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Yesterday I went for a drive with a friend to Şile, a little resort town on the Black Sea with a lighthouse and a tranquil harbor of fishing boats. It’s been there since 700 BC. It’s peaceful and lovely and slightly touristy but in a good way, meaning it meets your needs for a day away from the city perfectly–you go there to sit in a cafe nestled in one of the bluffs overlooking the sea with a garden of poppies and cherry-laurels and laugh at the geese and drink tea and remember that there’s something to Turkey besides conspiracies and traffic. Maybe you buy some artisanal honey or an embroidered cotton blouse that you’ll never wear on your way home; and at the end of the day you’re sunburned and happy.
As you leave, and ease back into the traffic, you see quite a few gypsy vendors in the middle of the freeway. (I mean literally gypsy, as in Roma). They’re standing on the on-ramps; they flood the roads wherever the traffic is stalled, diving between the lanes, risking their lives to sell things to people driving back from Şile in a happy, impulsive mood–bottles of water, simit (Turkey’s answer to the bagel), bouquets of roses.
We slowed as we approached a bottleneck, and a woman with a brilliant smile rushed up to the car with three bouquets of scarlett-red roses–she saw a man and a woman in a car together, so obviously she figured she’d put the squeeze of guilt on the guy. (Poor target selection, but an understandable mistake.) And because I was in a good mood, and because the roses were beautiful, and because I thought, “Let’s make her day,” I opened my wallet and bought them all. There wasn’t time to bargain. I handed her a 20 lira bill–about 12 bucks–and she handed me the roses, and she was obviously thrilled and so was I, until I saw the expression on my friend’s face.
He’s Turkish. He was clearly pretty displeased with me.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked. (By the way, about two hours before he’d nearly split a gut because I’d said to our waiter–or so I thought–that the birdsong was lovely, but apparently what I actually said was that the noise coming out of the waiter’s butt was lovely. I kid you not. Turkish is just full of these perils.)
He scolded me because he felt I was supporting an exploitative, unethical black-market industry, that the gypsies working on these roads were part of an organized crime syndicate, that obviously no one should be standing in the middle of a freeway selling anything, causing a hazard to themselves and the drivers, and that the money wouldn’t go to her, but would be kicked up to the bosses who would then find new, inventive, quasi-legal ways to exploit and immiserate people like her and her kids. He wasn’t such a killjoy that he refused to take any pleasure in the whole business, but he certainly disapproved, basically.
He’s actually influenced my thinking about these things before. I’ve stopped giving money, for example, to some of the more heartbreaking kids you sometimes see begging in the streets here because he’s persuaded me that yes, they are part of an organized begging syndicate, and giving them money does encourage parents to put their kids out on the streets to beg. And over time, I’ve noticed that Turks tend to know a lot more about Turkey than I do, so I’m never inclined completely to dismiss such a reaction.
But this woman wasn’t a kid, and she wasn’t begging, and beyond working in the black-market economy and causing a traffic hazard, she wasn’t committing a crime. She was selling something I wanted to buy. If you refuse to transact any business in Turkey’s black-market economy out of principle, you won’t even get out of the airport. Estimates vary about its size, but Erdoğan recently suggested it represents half the Turkish economy, and I’d be surprised if that weren’t an under-estimate.
In a perfect world, no one would have to support herself by standing in the middle of a busy freeway ducking 18-wheelers and selling roses, but one thing we know for sure is that this is not a perfect world. Given that she was standing in the middle of a busy freeway selling roses–hard, honest work, if not safe and well-remunerated work–surely it’s better for me to support her entrepreneurial efforts than to take a principled stand against her working conditions? Even if she only sees a small percentage of what I gave her, it’s something, right? I very much doubt she’d do that if it didn’t result in her kids being fed, at least.
Besides, she was lovely. The exchange made us both laugh. I came home with three dozen beautiful roses, and she was presumably able to knock off work for the day. Also, I find innately repulsive the suggestion that all Roma must either be thieves or working with them. She was working, not stealing, and working harder than most of us ever have.
I’m right about this, aren’t I?
Oh, another small thing of some cultural interest: My friend’s other objection was that the roses were “overpriced.” This is interesting. Turkish commercial culture retains the spirit of the bazaar, in which there is an underlying assumption that goods have a correct, natural price. I of course immediately relieved myself of a lecture about the function of prices and how they convey information about supply and demand. If I was willing to buy the roses for 20 lira and she was willing to sell them for 20 lira, that’s the right price–there can be no other meaningful definition. About that, I’m sure I’m right.
But that’s by the by. Turkish friend has been offered a copy of Free to Choose. The main question is: By conveying to her information about the demand for roses on that stretch of freeway (surprisingly high!), did I encourage her to keep working in a dangerous and illegal industry and support organized crime? Is this more like buying cocaine from a street dealer, in other words, or more like supporting your local hard-working, up-by-the-bootstraps greengrocer?