The girl that I was in love with actually liked me -as a person, of course- but still she said she couldn’t give up that bum named Beco who lived in her neighborhood. On weekends, she used to ask me to take her to the disco just so she could meet Beco inside, and she needed me because they wouldn’t let juniors in unless they were a couple. She would go with him into dark corners and make out, while I had to sit at the bar with a gin and tonic, making small talk with the bartender and suffering in every way.
On one of those days when I was drunk enough to confess my love to her, she told me she was planning to marry Beco, and I angrily left the disco. On Monday during the first class break, she came up to me and apologized and held my hand for a few seconds. My heart wouldn’t stop pounding for the rest of the day.
That, to me, was what real love was…
For us, in a relationship love and sex were opposite things. We wouldn’t even dream of making love with the girls we were in love with. Any friend who would say something like that would be given a rough time and shushed. The women who adorned our sex fantasies were the ones who happened to be in Bazaar, the movie magazine of those years, where smutty pictures of all the whorish stars were featured. We hadn’t found any women other than these suitable for sex and we didn’t know how to do it either.
Oguz wouldn’t smoke in the dorm without reading Bazaar magazine, and before gluing together the most important pages, never to be opened again, he would want us see those magnificent women inside. “Hey, what an amazing ass, man… Will ya look at this picture?”
Renan, as if he were an expert on women, never liked any of them. “Which part of her is amazing, man? Her hips are all covered with cellulite.”
Holding his magazine in his hands, “What’s cell-u-lite, mate?” Oguz asked naively.
“Something that happens to the legs and asses of women, all lumpy like an orange peel...”
Oguz was silent as he thought for a while. He looked at the picture again, and then turned to Renan. “Forget about the cellulite, boy, you’d give your body and soul to fuck her,” he said disdainfully, “You’re hating on it ‘cause you can’t have it.”
Renan farted with a sound somewhere between a scooter tailpipe and a steamboat horn as if to say, ‘Here’s my answer…’ Oguz began swearing at him and opened the window. Our gaze would follow the heavy fog of cigarette smoke that dispersed under the bluish fluorescent light.
As the final topic of our nightly chat for closure, the activities of the day would be reviewed. The members of the gang would pursue their own activities separately during the day. If there wasn’t any event or problem that involved all of us together, Ziya would straighten out everything concerning our class and solve the issues concerning class with great seriousness; Oguz would continue organizing the gambling and trading goods necessary for the financing of the gang; Renan would carry on meaningless debates on literature with his group of day-student snobs, as well as set up our liquor-cigarette orders; Ayhan and I would hang around well-known upperclassmen and take notes on being Zorba, and other cool behavior and make plans. This is how we each had things to talk about at night.
But the most important topic to bring us together was soccer.
Lastly, we agreed to do morning workout for the soccer match we had on Friday. The day after tomorrow, we’d get up early and play, we should make note not to forget to tie our towels to our bed frames tomorrow night. A towel tied at the foot of the bed was a message to the surveillants on duty: “Wake me up at five o’clock.” We used to get up at the crack of dawn a lot, to study for exams, to play soccer, or to watch heavyweight boxing from America on black-and-white TV of the school. When there was live broadcast in the evening there, we could watch it at 5:00 in the morning.
Our favorites were Mohammed Ali’s championship fights. Ali ‘flew like a butterfly and stung like a bee.’ After every heavyweight game in America, we’d get fired up and arrange tournaments in the classroom that I surely wouldn’t call boxing. We used to tie sponge cushions to our fists and fight to the bitter end. By the end there would always be some nasty accident; someone’s nose would start bleeding, someone’s eyebrow would be busted open, or a tooth would be broken. But in spite of all this, we would never quit, there would always be more boxing and more bleeding.
We got tired and put a stop to the chat at midnight. Snoring sounds started being heard from where the beds where. At 6:30 in the morning, we would be woken up, only to go snooze on our chairs in the study room with puffy eyes, and we would beg to our surveillants-on-duty in the ice cold dormitories to let us stay in our warm beds just ten more minutes.
Like all the basic necessities of life, the value of sleep is never realized until you’re left without it.
THE CLASSROOM AND THE SMOKEHOUSE
At the early hours, when we had finished morning study hall and moved along to the cafeteria for breakfast, the day students would start pouring into school grounds. Morning classes were always boring for me; I could only get through them by snoozing. Until then, my grades had been good enough. I still got an accumulation of useless of encyclopedic knowledge from my elementary school years. I don’t know why, though, but whatever it was that had motivated me back then was now gone.
In literature class, there was that ol’ failatun-mefailun thing from Ottoman poetry. I was daydreaming about where we would go when we escaped from school. In the next class, English, we just horsed around. Our teacher Miss Serpil read us some examples from the compositions we’d written last Tuesday and made some comments on them. The one written by our studious classmate, who had the nickname Patton, due to looking like exactly to the actor George C. Scott from the movie ‘General Patton’, had us laughing like crazy.
“Your mate has described life from the viewpoint of a ticket seller in a movie theater. Let me read it to you…”
He had written about the ‘tragedy’ of the box office man’s monotonous life and his weariness -the depression of being stuck in a six square feet cell and even the impossibility of leaving to use the bathroom due to the lines of people he had to attend and wetting his pants because of it. In fact, Patton had written something serious and strong, using a sophisticated literary tone in English that was higher than our level of understanding. However, it hadn’t occurred to him that his earnestness and diligence would just seem funny to us.
During the noon break, after lunch, we went to the back yard and wandered around. The kids called us over to gamble, and we chatted as we headed over there. We used to arrange ‘secret sessions’ in the side yard where leftovers from cafeteria food and the rest of the garbage were kept, a secluded corner where two parallel historic walls both met a parapet on the seashore. A secret session was a meeting where one of the gang’s banditry projects would be hammered out, or it could be a gathering where we would provide a few suckers to gamble.
We weren’t in a condition to arrange roulette or card games here. We used to organize our own game played with coins on the ground, called gildir. For this game, two people put the same amount of coins in each jar and shook them. Then they would each call head and tails, turning the jars over to the ground. Heads or tails, whichever the player bet, he would pick up the coins he won and the balance went to house bank.
Every long break during the day, either the lunch break or before study hall, we would have a gildir session on behalf of Zorba. The organizer of this business was of course the gang’s hyperactive man; Jackpot Oguz. He got his nickname from the famous gambling man in the Lucky Luke cartoons. This game made the gang gildir millionaires. We got brand new sports clothes, shoes, and gear, all purchased with gambling income.
Back then, the word ‘sponsorship’ hadn’t been heard yet, and even if they had existed and we had applied to Adidas or Puma, do you think there would had been any possibility of supporting us, huh?
We heard Jackpot’s voice coming all the way from the seashore; “C’mon, Kremlin boy, you tell me, heads or tails?”
We scarcely heard Kremlin’s words, “I say heads,” with a sad mumble that showed he had lost his self confidence. When we got closer to the corner, we saw six or sever gamblers were gathered there in a circle. Jackpot shook the jar a couple times around his head with a fancy move, and turned it over onto the ground.
No one knew how he did it, but whichever the player bet, the player would always lose.
“Take your fifty kurush and go. New players! C’mon gentlemen, new game beginning. Pig, aren’t you playing?”
Almost every boy in school had a nickname, especially the boarders. Some of the names didn’t catch on and were forgotten after a while. But there were some nicknames that would even replace the actual name of the guy.
The name I got stuck with, strange enough was the ‘Nationalist.’ On my first year at the school during a discussion on the Vietnam War and the U.S. Army, I’d argued that the Turkish Army has always been strong —as history has shown. I’d said that the armed powers of the Middle East and Europe would not be able to handle us or invade our country. In my opinion, the reason for this came from our people’s warrior spirit and their power of resistance, rather than from equipment and guns.
Didn’t America’s defeat in Vietnam make this obvious?
I was an eleven year old kid, and the bigger kids in sixth grade laughed a lot at what I said and named me after it. It was undoubtedly a conflicting sight that a guy who’d adopted Godwin’s anarchist philosophy had such a nickname, but there was nothing I could do. Fighting against your nickname wouldn’t change it; in our school that kind of behavior made it stick even more.
It took more than half an hour for Jackpot to fleece the folks in the gildir game: the losers left the game unsatisfied. Finally, though, lunch break was over. Kremlin, Pig, and the others abandoned their currency to the gang’s treasury and walked to class with heads hanging low. We totaled our revenue and took it to our hiding place. We used to keep count very carefully for these kinds of activities.
In the school discotheque, they used to play all the good hits from the American top lists during the lunch hour and all the lesson breaks. The white American teachers who came to our school were the reason for this; they came to work at out school as part of the ‘Peace Corps’. The Staples Singers had just released “City in the Sky” that year, and all the hottest songs from that album along with lots of other great songs were always blasting from the Radiopunch speakers in the halls, the cafeteria, and various places in the yard.
The lab classes, which were held in a specially built one-floor building right behind where the main building was, were always scheduled for the afternoon hours. The reason was not to be known. That particular day, during the first lesson of the afternoon, we were having some fun in the science lab. A group of serious students were preparing material necessary for the reproduction of bacteria to be observed under the microscope. They boiled a piece of meat in a saucepan over a cooker and distributed the broth into test tubes. Some of these were closed tightly, some were covered with a piece of cloth, and some were left open. We would then observe which one produced more bacteria next week on Monday.
Just when boredom and weariness were weighing down on us, the break bell rang. We wanted to go down to the smokehouse. Spring was in the air and the weather was getting warmer. Rather than enjoying our cigarettes in the john, we preferred to smoke them down in the open air.
In the smokehouse right behind the canteen, under the stairs was where our bullshit conversations took place. This was where you could hear the most unknown slang, and it was where you enjoyed telling dirty jokes to everybody and show off with sex stories that never really experienced. On rare occasions, girls from the upper classes would also come and smoke there, in which case the level of slang would be reduced a little.
The kids of the lowerclassmen who would try to talk to girls preferred to meet them in front of the canteen, right at the back of the smokehouse, and the girls used to show up to their first dates with their best friend. The beginning sessions of flirting in any case would be carried out in a group of three: the girl, the boy, and the other girl in the position of translator, and even the jump to the hand-holding phase could take several months. The first kiss, especially, would usually be delayed till the next season.
Only the day-students, who were the more civilized ones, actually had the guts to ask girls out. They dressed right, they combed their hair. We, the boarders, couldn’t associate with the girls. Even the best-looking guy among us looked ragged. Our pants weren’t ironed, our shoes weren’t polished, our hands were dirty, our teeth weren’t brushed, and our cleanest socks were worn for at least three days.
Under the circumstances, we just weren’t capable of looking after ourselves…
And we used to find more manly activities for ourselves; we’d play soccer, we’d do vagrancy, we’d smoke’n’drink, and we’d talk with lots of swearing. We didn’t like the guys who were too good with the girls. First we call him sissy, made fun of him publicly, and if he was still the same then we used to find ways to ruin him.
On the second break in the afternoon, while we were smoking at the smokehouse, I overheard the senior gang scheming secretly at the corner. There was a weird conversation going on. As far as I could tell, the senior group of guys who ran away from school and got caught by the guardians on their way back last month, were chasing a new adventure that was based on an urban legend... One of our senior brothers, nicknamed ‘Americano’ due to his double-striped American commando sergeant uniform, was enthusiastically explaining.
“Hey man, this tunnel’s got to open to the basement of the old building; Keg Mahir told me that it’s perfectly possible for that old historic building left over from the Carmelite nuns to have a secret passage in its basement that leads to the old pier. He says all the old monasteries had one.
Junkie, seeming uninterested, took a huge puff from his cigarette and whiffed a hard cloud of smoke towards Americano and Truck standing right beside him. “It’s probably bullshit,” he said.
Sami the Chickenfucker, who had the looks of a real Mexican bandit, cut off sternly. “It’s no shit, man... Go and see it for yourself. End of the tunnel is at the cliff of the seashore, behind the tree... Truck, you’ve seen it, ain’t ya?”
From what I could tell, it was Truck who most interested in this topic. Turning towards Junkie, he came forward with his body which was as big as a dumper truck. Sending a huge ball of spit toward the tree not too far away, he talked with that bloodcurdling bass-toned voice. “There’s an old frame of brick plastered with cement around there, but I don’t know if it’s a tunnel exit. We’ve got to go there and dig it out.”
Americano’s interest in the tunnel was never constant, anyway, and he didn’t comment on Truck’s words. Junkie, without any words, slowly turned his giant neck both sides in his turtleneck sweater and cracked his knuckles. He was taller than six feet three and didn’t like to talk or argue; he only smoked.
“C’mon girls… That’s enough gossip for the day,” he said.
Sami gulped. Without showing that he was offended, he walked back to the building and vanished. Almost all the subjects were left unfinished like that with our senior brothers. The voltage was high, but there would be no shock; the ampere was low.
The bell rang and the fifteen minute break ended. We threw our cigarettes into to puddles on the floor to snuff them out, there were almost a hundred butts floating inside the mud. With a bit of a delay, we entered the classroom at the same time as the teacher. We still kept on talking when we were taking our seats.
“You heard the conversation, didn’t you?” I asked Ayhan.
He ignored my excitement. “So what if I did?” he shrugged.
“What do you mean so what?! Maybe we’ll discover a brand new way, and we’ll be the first users of that tunnel. What more can you ask for?”
We were beginning to get noticed by our teacher who had started doing the roll call. He finally shouted over at us. “Hey, you guys there… What are you two talking over there for? Don’t make me grab your ears and throw you out!”
As I mentioned before, due to this talent I had for easily passing my exams without studying or listening in class, the teachers had a soft spot for me and were sympathetic. The person who made me discover this about myself back in elementary school was my uncle, who had graduated from the Istanbul Technical University as an electrical engineer and set up an elevator company.
One morning in class, when I had played soccer and not done my homework, I’d put my palms up and waited to be punished with a slap on the hand with a ruler by my primary school teacher. I had no excuses… That smart woman teaching a class of seventy students, looked right in my eyes and, for some reason, didn’t slap my hands and but gave me another punishment instead: I would prepare for the next class subject and present it to the class the next day.
This was really a horrific punishment! Boy, I was only eight, not even circumcised, you know, what was this woman expecting of me? Was this not mercilessness?
To my luck or lack of, -maybe they’re the same thing- my uncle came over to dinner that evening. He explained and drew to me, in a perfect way that would make me understand, how an electric motor worked. I was the kind of boy who was unable to memorize or imitate anything, and besides I was deeply bored of monotonous exercises of repeat. In spite of this, I had the skill of grasping whatever I read in one take, and a memory that almost never forgets what it learns.
Next day I presented the subject, drawing diagrams and writing notes on the board, to everybody. That’s how the electric motor worked. Later on, in all my primary school years, instead of doing homework I did the same thing. I would talk in class about the subjects my teacher assigned me… My knowledge from the primary school years consisted of these; just like the education curriculum in our country, they weren’t things that would be of use in real life.
Around evening, we came to the end of another day. The last lesson was over; the day-pupils had gone back to their warm homes. For the boarders it was the same things all over again, same loneliness, same people... Around that time almost everything bored me, except for Ayhan I wasn’t even in the mood to see the members of our gang.
The pranks we pulled seemed childish and phony to me. Our lives were empty, and our world was very tiny. The vileness, jokes and soccer games were just little shows we put on; our chains would only allow that. We’ve never tasted real freedom, for that we had to have ‘real’ adventures.
Only the ones who live adventures would become men in this world, the rest was a big old nothing...