The shoe-shine boys and men of Turkey are called “boyaci” (boy-a-ji). Unlike shoe-shiners in many other countries, they do not operate in a fixed location where you can sit up in a high chair while the man does his work on your shoes which are at chest height. The Istanbul shoe shine guys have portable kits, which are rectangular wooden boxes with a handle and a metal knob on which to prop your foot. The box is filled with shoe polish, rags, and brushes. Ahhh . . . the brush! That is the key to a boyaci’s scam. I remember the first time I witnessed this scam as I was walking with my then-love to Ortakoy along the Bosphorus road. We had passed Domabahce Palace and right then we saw a stooped, squat old man carrying a box waddling toward us. As we passed him he dropped his brush and we bent down to pick it up and hand it back to him.
“oh . . . thank you, thank you, you are so nice! Where are you from? Let me shine your shoes for you.” And he immediately grabbed my foot and started polishing my shoes and telling us about his sick nephew and dead wife. It was only then that I started to get suspicious, but I was curious to see how the scam panned out. He then did my boyfriend’s shoes and promptly requested 10 Turkish Lira, which was then around 7 dollars U.S. That was way too much, especially since we didn’t need our shoes shined to begin with. So we gave him a couple lira and told him to fuck off.
A couple of days later we had just walked across the Galata Bridge and were descending onto the piers at Eminönü when a boyaci passed us and dropped his brush. We stopped and looked at each other and started laughing. My boyfriend decided that the next time it happened he would pick it up and hold it ransom until the boyaci paid him 10 lira. It made sense to me, but we never got the chance to test it out.
I’ve seen this repeated many many more times since then with many many more people falling for it. When it happens to me and I’m with a visitor I will grab them when they about to lean over and warn them not to pick it up. This always gets a scowl from the boyaci. My friend, Julie, likes to kick it into the street. Now I’m good enough to detect in the boyaci’s body language that he is setting up to make a move, so my new tactic is to make eye contact and nod my head ‘no’ (in turkey the head signals are reversed) to let him know not to waste his time. This usually works, but with comments of ‘bitch’ or Turkish curses—of which I know none.
As this scam is a Turkish tradition, I’m likely to encounter it many more times when I am in Istanbul, but for me the subterfuge is more painful for most, as each time a boyaci drops his brush near me, my heart sinks in remembrance of that wonderfully happy day, walking along the Bosphorus with my new love and how much I miss being with that someone who would hold a brush ransom for 10 lira.