Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013 - 1 comment

The Milk Man Cometh

Where I come from, “thou shalt not audibly impose yourself on your neighbour” is something of an unstated rule.  Loud mufflers, honking instead of knocking on the front door when picking up a date, and causing someone else’s house to vibrate and shudder while you party til all hours are considered bad form.  Shared air is quiet air.  The tinny melody of “The Entertainer”  - that summertime anthem that causes kids to drop what they’re doing, raid their piggy banks (or their parents’ pockets) and run for the ice cream truck - is one of the few welcome exceptions.

But in many parts of the world, what might be considered “noise pollution” somewhere else is simply “the music of life.”  

When I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, I always listened for the sound of the trash collector ringing his bell con gusto as he made his rounds.  (It was a sound you depended on - no garbage collection if you missed him!)  The water guy, too, had his own distinctive call - a very nasal, “Aguaaaaa!  Agua, señooooor!”  When I spent a summer teaching English in China, the patriotic music and exuberant counting of “Yi, er, san si!” blaring over the loudspeakers of the school next door as the kids did their morning exercises made for a reliable, if not slightly irritating, alarm clock.  And here in Turkey, as in much of this part of the world, the ezan, or call to prayer, denotes the rhythm of the day for both those who rely on it as a cue to perform religious duties and for those, like myself, for whom it is simply a familiar part of the soundtrack of our everyday lives. 

In my neighbourhood, as well as pretty much every other neighbourhood around the country, yelling or playing music from a loudspeaker on top of a vehicle are perfectly acceptable forms of advertising.  And while I can’t always understand what’s being said (due more to garbled speakers than my lack of language), I’ve always found the “mobile marketplace” aspect of life here rather entertaining.

Several times a day, men will roll down our street pushing carts piled high with recyclable materials and “old things” yelling, “Eskiciiiiiiii” (“Collector of old thiiiiings”) or “Hurdacı, hurdacı, hurdacııııııı!!! (Junk mannnnnn!!!!)  Then there are the “portable carpet fixing vans” that play their spiel about sewing up frayed edges “on the spot.”  (I’ve lugged a carpet out and used their services before - quite the experience!)  Depending on the time of year, the watermelon man and the onion man make their regular rounds. For the months leading up to an election, campaign-mobiles troll the streets blaring catchy tunes about the candidates and inviting people to rallies.  Even the guy who delivers our gas and bottled water has a jazzy theme song.

Perhaps my favourite “commercial on wheels” is the one played by a van that seems to show up mostly on weekend afternoons.  A chipper, almost game show-worthy male voice proclaims, “Attention, attention!  Great deals are here!  Great deals have arrived in your neighbourhood!  Come uncle!  Come auntie!  Come sister!”  For all his promotional exuberance, I half expect the vehicle to be filled with exotic circus animals instead of just bath mats and clothespins.

Recently, another itinerant salesman has joined the ranks.  We have a new milk man.  I say “we” in the loose sense of the word, since I have yet to purchase anything from him.  (My neighbours are forever extolling the glories of fresh milk, but “It smells like a cow” is not a positive attribute in my books, and since I am too lazy for the whole “cook it before you drink it” process, I stick to the long-life stuff in cartons from the supermarket up the road.)

My ears were first introduced to the sound of the milk man early one recent sunshiny morning as I sat on my balcony having my quiet time.  The air was silent, except for the distant sound of hammers clanging at a construction site, the twittering of a few birds and the rustle of the leaves of the grapevine below me, when suddenly the stillness was pierced by a rather long blast of a car horn coming from our complex’ parking lot.  

Now, around here, horns are used rather more liberally than they are back home - as a part of a wedding celebration or to indicate that a light is about to turn green and you’d best get a move on, for example - so at first I ignored it.  But it quickly became apparent that this particular horn was meant to get the attention of everyone within earshot when it was followed by a shout of, “Sütçüüüüüü!!!  Sütçü geldi!”  I leaned over the balcony to see a middle aged man sporting a moustache and a beret leaning out the window of a shiny white car alternately honking and yelling, “Milk maaaaaan!   The milk man is here!”

Feeling irked at this violation of my beloved morning peace, I turned back to my book.  But this was no drive-by-seller.  After a few more taps on his horn, he got out of the car and began to walk up and down the paths between the houses, announcing his presence.  

Aggressive, I thought, as he continued to call out every few steps or so.  Maybe it’s just because he’s new and he’s trying to drum up business.

When he made his way past our house, he called up to me, “Sister, do you need any milk?”  I thanked him and told him I didn’t, and (to my relief) he moved on without pushing.  

I never actually saw anyone come out and buy any milk that day, but he must have assumed that our complex was a good fishing pond, cuz two days later, there he was again with his horn and his bottles of milk.  

In the weeks that followed, I found my normally patient self getting increasingly irritated each time I saw that little white car pull in or heard the milk man announce his arrival.  Did he really need to honk his horn first thing in the morning?  And if people really were buying his milk, couldn’t he just go straight to their doors and knock instead of disrupting everyone’s breakfast with his yelling?

I find the shouts and ditties of all the other sellers charming, but somehow this one got under my skin.  I think it was because everyone else says their bit from out in the street, and if no customers come out, they move on.  But this man’s tactic felt invasive, like some kind of audio-trespassing.

Then one day, I was moaning to my roommate about how rude I thought the milk man was and how I had to forgive him on a thrice weekly basis, and she said something that completely changed the way I looked at the situation.  

“What if,” she said, “the reason he doesn’t go knock directly on his customers’ doors is because he knows that the men are already at work, and he doesn’t want to bring shame upon the women or make them uncomfortable by standing on their stoop when he knows they are alone?”  

Well.  That was something I hadn’t thought of.

It amazes me that I have lived in this country for seven years now and supposedly know a thing or two about how the culture works, and yet can be so clueless about what’s really going on underneath.  Of course I know that everything is connected to a person’s honour, and that appearances are more important than what’s really going on.  And it’s true, those jokes about kids who look more like the milk man than their father must have been rooted in a bit of truth somewhere.  But sometimes I feel the daily outworking of the whole “honour-shame society” thing is still an area where I’ve just barely scratched the surface.

Maybe our milk man isn’t rude and inconsiderate at all, but is actually the exact opposite.  Maybe he’s simply a man of honour who values not giving the appearance of evil over not waking up the neighbourhood.  Maybe by announcing his presence from a distance, he's giving the women who want to buy milk the chance to come out with their empty bottles and fill them in plain sight instead of opening themselves up to gossip.

It turns out I still have a lot to learn.

I still buy my milk in a carton, and I still don’t see the need for the horn, but I'm happy to say I no longer have to repent for my attitude when I hear the words, “The milk man is here!”