Eskicis -- making one man’s trash another man’s treasure

Junkyard manager Mevlüt Çavuş's job has even once landed Emir Altıngöller in a police station.

May 22, 2011, Sunday/ 19:39:00

You may have heard men passing by your street pushing large hand carts, yelling out “Eskici!” What they do is collect old items from a neighborhood; but just how they make a living this way is somewhat of an enigma. So we decided to talk to these eskicis and hear their stories. The more we listened the more we were surprised. There are those among them who had made TL 17,000 in a day and those who have been questioned at the police department due to a rocket launcher they pulled out of the trash.

During our childhood there were eskicis who would frequent our neighborhood. They would buy iron and sell copper. And when children would misbehave, parents would say “I’m going to give you away to the eskici.” It feels like we don’t see them as frequently as we used to and we can’t tell if this is because we simply stopped paying attention to them, or they stopped practicing this line of work.

Emir Altıngöller is 34 years old. He came to İstanbul from Aksaray after finishing elementary school. His story is similar to many who arrive in İstanbul, of trying to making a living. His elders gave him a cart and said, “With this cart you’ll travel the streets and gather used items. Call out ‘Eskici!’ as you go along.” This is how he began his line of work approximately 20 years ago. Nowadays he lives in Sarıyer and he has three children aged 10, 11 and 13. He picks up used stoves, fridges, water heaters and washing machines -- he is just like the 500 other people living in this area and making a living as eskicis.

Altıngöller grabs his cart at 10 a.m. and heads out for work. After scavenging the streets for five or six hours and gathering used objects, he heads for the depot by his house. While unloading things such as stoves, refrigerators, washing machines and other heavy items from his cart, his wife Mükerrem helps him. We ask her whether she finds this difficult, but she says it’s something she really enjoys. Here, in the depot, Altıngöller becomes better acquainted with his goods as he disassembles them and sells the pieces to junk dealers. “I may have very well disassembled at least 500 fridges and washing machines until today,” he explains. He buys and sells goods by the kilogram. He buys for 40 kuruş and sells for 60 kuruş. He tells us his earnings can vary because there will be days when he makes only TL 10 and days when he makes TL 100. There are times when his total monthly earnings are only TL 500. He is thankful and content with his lot because he says he appreciates being self-employed.

‘I ended up in the police station’

We ask Altıngöller whether he has interesting memories to share with us. Chuckling, he shares the following story with us: “I had never set foot inside a police station until something incredible happened. One day my wife and younger daughter saw something metal lying next to a trash bin, so they brought it home thinking that it would be of use to me. When I saw the item I realized that it was a rocket launcher. I thought about what to do with it. If realized that if I had wanted to dispose of it, it had my fingerprints on it, so I went to a police station in İstinye and explained what had happened. That was around 10 p.m. when they took me in for questioning and each person that came in kept asking me the same questions and I kept giving the same answer. It really became tiring after a while. When I finally got home it was 4 a.m. It turns out that while I was at the police station, my neighborhood was teaming with police. The police had blown up the trash bin to see if there were any other pieces in it. The next day an undercover police officer questioned me again.”

Altıngöller puts many of the items he collects he puts into good use at home. He repairs some items while others are still functioning. The television, computer, cassette player and fridge he uses in his home are all items he has found. He explains, “In the past, a washing machine that broke down would be repaired.” But things have changed. “Nowadays people prefer to pay TL 500 for a new one instead of paying TL 200 to have it repaired.” Even so, he says he earns far less than he used to. He suspects that more people may be working as eskicis due to unemployment, and he gives himself 10 more years in the business. What will happen in another decade? “God is most generous,” he says, and he adds that he will find sustenance somehow.

17 billion lira in an hour

A junkyard in Sarıyer is a source of employment for nine people. For five of them, it is also their home. This is where they work, eat and rest at night. It’s quite the place to live, with so much clutter everywhere including iron and copper items, cables, light bulbs, faucets and broken televisions. Mevlüt Çavuş is the manager of this junkyard and he came to İstanbul in 1980 at the age of 5. He began working before having even set foot inside a primary school. He tells us he has been doing this type of work for 15 years, and pays TL 750 in rent at this depot where he lives. He has seven children and two of his sons work with him. He says that his 5-year-old son, Yunus Emre, will also work in this field. He is very happy with his line of work and believes that it is addictive in a way. He says he is elated when he finds antique items. He sells some for very high prices and keeps others for himself.

When he tells us about an experience which makes his eyes glisten with joy -- but of course, the sun reflecting off the glass and other items in the yard do add to his sparkle. “A priest from a church in Yeniköy called me to pick up some boxes, so I went and cleaned up the church. When I returned to the depot I discovered that silver statue weighing 8.5 kilograms and a candleholder in one of the boxes. I sold them for 17 billion lira [equivalent to TL 17,000 today] I went out and bought myself a Citroen car. We come across surprises like this from time to time in our profession,” he says. Çavuş spends his entire day sorting and collecting items at this depot. He then weighs the paper, plastic and metal goods and pays for them. When his cart fills up he takes it to another junk yard and sells it there. These goods are then loaded on to a truck and sent to a factory. While explaining that he loves what he does, he takes a radio out of the closet, which he explains is 80 years old. He bought it from another junkyard for TL 50. He tells us that someone offered to buy it from him for TL 150 but he couldn’t bring himself to sell it.

Thirty-five-year-old Murat Ayduda is another employee who lives at the depot. His family lives in a village in Aksaray, so he spends winters in İstanbul and summers in the village. He has been doing this for the last 20 years. It is difficult living in a junkyard and this 150-square-meter area he calls home is heated by a furnace. The men living here take turns to prepare meals and they dine together like a family. When we ask Ayduda about his earnings he says he is grateful for what he has. He explains that business wasn’t too good roughly three years ago and that the value of a kilogram of iron was equivalent to a piece of gum. He tells us that back then, things were rough: “People were throwing iron into the trash and so was I. But things started to get better just a few months ago.” Nowadays his concern is the increasing interest in the profession. “Back in the day there was only one junkyard in a city, but nowadays there’s a few in every neighborhood.” This naturally affects their earning ability. In spite of everything, Ayduda says, “I’m happy.”