The driver, Mehmet Bey, drove me to Mahmutköy early the next morning, weaving in and out of traffic with no apparent regard for the incredibly violent bouts of coughing that racked his body every few minutes. I have never seen someone with such a philosophical attitude toward such a terrible cough. All day, whenever he would park and get out of the car, he would immediately lit a cigarette, sometimes only managing two or three drags before we reached whatever building we were headed to and he had to throw it out.
At the central FedEx depot, before I had identified myself in any way, I was greeted by an official as “the writer.” (“Wow, you guys know everything!” I exclaimed in alarm, to which he cryptically replied: “It’s easy when you have the Internet.”) My job at FedEx was basically to sit in a chair and sign a lot of forms, and then they gave me a huge pile of papers and Mehmet Bey drove us to the airport. There I signed more forms, paid someone $150, and, having been escorted through a series of increasingly-important looking offices, found myself standing before the desk of a purple-faced official.
“Don’t let him out of your sight!” the purple-faced man was shouting into the telephone. “What he’s doing is clear to no one. First he says, ‘I’m a businessman.’ Then he says, ‘No, sir, those are my own belongings, I’m an artist, sir, a musician, I play the davul.’ Keep him under the closest observation, from the minute he enters. What? No, you can’t miss him—a long-haired type.”
He slammed down the telephone, glared at me, opened a dossier that had been placed on his desk and, to my astonishment, produced a piece of paper in my handwriting: the packing form I had filled out back at Jensen’s Mail & Copy in San Francisco. It was strangely touching to see it here, halfway across the world. As it turned out, this document was the source of all my problems: because it contained the text “Commercial Shipping Invoice” and referred to a payment of $550, the purple-faced man had concluded that my suitcase contained commercial goods with a resale value of $550, and was thus subject to $400 import tax and $200 penalties. When I tried to tell him how far it was from my plans to sell anyone my towels, he kept interrupting and pointing at the word “commercial.” “’Commercial’! ‘Commercial’! Why has Jensen written this, if these items aren’t intended for sale?”
Stepping back a moment from the scene, it occurred to me how remarkable it was that fate had brought me face to face in this way with the author of my bureaucratic troubles. All too often, such struggles just wind to an end without you ever finding out what the deal was, or what human interest was concealed in the heart of the machine. And the nature of such ordeals is that, by the end, you don’t care anymore, anyway. What a rare treat then for me, as a writer, to actually meet my secret opponent, and to thereby be able to contextualize my own particular situation within the broader field of human activity—within, for example, the life-story of a purple-faced man whose mission was to shut down smugglers, and who believed that I was trying to sell my used towels to the Turkish people without paying import taxes.