Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Istanbul: Hotel Paranoia
How I was chosen as the mark for this scam, I have no idea. Granted I was wearing shiny white shoes, but anything but a moment’s glance would reveal that they were golf shoes. Cowboy shirt, sure, but big, black backpack with broken zipper and bicycle reflector? C’mon.
“Do you have a fire?” a short young man with tall greased-back hair asked me while walking down Istikal Caddesi, perhaps the most crowded street in Istanbul.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Where you from?”
“The United States.” Fuck saying you’re from Canada.
“Oh yeah? My girlfriend’s from San Francisco.”
“Really? Where are you from? What’s your name?”
“Yorgo. I come from Greece.” Judging from his accent, Yorgo may have learned all of his English from watching Scarface. I learned that his girlfriend opened a coffee shop for students in Athens and is making bank. He and his father are in the hotel business. They are rich.
We approached my hotel.
“Well, this is my place. But I think I’m going to go to bar Madrid later. Do you know that place?”
“Oh…Where are you staying?”
“Right there.” I pointed.
“Can I offer you a beer?”
Europe is crawling with solo travelers longing for someone to drink with and speak English. And heck, I wasn’t doing anything. And it had been a whole day since dancing on a bus to Turkish techno on the way to a wedding reception on the Black Sea and I craved excitement.
Yorgo led me down one of the many streets filled with cafes and shops that branch off of Istikal Caddesi. As crowded as the main drag can be, the side streets are often deserted. We didn’t see anyone else as we walked the block and a half to the China Club.
Tony Montana and I walked right into the disco scene where he meets Michelle Pfeiffer. The tables were on multiple levels and there was a light-up dance floor. Two waiters came to take our order. Another came to change the ash tray.
Yorgo had only ashed in the tray once.
There were more waiters than customers in the club. Some of the patrons were strangely old. There was no one on the dance floor.
Yorgo and I made idle chatter as best we could. He was nervous, but that was understandable because it was a little awkward. He kept saying things like, “Istanbul is very good time,” and “You like-a the music? Is good music.”
The beers were taking an absurdly long amount of time considering the staff-to-patron ratio.
“You like this place?”
“Yeah, it seems cool,” I say, “a little empty, but maybe it will get bumping in while.”
“Oh yeah, is great.”
“I bet it’s cool when people are dancing. Maybe we could meet some girls.”
“You got a girlfriend?”
Still no beers. A waiter comes over and Yorgo speaks to him.
“Was that Turkish?”
“He knows a little Greek.”
The beers finally arrive. With peanuts. Several more ash trays were swapped out over the 10 or 15 minutes we waited.
Weirded out and not wanting to accidentally drink a $40 beer, I said, “You get these and I’ll get the next round somewhere else.”
Yorgo agreed. A waiter brought over two very hot girls and introduced them to us. I don’t remember their names because I was preoccupied with realizing what was going on. The waiter gestured me out of the round booth so that the girls could sit between Yorgo and I. Neither of them spoke any English so it got even more awkward.
Now, the sensible person probably would have fled immediately when the girls sat down. But that didn’t occur to me at the time. Since the club looked like a movie set, I guess I thought I had to make a smooth exit, as though I were in a movie. So I said, “Let’s dance.”
Yorgo and his girl stayed seated. I made them get up and dance. On the way to the dance floor I said to Yorgo, “What is going on?”
“Nothing. What d’you mean?”
“I don’t want to pay for anything.”
“You won’t have to pay. And maybe later we take these girls to hotel…”
Yorgo is probably the worst dancer I have ever seen. He stood in place and bounced, looking like a cross between a child who has to pee and someone being forced to dance at gunpoint.
“Fuck it,” I thought, and pulled out all my fake Middle-Eastern dance moves which had been a hit at the wedding reception the night before (they blended almost seamlessly with real Middle-Eastern dance moves!). So I knelt and clapped in front of my prostitute and wriggled my chest in front of Yorgo. His prostitute thought it was pretty funny and started shaking around her giant rack.
While dancing I began to think about how long it had taken for those beers to come and about how nervous Yorgo looked and I began to suspect that I had been drugged. So after one song I sat down. Everyone else followed.
“Welp. It’s daytime in the US and I have to make a business call. So I better go.”
“Wait for the bill,” said Yorgo. I whipped out a pen and pad from my backpack and also moved all the cash in my wallet except for 15 lira underneath jackets and camera equipment.
“Give me your number. I’ll call you when I’m done working tonight.” He wrote down his number and I stood up.
“No, wait for the bill.”
“I have to go.”
“I have to go.”
I walked toward the door and was headed off at the pass by several waiters. Yorgo came over and we all went into the entry way. One of the waiters brought a bill for 400 lira, about 320 dollars.
“We split it,” Yorgo said.
“No. You said you would pay. I have to go.”
“I said one beer. I didn’t say anything about the girls.”
“You asked for them. You got us into—”
“You asked for them!” he half shouted.
“I didn’t ask for anything. You said you would pay!”
“Look. We split it!”
“No. No way. I don’t even have any money.” I pulled out the 15 lira. “That’s all I have.” I showed him my empty wallet.
“Okay. You pay 20 lira. I’ll pay the rest.”
“20. Fine.” I had the rest in change.
As soon as I was back on the street I realized that Yorgo knew where I was staying. I also realized he was obviously in on the con since he talked to his prostitute a little. He clearly knows Turkish. Who knows if he’s even Greek.
Oh yeah, and there’s still a chance I’m drugged.
I hauled ass to my hotel and immediately changed clothes and started packing everything. I was dripping with sweat as I gave the clerk the key. It was about midnight.
“Yes. Thank you.” He was very nice and had lent me his umbrella that morning.
I walked around the block to get a taxi in order to stay off of Istikal and avoid being seen. When I arrived at the nearest taxi line, they all just stared at me.
“Taxi?” I said.
“Where are you going?” one of them asked.
“Sultan Hostel.” It was in a different neighborhood, right by the Ayasofya. I had met a pair of cute Austrians at the bar underneath the hostel my first night in town. All the cabbies gathered around when I started talking, which was really weird since it was obvious I was going to take the first taxi in the line, since that’s how those things work.
As I put my bag in the trunk I recalled a warning in an email of Istanbul tips my pal Justin Maurer had sent me, “There’s a huge mafia scene there, and the mafia and the police are pretty much friends, so beware of both.” Maybe the cabbies were part of the club?
I got in the backseat and whipped out a card for another hotel someone had given me on the street. It was about half a mile from the Sultan. The cab driver had to ask directions to it twice from other cabbies.
He dropped me off and I walked slowly toward the entrance. He wasn’t going anywhere. Luckily there was a courtyard to go into so I walked in there and watched over the fence until he drove away. He waited at the corner for a full minute.
Then I walked back a block to another hotel we had passed on the way. I was greeted by a small, pale clerk who would have been a great clerk in an old movie. I put all my things in the bar, stood out of view from the door and windows and tossed him my passport. He didn’t seem to think it was weird.
When I got up to my room, I figured the $30 it had cost me to get another hotel for the night was worth the story, especially considering I had not been drugged. But the next day, I realized that the incident at the China Club had exacted another price.
I was walking through a park outside the Blue Mosque with my new friend Faruk and his new wife, Anastasya, and her family. I ran off to use a pay phone for a minute and was coming back to the group when a cute Turkish girl asked me what time it was. She was cute, not hot, but I was very attracted to her. Small, jeans, hoodie, no make up, a zit or two, gusto, strange habit of saying people look like they’re from somewhere else. Cute.
My lack of cell phone, watch, sundial, or any means telling time had been driving me nuts the whole time I was in Turkey. I told her I had no idea.
“Where are you from?” her English was good.
“The United States.”
“Really? You look Canadian.”
“How can someone look Canadian?”
“Americans have long hair.”
“Oh I see. Are you from Istanbul?”
“You don’t meet many natives in this part of town.”
“I like this part of town, don’t you?”
“We walk?” she said, right as Faruk and company approached. She told Faruk in Turkish that she thought he looked Swiss.
I could easily have had this girl and I wanted her. We were about to get dinner. I could have asked her to come along. Normally I would have. I give my friends lectures about how to turn moments like this into great success.
But I didn’t do anything. I shut down the flirting, she got the hint and split. As we walked away, I felt emptiness. I was unable to trust her.
And I am a master of trust! I had convinced my boss to send me to Turkey to make a video about Faruk’s wedding because he and his wife met on our website (englishbaby.com). The only thing that had surprised Faruk’s family more than my killer dance moves was the fact that I had trusted this person I didn’t know and had come all the way to Turkey based on two emails. “What would you have done if he had been lying?” they asked.
“That would have been bad,” I told them, “but not the end of the world.”
No. What would have been much worse than that is if I had never tried to come to Turkey because I had found myself unable to take a risk and trust someone. Or worse yet, if Anastasya and Faruk had never met in person because they were afraid to trust one another.
Photos: Faruk and Anastasya sipping lemonade, Faruk’s favorite, in Ortakoy. By me. Karakoy, a district of Istanbul near Istikal. By me. Self portrait in hotel room. Faruk, Anastasya and I on the subway. By a random guy on the subway I trusted with the camera.