Monday, November 29, 2010

The Toothpick Story


While I cannot verify the veracity of this details of this story, I can say that it was most likely told to me as factual.

On a trip to the far eastern regions of Turkey, my friend and his traveling companion, after long and tedious hours of driving, grew rather famished and began to hunt for some roadside restaurant. Eventually, they found a place which Americans would consider an equivalent to a "greasy spoon."

For the benefit of those who have never been to Turkey I will attempt to describe the typical diner of this sort.

The proprietor, a paunchy mustached man, sits at his podium like desk, with his bottle of cologne and dish of cloves. At the rear, in front of the open heath oven, a bare-armed "chef" waits expectantly for his order, flipping a larval pad of dough back and forth and sneaks regular drags from his cigarette. There is always a surplus of waiters. All of them seem to have lost the natural ability to smile. The teenage nephew of the owner who portrays your waiter likes to watch television and has the magical ability to transport himself anywhere in his mind.

On the wall, you'll find an aged mural of Mecca hangs, showing a great arch of marching white-toga-ed pilgrims revolving around a holy cube. The blue "evil eye" talisman covers all the pagan rites while the predictable print of Ataturk, somewhat faded, takes care of secularism. So, after a glance around, you chose a table from all the other empty ones and you sit in the white plastic chair that gives ominously like an overloaded pack animal.

The pide- a kind of Turkish pizza- was nothing to write home about but it did satisfy the immediate need. The ayran- a buttermilk concoction- was thick and rich and pleasantly sour.

"Excuse me," my friend asked the boy passing by. "Could you please bring me a toothpick?"

The boy waiter looked nervously back at the owner who, watching from the distance, half-stood.

"Let me ask." the boy told the confused patrons.

After some feverish whispering between the waiter and his boss, the owner stepped forward. " Yes, Can I help you?"

"We just asked for toothpicks."

"Ah," the owner said with a decidedly unhappy glare. "We used to offer those to our customers, but we stopped this practice."

"And.. why?"

"Yes, well, last summer we had some visitors here from the west of Turkey. Istanbul or Izmir. And like yourselves, they asked for toothpicks. I was quite happy to oblige."

There was a pregnant moment of silence. "We were shocked, however, to find that they had not bothered to put them back when they were finished."

That's the story as it was related to me many years ago. When my story-telling friend concluded, I asked him, "Is that true?" He nodded and then shrugged as Turks are wont to do. I have thought about this story many times, unable to be fully persuaded that it could ever have happened. I'd like to think I was the victim of some joke.

Still, as Mark Twain once said, there is a "dismal plausibility about it that took all the humor out of it."

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