Small Things

Posted on: November 12, 2013

“Where to?”

Emir’s passenger was dressed in a handsome light grey suit. It fit him well. Emir owned a suit too, but his jacket sat too broad on his shoulders and fell too far down his thighs. He only wore it on special occasions.

“Chase Manhattan Plaza,” the well-dressed man replied. “So, where are you from?”

Emir glanced at his rear-view mirror, smiled and replied, “Istanbul. Turkey.”

He enjoyed chatting with passengers, but never initiated conversations himself.

“I’ve never been to Turkey. Went to Israel a few years back, but that’s the closest I’ve ever been. You miss it?”

“Oh yes, of course.”

“I respect men like you. My grandfather came here from Italy without so much as a penny to his name, but managed to put my father through college and business school. Whenever I visited him as a kid, all he could ever talk about was how everything was better in Italy.” The man in the grey suit paused before continuing, “I can’t imagine having to leave New York City, let alone the States.”

He was looking out the window as he talked, watching Bleecker Street slowly pass by.

“What would you miss about it?” Emir asked.

“The City? Everything. The people, the sounds. But I think, most of all, I would miss having amazing pizza on every corner. I’m not even kidding. New Yorkers don’t realize how good they have it here. And believe me, I know. I’ve been all over the country and the world for business. No other city compares.”

“I think your Italian grandfather would disagree,” Emir joked.

The man laughed, “You’re right. He would’ve. What about you? What do you miss most about Turkey?”

Not a day passed that Emir didn’t think about his home country. He thought about Turkey because he was terrified of forgetting. It was only five years ago that he left Istanbul for New York City, but the haze of time was already setting in.

When is mother’s birthday? His little sister, Azra, was usually the one to remind him. What was the name of that sweets shop near his old school? He wasn’t even sure he ever knew the name of that shop, even though he had frequented it nearly every day.

Sometimes Emir closed his eyes and imagined his younger brother, Derin, working the family’s chestnut stand on the darkened, cobblestone streets of Istanbul. He imagined his father sitting by Derin’s side, reading his newspaper, making small talk with the patrons, and making sure Derin didn’t overstuff the small paper pouches that held the chestnuts.

Emir could hear their conversation.

“Go home father, I can handle the chestnut stand on my own,” Derin would plead.

His father would reply, “Home? And what will I do there? Listen to your mother scold me for leaving you here by yourself? At least here I can read my paper in peace.”

Emir would imagine this, and the sweet, nutty scent of the roasted chestnuts would fill the stale air of his apartment as if he were right there, cobblestones beneath his feet.

“Emir,” his father would say, looking up as he approached, “you know what I mean, tell your brother I would rather die than stop working.”

Derin would roll his eyes and ask, “This is working?” He’d point to his father seated next to him, newspaper open in hand. And Emir would laugh.

That’s how Emir reminded himself, “This is what life was like.”

Turkey was a part of his history now, and he often took the sadness of that fact out on his adopted city. He felt jaded by the people whom he thought too rude and the streets that he thought too crowded.

He shared a small studio apartment in Sunnyside with two others, cousins of cousins of cousins or something. They slept on mattresses strewn lazily about the studio floor and erected makeshift room dividers from salvaged garment racks and old curtains. They bonded over their shared longing for Turkey and lamented over the irony that, in a city so large, they could feel so lonely.

Emir already knew the answer to the man in the grey suit’s question, but he thought a moment before replying. “The smell of roasted chestnuts,” he responded. “My father owned a chestnut stand. I worked there with him until I was a teenager, but I never forgot the smell. My father came home smelling of it every night.”

The man chuckled, “Nostalgia’s devious isn’t it? We always long for the sweet honey of it, but we always forget about the sting of the bees. You’re here in the States for a reason right? I can’t imagine making a living off of chestnuts was easy.”

That evening, before returning home, Emir stopped at his favorite Turkish restaurant in Sunnyside.

“Emir!” Toprak, the owner, shouted as he walked in. “Where have you been my friend? Is it just you tonight? Where are your cousins?”

“I’ve already eaten, I just want to order some roasted chestnuts, to go.”

It was in Turkey that he had his last roasted chestnut. After eating them for years from his father’s stand, it felt unnatural to pay for them.

He didn’t go home right away and, instead, found an empty bench underneath the 7 train overpass just a few blocks from his apartment. As he peeled back the warm, woody shells of the chestnuts, the 7 train rumbling overhead, he took in the neighborhood. It was late, but the storefronts and food carts still illuminated the streets. The early autumn evening was still alive with activity, a chorus of traffic, conversation, and laughter hanging festively in the air. To Emir’s left, down the block, was Jeremy’s bodega where he bought coffee every morning. Just beyond that was a hookah bar where he often passed the time chatting with his two cousins, his friends, about nothing at all.

For the first time in five years, as Emir ate his roasted chestnuts, New York City was transformed. He was home.

Written by: Sam Chow
Photograph by: Becky Lee

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