(The shoe-shiner above is not the person mentioned in this story)
After having spent a month on the road, Sydney and I were feeling comfortable in even the most foreign environments. We had coped, adapted, and found normalcy in the perpetually new and different. We had also let our guard down somewhat to fraudsters and people who might try to extort us for being tourists. That all changed during a chance encounter with a tricky shoe-shiner.
Sydney and I were heading up a steep hill which eventually led to Taksim Square, near our hotel. Upon nearing the summit, a young turkish man about our age carrying a shoe shining kit crossed our path and dropped one of his shoe-shining brushes. I immediately picked it up and ran a few steps after him and delivered it.
He seemed genuinely grateful, bowing solemnly to me as I turned and walked back towards Sydney. I took several steps and suddenly he caught up with me and gestured to my shoes, seeming to indicate that he would shine my shoes to show gratitude for returning his brush. I wouldn’t receive a shoe-shining under any other condition, but he seemed pretty insistent and earnest about his intentions, so I consented. Sydney was somewhat skeptical and asked how much it would cost.
“Return favor,” he said to her. Clearly he did not intend to receive anything from this gesture of gratitude, or so we thought.
He quickly set about to shining my shoes, brushing them thoroughly, rubbing them in some oily white substance, all the while making conversation, giving us general tourist advice, asking about our families, etc. He jokingly referred to himself as the ‘shoe doctor’.
He mentioned he had a father in the hospital with lung cancer and that he was from Ankara, but moved to Istanbul because the economy was so bad. My fraud radar turned on immediately with the emphasis he was putting on his personal family hardships. “Don’t you dare,” I thought to myself. I saw exactly where he was going and was getting angry just listening to him finishing his pitch. Sydney noticed that Turks driving by were laughing at us, seemingly aware of what was taking place.
As I was lost in anger and contemplation, he gestured to Sydney to come over so he could clean her shoes. She was begrudging and resisted initially, telling him no thank you. He again insisted and brushed her sneakers and cleaned them somewhat.
After a superficial brushing, he cut the foreplay. “18 Lira,” he said with a look of false innocence and sheepish grin.
While his gimmick may have worked on other people, we had asked him to name his price. We didn’t owe him a thing. He had told us 100% free and only on those terms did we consent. I immediately started shouting at him that he told us it was free and that I only agreed because you wanted to repay me for returning your brush (the light bulb came on at that moment as well that that brush dropping was undoubtedly rehearsed and executed countless times prior on many a gullible tourist). He then put his hands to his mouth and put on the best “feed me, I’m starving,” face he could muster. I was very angry. Both as a matter of principle that this guy had lied to me, as well as the guilt for not knowing if he really was struggling to make ends meet.
I angrily gave him the 75 cents jingling in my pocket and stormed off, my shoes creaking with every step from the soggy mess he left them in. Sydney recalled reading about such a performance on the travel guides that discuss Istanbul. My vivid anger masked a deeper internal conflict.
I was of course upset that the man had tried to scam me. However, I was most perplexed by how to deal with poverty and those truly suffering in a country like Turkey. I am deeply cynical and generally assume that people are trying to get the best of me, but there is a lingering guilt that in my self-defense mode I am overlooking and ignoring true suffering. I suppose that’s the exact sentiment that keeps the fraudsters in business.
The experience was sobering and reminded me to keep my guard up. Istanbul is an incredible city, but that doesn’t go for ALL of its inhabitants. As for helping those in need, it’s a better idea to give to a charity.