Animal Instinct

One night in New York I was riding the subway from the Lower East Side back to Queens. Sitting at the end of the train and facing the car, I made eye contact with a large, rough, broken looking man, standing by the sliding door. I was going to smile, but after noticing the intensity in his eyes, I quickly looked away, perceiving the threat with animal instincts. Something wasn’t right. I tried to appear disinterested and distracted, feigning interest in my Ipod, and digging through my purse. I knew he was watching me. We went through two stops and on the third, when the door was about to open, the man stepped towards me, leaned over and spit in my face.

This was an aggressive, strategic blow of saliva: nothing light. It was personal. I wiped my face and when I stood up (not sure whether to try to hit him or just hurl some expletives), he got even closer, looking directly into my eyes and spit in my face again. Before I could do anything, he ran off the train, lost in the shuffle of the exit stairs. I watched the doors close as we pulled away from the platform.

Back in the train car, everyone was confused. A petite and elderly Asian woman drew a Kleenex from her purse and handed it to me in silence. An Israeli woman looked over and saw that I was crying, “What the fuck happened?” she asked me and I told her the story, which was not complicated: this was a random assault.

“If I would have seen that I would have chased him and beat his ass,” she kindly reassured me.

“Thanks,” I smiled, still trying to clear the spit smear from my face. I didn’t want to admit that I was seriously panicked about hepatitis, AIDS, and any number of viral or bacterial threats that accompany the visceral disgust of getting spit on by a stranger.

Pretty soon everyone in the train car is playing Sherlock Holmes, trying to figure out what made this guy so pissed off.

The teenage black girl: “Maybe he thought you looked like his girlfriend oh sumthin.”

Her mother: “Maybe you was in his seat.”

The hipster chick: “Maybe he got fired and just had a bad day.”

This was the least plausible. The guy was clearly insane and the rage was no one-time fluke. It was the kind of thing you could see in his eyes.

The pea-coat donning, Upper West Side woman: “Some people are just crazy you know? You never can tell who you are dealing with.”

My first night in Turkey I was told not to make eye contact with the men. I arrived in Kadikoy (a neighborhood on the Asian side, which I promptly named, the “Brooklyn of Istanbul”) wearing only sandals and dragging my bag out of the cab. It is cold and raining, and I follow four American girls to a small club, where we are sitting at a round table on the second floor of a bar, looking over the railing to a small stage rocking a Turkish cover band. Even though we were smoking rolled cigarettes and drinking wine, I felt like they were having some kind of first-night intervention, as I am told emphatically, “Don’t make eye contact. It’s different here. You can’t just smile at someone. They will take it the wrong way.” One of them had been recently assaulted.

There is an older Turkish man watching us from across the room, who I happen to make eye contact with, while listening to a table of women share horror stories about misinterpreted glances. Consciously, I stop myself from smiling and avert my eyes. I worry that it is already too late. Our eyes have met. Predator versus prey. I recall National Geographic scenes, the hunt or the eye contact of a mating ritual. There are human universals and then there are animal instincts. Either way, I have learned this lesson before.

Since traveling, I have encountered a large population of stray cats and dogs, particularly in Turkey and Greece. I am always surprised that they are allowed to run rampant through the streets and that the locals are accustomed to their presence, the same way we step over rats in the subway station.

The stray cats and dogs can be off-putting, especially if you hate cats as much as I do. They are everywhere—in the garbage cans, resting on the hoods of vehicles. A lot of the animals are pretty mangy, some missing legs and tails or with open wounds, protruding tumors and scars. Street life ain’t easy.

I worried about crossing paths with the wrong dog, like the guy in the subway; with one wrong move, I could be the next victim of an animal attack. One of the women who told me not to make eye contact with Turkish men is the same woman who said, “The dogs are not a problem here. They will protect you. They know who is good and who is bad. They know who to bark at and when something is wrong.”

Though I am a dog lover, I am also a cynic, and initially scoffed at the idea that the stray dogs are as trustworthy and loyal as a family pet, or more trustworthy than a Turkish man. Being a skeptic, I ask, “Isn’t this just a nature versus nurture question? What if one of the dogs is a bad seed? Any of those dogs could attack.”

She responds quickly, “There are no bad dogs, because dogs already know the bad ones and they will drive them out.” It sounds simple enough. Throughout my trip I encountered other travelers and locals who have had this similar experience with the stray dogs. Two Australian guys we met in Athens were actually getting robbed when the stray dogs attacked the assailants. Even in Greece they told me, “The dogs know who to protect. They see good people as part of the pack.”

Within a few days, I find that the stray dogs and cats are quite docile, living peaceably in the alleys, hidden in basements, and sleeping in packs around the water front. They are well fed and run along the streets, going in and out of the shops without even getting shooed out. I have seen them sleeping on couches outside furniture stores or inside the warm shops. I have watched old women lower boxes of food attached to ropes from their windows. On one of the more trendy avenues in Kadikoy, the waiter took our plates and delivered our leftovers to feed the stray dogs in the alley. Most of the dogs have tags to indicate that they have had their shots. They are cared for, like community pets.

On a side trip from Istanbul, we went to Cappadocia to visit the underground cities and famous dwelling caves. Arriving early in the morning on the night bus, I felt my first taste of snow this season. I was cold and tired, underdressed and underprepared for landing in the middle of Turkey without a connecting transit to the hostel. At the bus stop, we are approached by a man who says, “I will take you to your next stop. You go to Goreme. You come with me.” With no other options, we agree, and he brings us back into a small room. He shuts the door and tells us to wait.

We speak in hushed whispers. I try to leave to find some coffee at the terminal and he blocks me at the door, “No, you cannot go. Stay here.” Instead of allowing us to go get water and coffee, he pours water into small cups from his Thermos. Locked in this room, waiting for our “ride,” we notice that the man is drunk, and getting grabby, trying to put his arm around us, kiss me on the cheek. I fend him off, but things are getting awkward. It is only 7 in the morning and no one else is around. We stay because we have nowhere to go.

My girlfriend and I are starting to get nervous because we remember this is the same person we were warned about; the same tour company that has caused problems in the past, though, we have now missed our connection, if there ever was one. I start to get impatient and increasingly more demanding about when exactly we were leaving, who was driving and whether they even operate a legitimate service. Finally, the drunken grabber hails two guys from the back and throws them keys.

The two men take our bags and we follow outside to climb in the back of their “tour van,” an unmarked, run-down beater with shredded seats and a roaring muffler. Now careening down the narrow, snow-dusted streets, through the Turkish tundra, my friend reminds me that these people are known to steal money, and leave tourists stranded on the side of the road.

They did leave us on the road, but fortunately, close enough that we could walk. We found out later that they owed money to the hostel owner, who made a fist punching gesture when we explained who dropped us off. Except for the period of lock up and harassment, we arrived unscathed. We were relieved, though the head of tourism in Goreme tells us to file a formal complaint, “He is very bad man.”

Bad seeds often smell like old liquor and aggression.

Last week, instead of going home after the bar, we decided to buy beers and hang out down by the waterfront. The four of us sat in a row, looking out over the Bosphorus Strait, feeling the wind pick up into early morning. I turned around and found that a pack of stray dogs had approached the rocks and collectively, positioned themselves in a circle around us, employing a natural defense against predators. When anyone walked by, they would start barking, chasing away those who got too close. A drunk man walked by singing and started throwing rocks at the dogs. I felt protective of the dogs, of our pack.

I considered throwing rocks too.

The pack of stray dogs sat with us for a couple hours, occasionally darting off to chase a stray cat, but always returning to their aligned corners. When we stood to leave, the dogs rose too and followed us up the hill, towards the neighborhood. They watched, almost longingly, as we split off.

The next day, I was at a busy intersection and I spotted the same pack of dogs lying in a circle. When I walked by, I pet one of them on the head, said hello, smiled and continued on my way towards the ferry. After a couple blocks, I glanced down and the same dog was still walking next to me, looking up and wagging his tail. I turned around to see the other four were also in tow. They walked me down to the ferry, several blocks before turning back towards the center of town. Maybe they sensed I was foreign, or alone, or simply, that I was not a bad seed.

I am honing my animal instincts, but finding comfort in the pack.

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