ADANA, TURKEY: The Man in the Wagon
In my first days in Adana I don’t have transportation to Incerlick, so I’m forced to catch a Turkish dolmus -- a van-sized, 9-seat minibus costing about 10 cents, into which drivers like to cram about 30 people. The ride to Incerlick is about 15 kilometers. It’s late August and the noontime heat can be as high as 114F. The dolmus to Incerlick must make a 10-minute stop in old Adana where the passengers are required to stay on board or lose their place and pay again. Sitting there with 30 Turks in a minibus in 114F heat, sometimes I think I’ve died and gone to hell.
Every day as I walk the six blocks to the dolmus stop, I pass a man about my age sitting in a small wagon. He has no arms or legs. Otherwise he looks like a normal husky man. He sits there all day intently watching the people walking by as though he’s looking for some sort of recognition of his existence. Most people just pass him by without looking at him. Occasionally people throw small coins into the wagon, but they never make eye contact.
One day I’m not in a big hurry, so I stop and greet him with “Merhaba”. He smiles back at me with a great smile and says “Merhaba”. Unfortunately he speaks no English and I speak no Turkish so there’s no way for us actually to communicate. I salute him with a military salute, which of course he can’t return. He was probably once a military man and seems to appreciate the gesture.
He begins to watch for me, spotting me way down the block and breaking into a big smile as he watches me walk toward him. Always we exchange greetings and I give the salute, while everyone else walks on by. This continues for a couple of weeks.
With the exchange rate of the Turkish lira at 36,000 to one dollar, the small 10 lira coins people throw in the man’s wagon are virtually worthless. I get to thinking that, while 200,000 or 300,000TL is nothing to me, it might really make a difference in his life. I debate this with myself for several days. I could afford to give him a lot more, but I don’t want to overdo it and seem ostentatious.
Finally one day I decide I’ll give him 200,000TL and see how he reacts to it. That day I’m greeted with the usual warm smile as I approach his wagon. “Merhaba.” I salute. Then I pull out the 200,000TL. I can’t hand it to him of course, and I don’t want to just leave it in the wagon because I know someone will take it and he’d be powerless to stop them, so I tuck it inside his shirt.
The smile immediately leaves his face. He looks up at me, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a look of devastation. And then it hit me: I was the one person who had given him dignity, treated him with respect, man-to-man; and with that one instant of thoughtless pity, I yanked it all away.
After that he never watched me walk down the street toward him again. He never looked me in the eye again. He never smiled in my presence again.
The next weekend I rented a car and stopped walking by his wagon to the dolmus stop.
The Belvedere Torso -- Apollonios