Istanbul’s All-Night Mechanics

On repairing an alternator in the wee hours

By / November 2013

It happened as I eased my hilariously underpowered (85HP), candy-apple red Fiat Doblo through the tollbooth and into the gridlock that is any-hour Istanbul. Full stop. No power. No crank. Who pays any attention to a dashboard warning light? “Alternator,” I breathed, my shoulders sinking. The bald mustached driver behind me managed to thrust his entire torso out of the window of his truck to make sure I heard him, “Get out of the way! Just pull up a little bit!” I shouted back, “Brother, I’m trying but it’s completely dead!” The chorus of horns behind us helped me think quickly. Mustache and I jumped out of our vehicles and pushed my tall boxy mini-wagon onto the shoulder.

Now what? I opened the hood and the back hatch thinking people might understand my car was broken down. I sprinted across five lanes of angry headlights toward the traffic police building. It was after 11 p.m. but there were lights on so I was hopeful. I bust through the door. Three prototypical Turkish policemen–young, clean cut, with black gelled hair — sat behind a desk. “Can you help me, my car is dead out there on the highway?” I spit between breaths. After a beat, they looked up from their newspapers to size me up through narrowed eyes. “Where is your car?” This one had perfected a disinterested tone of voice. “Right there,” I motioned through the window. Now I was squinting through the window. A municipal tow-truck was already lumbering in the darkness across the lanes of heavy traffic toward my wreck.

By the time the policeman and I arrived at the scene of the disabled Doblo, the tow truck driver already had his flat-bed angled down to the front of my tires. The cop laid out the next several hours of my life with the nuance of a drill instructor. “Just so you know,” he said, “the towing will be 100 lira. They will take you to an all-night garage. Your car will be fixed and you’ll be on your way.” More instructions from the tow truck driver had me back in my car with the gears in neutral as I steered it up the ramp, aiming for the winch in the middle. Parked up high on the truck, the driver stopped me as I began to climb down from my car. “If you’re not scared you can just ride up there,” he said. “It’s not dangerous?” I stated in the form of a question. “Of course not,” he assured me. And off we went, the amber emergency lights flashing. I felt as if I were on a parade float, on uncomfortable display, ten feet off the ground.

Photograph by Danley Shackelford

We exited toward a lower-class neighborhood on the wrong side of the highway from the Ikea. The trucker wound through narrow streets around short concrete buildings and past a looming mosque before stopping in front of a dark four-story apartment complex. A lonely light illuminated the first floor. The tow truck driver wasted no time dumping the Doblo out front. I poked my head into the cab of the tow truck to settle up. It cost 240 TL, double the price expected. The aforementioned 100 TL, he explained, was for a tow to the side of the road. “If you actually want us to take it somewhere, well, that’s extra,” he said. “Think of it like a taxi.” I was certain the tow wouldn’t be the last overcharge of the night.

Out of the dimly lit two-bay garage stepped Mustafa Cakir. The 43-year-old mechanic sported flip-flops, a green tank top and a pair of grease-black capris. His bloodshot eyes were still sharp under his charcoal hair. “We’ll take care of this for you,” he mumbled around his cigarette as he pushed past me toward the Doblo. “I think it’s the alternator,” I declared to the back of his head. He jacked up the car and disappeared under the chassis. I watched for a minute then decided to step inside. The tacky pitch floor pulled at the soles of my leather lace-ups. I stepped over a broken Renault hubcap, a disconnected hydraulic, hose and puddles of fluid (antifreeze?). Toward the back of the garage, just past a bright red Jeep CJ-8, there was a white plastic chair under a bare fluorescent light, where I hoped I wouldn’t be spending the rest of the night. Hand tools more black than silver covered the wall above two metal work tables. The tool cart nearest me was equipped with wrenches, some broken bolts, and a plate with a ball of cellophane that I figured had once held Mustafa’s spicy kebab dinner. One of his two Kurdish workers nodded at me from under the hood of a Nissan sedan with Austria plates. I could almost taste the metal.

I replied to emails on my iPhone for the next 20 minutes as an impact wrench sounded off like a machine gun a few meters away. I was prepared for this to take a long time, but what were we talking about here? An hour? Two hours? Six? I left my white plastic perch and directed the question to Mustafa’s capri-ed legs once more. “How is it looking?” I said. “You were right,” he replied. “Alternator. Shouldn’t be a problem.” It sounded easy enough. I looked around the cluttered shop. Would they have the part in stock? Mustafa assured me he would just send one of his guys out to the parts store and pick one up. I looked at my watch. 12.27 a.m. “No problem,” he said. “We know the guys. I’ll call him, they’ll open up and give us the part. The store is right near here.” He jerked his pointy chin toward the dark lifeless neighborhood I had seen from the tow truck.

Photograph by Danley Shackelford

Half an hour later a green sedan lurched to a stop in front of the shop as recklessly as it had left. Adnan, one of the younger mechanics, had returned from the parts store still holding my broken alternator. He went straight to the back of the shop to quietly discuss the situation with Mustafa. I walked toward the men to get an update. Mustafa was calm. He had seen all of this before. “He wasn’t able to wake the owner of the shop,” he said. “No problem. I’ve got another guy in Fourth Levent who will definitely open up and give us a new alternator.”

As a six-year resident of the Asian side of Istanbul, I had always done everything possible to avoid traveling to the European side of the city. At any hour of the day, there could be multi-hour traffic jams. Fifteen million people and it often felt like every one of them drove a car on the 2,600 year old city’s roads. Fourth Levent was indeed on the European side and not just right across the Bosphorus Bridge either. I calculated another 1.5 hours on this now potentially all night adventure. I looked at Mustafa, who seemed to be smoking the same smoldering cigarette as he had been an hour prior. Thinking, I glanced over at the white plastic chair, then my watch. The real possibility of an all-nighter made the tiredness weigh on my body. Mustafa could see I was considering something. “What if we did it like this,” I began.

Twenty minutes later the taxi driver braked hard in front of my apartment building. He thanked me for the tip as I slid out of the blue backseat. The last image through my head before I fell asleep not five minutes later was of the white plastic chair in the filthy garage, a fate I was all too happy to have escaped, if only till the morning.

The next day, I stepped off the bus and entered a different world. The apartments were sun-washed. The mosque shiny and alive. The garage, however, looked identical. The two Kurdish guys were still pulling on stuck bolts under the Austrian Nissan’s hood. The Doblo was parked in the alley and was ready to go. I peeled off several hundred Turkish Lira for Mustafa. It was not as much of a gouging as I had expected. Mustafa was in the same green tank top and capris as before. He mumbled through his cigarette stub to come back and drink tea with him some time. In Istanbul, it would seem, sleep is only for lazybones like me.

Ryan Wolf is a writer and photographer living in Istanbul.