First-Place Winner, July 2005 - June 2006
Short Story Contest
"The Ataturk of the Out Boroughs"
Written By Jacob M. Appel
A Turkish locksmith in New York City teams up with a female attorney to fight plans to replace their neighborhood with a hockey arena.
When married attorney Claudia Crane asks Turkish locksmith Onur Erdem to help fight a proposal to bulldoze their New York City neighborhood and to replace it with a hockey arena, she hopes that the visible support of an immigrant will convince other immigrant shopkeepers in their diverse community to join the struggle. Onur doesn't particularly mind the prospect of having his business bought out by the government, and relocating to the suburbs, but he enlists in the anti-arena movement in the hopes of luring Claudia away from her husband.
Onur turns out to be a far more effective advocate for the neighborhood's cause than either he or Claudia had anticipated: By emphasizing the common fear of dispossession among refugees from many different nations, he raises thousands of dollars for the legal struggle. The locksmith proves himself a zealous spokesperson for "absolute property rights" and even comes to believe sincerely in his own efforts. Soon, he is enjoying afternoon tea with Claudia on a daily basis. But then the courts rule against the anti-arena activists and even Claudia sees no hope for success. That's when Onur hatches the zany, long-shot scheme upon which both the future of the community and his own romantic ambitions depend: He uses his skill as a locksmith to chain thousands of local residents and businessmen to the lampposts and telephone booths of the neighborhood in advance of the city's oncoming bulldozers.
Thirty-one year old Onur Erdem was re-keying the tumblers on an antique strongbox when the pretty woman attorney arrived to carry off all that he owned. The Turkish locksmith greeted her warnings with a meditative silence: He gritted his molars down on his calabash pipe and fed a stack of blanks through the computerized code cutter. Twice already he had lost everything-once to the creditors who'd bankrolled his late father's gambling sprees, once to an electrical fire-so the prospect of dispossession, which in the past might have conjured up traumatic images of refugees pulling featherbeds with horse-carts, now merely vexed him like a minor rash. Transience was the price for breathing American air, for doing business in Jackson Heights, Queens. He could live with it. (That was why, in his personal affairs, he favored things British-test match cricket, Darjeeling tea from Taylors of Harrogate-anything that smacked of stability and empire.) Yet Onur enjoyed having the pretty woman attorney, whose name was Claudia Crane and whose sandy hair flaunted an un-lawyerly streak of fuchsia, sitting with her legs crossed on the cast iron mini-vault in his shop. Claudia wore a black skirt, stockings. Pink lacquered nails poked through the toes of her shoes. Onur noticed her wedding ring, but still had no desire to see her leave too quickly. "What did you call it?" he asked.
"Eminent domain," answered Claudia. "If they pay you fair market value, they can come take your property."
Onur nodded indifferently. He blew the tiny brass shavings from each of the processed keys, holding the finished products to the light one at a time. "I understand that," he said. "Why don't you stop them?"
Claudia breathed deeply-maybe to mask frustration. "That's what we're trying to do, but at this point it won't be easy. They already have an order of necessity."
"Why didn't you stop them sooner?" asked Onur. He fancied the way his visitor toyed with her crystal necklace.
"We didn't know. All the state has to do is run 'notice of intent' ads in the local papers, and that's like not doing anything at all. The whole process is completely Kafkaesque. What I mean is-"
"I understand Kafkaesque," said Onur.
Claudia took another deep breath-this time pausing to exhale as though she'd been punched in the abdomen. "Of course, you do," she said. "What I wanted to emphasize was that if we don't take action soon, the bulldozers are going to roll over your business."
"And my home," interjected Onur. "I live upstairs."
"And your home. And my office. And the Whatever 4 Cafe. And everything else within six square blocks. All in the name of hockey. And minor league hockey at that. All so that a bunch of assholes can get piss drunk, shout obscenities and drive home."
The locksmith smiled thinly; he wished to conceal his jagged teeth. Although he had no interest in hockey, the prospect of a government buy-out actually had its plusses: What better excuse to invest in cutting-edge equipment? Or he might expand into home security systems, maybe closed-circuit surveillance. Next year-when the hockey players rolled through-he'd be installing burglar alarms in the suburbs. His aunt might not like the move, but she'd get over it. Onur bit his tongue to keep from laughing, steeled his face. "Is that hockey on grass?" he asked. "Or hockey on ice?"
"Hockey on ice. An arena. Please, Mr. Erdem, we need you."
"Me? I'm so important?"
Claudia glanced toward the shop window. Her pale slender neck shimmered like rose marble under the fluorescent light. "I'll be honest with you, Mr. Erdem," she said in a hushed voice. "We think it's very important for the committee to reflect the community...Different viewpoints, you know."
Onur wondered how many Gujarati farsan mongers and Senegalese hair beaders and Hmong green grocers the woman attorney had approached before finding him. He explored the stem of his pipe with his tongue, while running security keys across the electric buffer. "Did you know that the first locks were made of wood?" he asked.
The woman attorney smiled at him as though he'd walked in off the moon.
He looked straight into her eyes for the first time. He had a granduncle in Baltimore-also a locksmith-who'd once told him that the eyes were like keyholes into the palaces of royalty. He had been only a child; the uncle had been drinking. Now Onur wondered what regal secrets lurked behind the pretty woman's opaque gray irises. She struck him as a woman of significant complexity. "The first wooden locks adorned the imperial gates of Sargon of Persia in the eighth century before Christ."
"How interesting," said Claudia.
"I think so," said Onur. "You said you wanted diverse viewpoints. I'm offering you the viewpoint of a locksmith."
The woman attorney opened her mouth-but at first no words came out. She finally asked, "Does that mean you'll do it?"
"Sure," he said. "I'll do it."
He shook her hand across the countertop. He did not appreciate the way that she held her arm straight out from her body; it was almost insulting. But her long, glabrous fingers were as cold and delicate as porcelain. Outside, a taxicab honked. Onur relinquished the exquisite tiny hand. His body shivered at the burst of chill air as the woman attorney exited the shop.
On the counter stood a coffee cup. It bore the inscription: "Small keys open large doors"-a present to his late father from a friend. Onur picked up the stack of newly minted keys and dropped them into the cup, one by one. The polished metal clinked on glass like coins upon the stones in a fountain.
"You're running out on me for that?" asked Jude Basso.
The twenty six year old elevator technician leaned over the chessboard; his beefy forearms rested atop his thighs. Onur had competed against Basso on the Internet for months before discovering that the Italian lived in nearby Flushing. Now the two men played in Onur's sitting room, as they did every Wednesday evening, surrounded by the scents of turmeric and toasted caraway. Mama Fairuza, Onur's maiden aunt, had cleared the tea service moments earlier.
"Trust me," said Onur. He used his palms to mime the shape of the woman attorney's chest. "Like the Himalayas."
Basso shifted his queen's bishop the full length of the chessboard with the assurance of a surgeon wielding a scalpel. "Has her husband invited you mountain climbing?" he asked.
"Come and see for yourself, my friend," said Onur. From the kitchen rose the crunch of Mama Fairuza grinding coriander for Harissa sauce. The locksmith removed Basso's bishop and replaced it with his king's knight. "Checkmate."
"I'm no politician," said Basso. He stared at the chessboard in wonder-as though attempting to Monday morning quarterback a shell game.
"And I'm a politician? It's all about business."
Onur explained his calculus to the Italian. If the activists defeated the hockey arena, his stature in the community would rise considerably-and that could only be good for the shop. If the developers prevailed, of course, he'd pocket his 'fair market value' and upgrade to a security outfit on the Island. Neither way could he lose. "So I'll pay lip service to property rights and John Locke and Jefferson," he told the bewildered Italian, "but what I'm really doing is marketing me."
Basso grinned. "I bet you want to pay lip service."
"We'll tell them you live in my building," said Onur. "It's not like you're doing anything else tonight."
Onur settled the chessboard onto its perch atop the piano. He threw on his black cashmere coat and led Basso down the two flights of steep wooden stairs into the bitter gelid night. They walked quickly, the wind at their backs. The gusts hooked sandwich wrappers around car antennas and sandblasted the traffic signs. It was too cold to speak. When they finally arrived at the offices of Tooth Fairy Orthodontics, where the steering committee conducted its biweekly meetings, tears frosted the corners of Onur's eye sockets. Fifteen people had already crowded into the lobby. He recognized the orthodontist, Dr. Gussoff, from his subway advertisements; Gussoff's rodentine features instilled even less confidence in person. The pretty woman attorney was also present, speaking with the elderly Ismaili Muslim who owned the flower shop at the corner of Jackson Avenue and St. James. All the rest were male and strangers.
"Looks like you've got competition," whispered Basso. The locksmith stood in the doorway defrosting, watching the florist demonstrate a dance move to the female attorney.
"Piss off," answered Onur.
He wove his way through the sea of bodies. The woman attorney had traded her business outfit for tight acid-washed jeans, glossy maroon boots and a skimpy scarlet top. She flashed her smile in his direction-and he was about to call out her name-when a robust older man emerged from the crowd to peck her on the lips. The newcomer wore a thick mustache and had eyebrows like hedgerows. Onur heard Claudia introduce him to the Ismaili. "Mr. Kurji. My husband, Eric."
Onur stepped into their conversation. He did not like that the woman attorney had any husband other than him. "Ms. Crane," he said.
"Ah, Mr. Erdem," said Claudia. "Mr. Kurji was just showing me a traditional Tajik folk dance."
"The dance of the eagle," said the florist. "It is usually accompanied by flutes."
The locksmith did not know any traditional Turkish dances. At the state university, he'd won the intercollegiate waltz competition three years running.
"Who has time for dancing?" asked Onur. "We have a neighborhood to save, don't we?"
He had intended no offense-but the crestfallen Ismaili mumbled apologies, his hands jammed into his trouser pockets and his gaze down at the floor.
"I don't see it that way at all," said Claudia. "I agree with the anarchist Emma Goldmann: If I can't have dancing-traditional dancing, folk dancing-I don't want your revolution." The woman attorney added all too quickly: "But I am glad you've come, Mr. Erdem. We need enthusiasm like yours."
At that moment, the orthodontist rose on a plastic milk crate-like a false muezzin on an ersatz minaret-and called the meeting to order. The woman attorney took her place at Gussoff's side, affording Onur no opportunity to say anything further. The locksmith retreated to the back wall. He tried to feign interest in the speakers-the manager of the Whatever 4 Cafe, the proprietor of a local bridal boutique, an architectural preservationist from some obscure foundation-but they bored him senseless. All anger, indignation. With not an original thought among them, each felt the need to throw in his ten cents. The locksmith didn't dare retrieve a magazine from the end table; instead, he busied himself reading a wall poster that diagrammed the components of braces. Bonded brackets. Rubber bands. Archwires. A vocabulary of appliances as intriguing as those in his own shop. He refocused only when the woman attorney mounted the makeshift proscenium.
"You win," said Jude Basso. "Like the Himalayas."
The top buttons hung open on the woman attorney's blouse. From his angle, Onur could see the magenta frills on her brassiere.
"What we need most right now," she said, "are volunteers."
She spoke about recruitment techniques, door-to-door campaigning. Onur left forty-five minutes later as co-coordinator of fund-raising. He knew as much about fund-raising as he did about dancing the rakkas-but at least he lived in the community. His fellow co-coordinator, Jude Basso, had to take the subway seven stops home.
Onur discovered his gift for political oratory the following Saturday at the loading dock behind Caravan Kabul. The Afghani restaurant was owned by two Iranian brothers, identical twins named Malik and Majid; each sported a full gray beard. Although Onur had assisted them several times in the past-once following a burglary, twice after automobile lockouts-he still couldn't tell them apart. For fund-raising purposes, of course, this didn't matter. While one of the brothers and a frozen produce wholesaler inventoried sacks of vegetables as they came off the back of the dealer's truck, the locksmith stood in the flurrying snow and spoke of property rights. Nearby, a visibly uncomfortable Jude Basso chain-smoked cigarettes.
You ask: What does this have to do with me? I'm no politician. I'm no rabble-rouser. I don't want any trouble. That's why you've come to this great country, America-so you can avoid politics and trouble. At least, that's what I myself believed at first. You're likely thinking what I was thinking: I'll take their 'fair market value' and expand. Upgrade. Maybe move out to the suburbs. But what then? Please hear me out, my friend, small business owner to small business owner. What are you going to do when the government comes after your new restaurant, your new store, your new home? My father picked us up from Anatolia-gave up everything he had back in Turkey. And why? WHY? I ask you. To move where his property would be protected. Not his right to speak. Or even to pray. No, no, no. His right to make a decent living. A secure living. The Declaration of Independence was originally supposed to say "life, liberty and property"-that's what the pursuit of happiness really is. Without property, there is no stability. Without stability-Revolution! That's why we need to stand up for ourselves.
Onur placed his hand on the Iranian's thick shoulder; his voice dropped to a confidential lull: They drove you out of Iran in '79. I know how it was, my friend. I know. But don't let them do it to you a second time. Remember how you swore it would never happen again? Here's your chance.
The Iranian spit into the snow. He signaled for Onur to follow him into the meat pantry, a small freezer that doubled as an office, where the locksmith waited between dangling rabbit carcasses while his host rummaged through the desk for a checkbook. To Onur's shock, the restauranteur-Malik-wrote out a draft for five hundred dollars. "Here," said the Iranian. "Tell them from me: Go fuck themselves."
Similar success greeted Onur at the Cambodian deli, at the television repair shop operated by the Pakistani with the bell's palsy, at the storefront offices of the Hungarian foam rubber supplier. All he had to do was alter the proper nouns: They drove you out of Czechoslovakia in '39. Out of Cuba in '59. Out of Uganda in '72. Or occasionally he'd add a touch of his own personal history: I've been to college, to the state university at Albany, but did I abandon the neighborhood? Of course I didn't. Would I leave my family? Of course I wouldn't. I take pride in being a locksmith-the same way I imagine you take pride in being a landscaper-a piano tuner-a beautician-a liquor dealer-a masseuse. I cared for my widowed mother until she died-I still support her unmarried sister-the same way I am certain you look after your own. So I am not asking for any more than anybody else gets, my friend. But I am not willing to take any less-and I am certain that you are not either. Onur made a point of leaving his business card at every office and kiosk and apartment that he and Basso visited. Why not? Considering his efforts, the least he deserved was free advertising. He'd distributed more than eighteen hundred by the end of the month-and also raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars-when the woman attorney paid another visit to his shop.
Onur heard the door chime, but did not look up. He was teaching his sixteen year old cousin, Yusuf Gurkan, how to pick a wafer-tumbler with a tension wrench. "When raking the tumblers, the trick is focus," explained the locksmith. "You put pressure on the sidebar with the steel wire, my boy, and you concentrate." Then Onur caught sight of Claudia and nearly sliced off his thumb.
The woman attorney did not appear to notice the mishap. She was leaning over the countertop, examining his family photographs.
"Who's that man?" asked Claudia.
She pointed to a sepia portrait of a dapper young Zouave in puff-trousers, a short red jacket and a matching fez.
"That's my great-grandfather," answered Onur. "During the Russian War. He later served as chief-of-staff under Ataturk."
"Impressive," said Claudia.
Onur grinned-inadvertently exposing his bad teeth.
Claudia returned his smile. "Is there someplace we can speak?"
The locksmith left his cousin in charge of the shop. He led the woman attorney into the stockroom, pulling the bulb light on with a string.
"So this is your secret lair," she said.
The musty, cedar-lined closet embarrassed Onur. He dusted off space atop a worn steamer trunk for the woman attorney to sit down.
Claudia tucked her skirt beneath her. "It's amazing, what you've been doing."
Onur nodded stupidly. "Thank you."
"The truth is," said Claudia, "I came to apologize. For the Emma Goldmann remark the other night. And for misjudging you. I'm a straight-shooting kind of gal, Mr. Erdem, so I'll say it like it is."
The locksmith leaned forward on his splintered wooden stool.
"You weren't our first choice for the steering committee," said Claudia. "Even three weeks ago, I considered asking Mr. Kurji to take your place. But what you've done since then is, well, just unbelievable."
"Oh that," said Onur, disappointed. "Nothing beyond the call of duty."
"The call of duty," she echoed. "That's probably what your great-grandfather would have said. Maybe we'll have to start calling you The Ataturk of Jackson Avenue. Or, better yet, The Ataturk of the Outer Boroughs. It has a ring to it."
Onur said nothing.
"You'd make your great-grandfather proud," said Claudia. "Steve Gussoff's getting thirty, forty calls a day. People wanting to volunteer. People wanting to give more money."
"That's good news," said Onur.
He was sitting so close to Claudia, he could smell her shampoo.
"We're going to win this," said Claudia. "On The Spot News is doing a story, maybe Channel 5. And our lawyers-thanks to you, we've got a dream team."
"No, no," said Claudia. "I do family law. I advocate for abused women."
She stood up and extended her hand-still outstretched rigid like a metal bar.
"May I come bother you again, Mr. Erdem?" she asked.
"It's no bother," said the locksmith.
Call me Onur-he thought, the moment she'd left-Why didn't I ask her? Call me Onur. Call me Onur. Call me Onur.