Raising the Dead in Old Constantinople

Occidental Taksim Lounge

ISTANBUL, Turkey

41.00° N, 28.97° E

Despite popular opinion, death most often announces itself… death knocks… death whistles… death whispers… death honks at us through the intersection of this and that next world at we jaywalk obliviously. If death arrives as a surprise, we’re likely not paying attention. At times, you can see death decades in advance, “oh this motherfucker’s eventually doomed.” Other times, you might see it on your face, in the mirror, when the will to live has left and the only thing keeping you from the grave is the patience of a last dying cough. Which is how I came to choose the hotel bar as the place to while away my remaining moments. Oh, I am sure I could have escaped the Old City, crossed the Golden Horn into Galata, the Genoese Quarter, to find a nightclub with dancing Persians and decent spirits for my last call. Yo barkeep, I would wave him over, explaining, I am not long for this world, can I have one for the road? But I did not go to Galata. I stumbled here, to the Occidental, the garish hotel where floors above me is a room I’ve rented and within the room is a closet and within the closet is a safe and locked within the safe is my passport and other vital documentation. When they find my corpse splayed out on the lounge foyer with a half-drunk Efes bottle of beer in my hand, my identity will be easily realized. Someone notify the American Embassy! The Ambassador, or one of the lackeys, would call Old Mum Neverman, Ma’am, I regret to inform you, your son died on the European side of Istanbul; cause of death: he was squeezed to within an inch of his life and he proceeded to the hotel bar to settle his mortal tab with the inch which was left.

Vic Neverman in Turkey

On my tombstone, it will read: Vic, born last century, dead this century, his father warned him of redheads. Which is unfair to redheads, really; it was a Chinese-American woman who brought me to my demise and her hair is as dark as a plum in a pre-dawn oil spill. What’s more: I met Diana not too far from this barstool, in the adjoining dining room. She was a lonely tourist with a slight plate of continental breakfast, finding the restaurant full and inquiring if she might have a seat at my table. Allow me to set the mood: Diana is a young hand surgeon from Boston and in her spare time she models. She has one of those looks, a fashion archetype of classical exotic (read: aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but decidedly not Anglo Saxon). Therefore, when she asks me for a chair, I am willing to oblige. Sophisticated gentleman I am (having recently rewatched From Russia With Love, particularly the parts where Sean Connery is in Istanbul and participates in a Gypsy catfight), I subtly nudge the leg of the nearest chair as an invitation. Instead of providing her a seat, however, I nudged too heftily and knocked the damn thing over. Oh!, she said of spilled chair. Like a startled cat, I hopped out of my seat to upright the overturned. Rather than admit clumsiness, I spun the occurrence, it is a Turkish tradition, see? One must knock the evil vapors out of a chair before inviting a guest to sit. Hmm, Diana remarked with reserved observation, I wonder who previously occupied this chair to leave evil vapors in their wake. Someone who tried the eggs, I suggest with a nod at the breakfast buffet.

of course, apricots

As a breakfast dining companion, Diana was good company. Us Nevermen, though, in general, do not breakfast. Better a cup of Joe and a smoke to start the day. Us Nevermen are a nervous bunch and digestive fortitude is not our strength. Unlike my forefathers, I only smoke after having to kill a good man or having laid with a bad woman (to Isy Badger’s point in Cartagena, I should really set more attainable goals), leaving me little to do during a Turkish breakfast but discover the delightful assortment of succulent yogurts and heavenly honeys and robust cereals and, of course, apricots. I learned to love breakfast in Turkey. Alas, it was too late in life, as death is already appearing in the face reflected off the bar’s surface. Yeah, this motherfucker is doomed.

Was she a spy? This Diana, Goddess of the Hunt? I haven’t done anything of late to deserve a tail from the People’s Republic. But she’s no Neo-Maoist. No, her spy handlers would use her ethnicity as a smoke screen. Perhaps Diana is employed by the royal princes of Qatar; those keen fuckers. Unnerved, I reminded myself what my court-appointed life coach always tells me: I am not special enough for governmental entities to spy on. Of course, to protect her, I haven’t told my life coach the half of it!

The thing about paranoia is it is an emotionally-charged mental faculty easily overridden when senses are distracted elsewhere. When Lady Artemis invites you to accompany her to a bathhouse, you’re going to smell a trap, yes, but wonder what if it isn’t? Risk assessment corrupted via carnal intrigues, I’m a willing participant in my own undoing. Damn the torpedoes! Let’s go to the bathhouse! Diana and I arrived at the hamam, most of which exists underground, a subterranean series of chambers which has been employed since the Byzantines ruled Constantinople. At the door, I exchanged Turkish Lire for a towel to then be ushered away from Diana to a locker room. Custom is, apparently, men and women bathe separately. Well, damn. Cautiously pessimistic, I undressed and wrapped the small swath of towel fabric around my waist, barely covering my frightened loins. Angry-looking attendants ushered me through a pair of doors where I saw a herd of wild beasts who looked like chimeric bison-man hybrids (what’s more frightening than a werewolf: werebuffalo) dumping steaming water on each other. This was all of the cultural enrichment I needed, but as I turned to leave, a great mound of Turkish monstrosity seized me by the arm. This was a man who called himself Hussein. His eyes gleaned as sin and his nostrils flared like a horse on dope.

In this sweltering dungeon, Hussein’s unrelenting grip was cool and his silence colder. Hussein brought to mind a hairy version of the Jewish folklore figure, the Golem – a soulless beast made of clay and powered by some magical Cabalistic scroll, a comparison Hussein wasn’t likely to care for. Hussein’s only care in the world, by trade, is bringing grown men to tears. 

Hussein brought me into a hotter, damper, room that was filled with other “patrons”. Surely, my guide to the underworld wasn’t going to murder me in front of witnesses… unless they were in on it. Et tu,you brute! Within this large, round, room was a magnificent slab of steaming stone. Hussein pushed me upon the rock, where I tried to find enough stovetop to lie down juxtaposed to the other bodies – bodies who were covered as minimally as myself, much to my chagrin (here I shall forgo the redundancy of mentioning again the largeness and hirsuteness of my company). Finding no where else to look, I steadied my gaze to the ceiling and focused on positive thoughts as the scorched stone cooked through my innards.

The reality of the Turkish Bath experience

As one would be tempted to do in my position, I tried to flee. Hussein put a meaty hand on my chest and shoved me back onto the rock. I was too rare done. I seared for a few more eons of eternity before Hussein grabbed me by the ankles and swung me towards the stone’s edge as I yelped and tried to hold my towel in place. Hussein fought my hysteria by dousing me with scaldingly hot water. I held my breath as he dumped bucket after bucket down on me. It wasn’t quite water-boarding, but close enough; the foreplay of some Ottoman torture technique. Once saturated, Hussein moved his giant paws against my flesh, kneading me like dough. Old Mum Neverman was not present in this dungeon, but I cried out for her nevertheless. I have been more gentle with empty toothpaste tubes than Hussein was on me this fateful night.

Hussein continued to alternate between dousing me with hot water and manhandling my body, each cycle increasing my nausea as I became delirious from the pain. I began babbling uncontrollably. I confessed to crimes I had yet to commit. And then it ended. I was a drowned man, a flotsam cadaver lying with an ear on the shower room drains, listening to the slurp of oblivion. Left for dead, this was my chance of escape. To shift my limbs, to bend my joints, to lean my torqued torso, brought great pain, but I did not want to die underground. I shall return soon enough. I crawled up the stairs and, in a last chance at human dignity, made my way to the locker room to replace my lost loin cloth with blue jeans, which I had to pull on while lying on my back. I put on a shirt, one hole at a time, but I’d be damned if I was going to tie my shoelaces.

I managed to cross the street, not get hit by a passing trolly, to arrive here at the Occidental. Now, I am gazing at an Efes beer in-hand; the ABV must be 0.01%. I might as well be in Salt Lake City where the beer has such a low alcohol content, it is actually sobering. The bottle of Efes does little but fill the bladder I had emptied in the Turkish bath. I’d order another, but death seems so near, why bother? It’s been a wonderful life. Goodnight…

ibrahim and Diana at Occidental hotel lobby

Victor! It is Ibrahim. His fidgety hazel eyes remind me of my father’s. His spectacles and loose jowls are scholarly, wizened. He sums up my demise, my reluctance to go on living, my sheer exhaustion, Victor, he says, you must have found the dancing women. If only, Abe.  Hey, Abe, can you talk them into giving me something stronger? Aslan sütü, Ibrahim says to the bartender. We’re served Raki, “lion’s milk.” 

Ibrahim lifts his glass of anise liquor and toasts mine by clinking the bottom of his glass with my own, şerefe Victor. We drink. It’s awful. I wish death had come already. Ibrahim is insistent on another, telling me, the first sip is always the worst. He’s right, a second sip isn’t inspiring as much death. The third is actually palatable. By the fourth, I begin to find the will to live again. I raise a glass to Ibrahim, şerefe Abe. 

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