Uluç Ülgen invites total strangers to his home for intimate one-on-one conversations.
Uluç Ülgen. All photos via www.mürmer.com.
With the possible exception of certain work-from-home professionals whose clients are disposed, for one reason or another, to assume reclining positions, Uluç Ülgen has likely invited more strangers into his apartment than any other resident of New York City. Ülgen, originally from Turkey, is the founder, host, and producer of mürmur, a podcast he records in his one-bedroom Manhattan rental. To find guests, he hangs flyers from phone poles with his name, phone number, and address beside an open invitation.
Unless it appears at the beginning of a sentence, the m in mürmur goes uncapitalized, a convention that reflects Ülgen’s egalitarian worldview. The podcast, which has aired 170 episodes since February 2015, has no topical theme. In fact, Ülgen actively discourages visitors from having anything particular in mind to talk about when they show up. In April 2015, a man named Sean Walker told Ülgen about his path from the honor roll to homelessness. A few weeks later, Jordan Theodore stopped by to talk about the year he spent watching a thousand movies. Another time, a woman named Flo remembered giving birth alone during the 2003 blackout.
In the popular tradition of eccentric endeavors, the podcast was conceived during a dark period in its creator’s life. Relatively new to New York, Ülgen had become frustrated. He had failed to bring longstanding musical ambitions to fruition and felt unlucky in love. Reflecting that in his bleakest moments—lacking food, money, or shelter—he’d often been helped along by people he barely knew, he resolved to create a platform that would facilitate meaningful interactions between strangers.
At first, somewhat understandably, guests were few. To spread the word, Ülgen enlisted the help of Dan Perino, a man who had attracted tabloid attention for hanging flyers of his own, advertising his interest in finding a girlfriend. (Perino reportedly achieved considerable promiscuity, if not enduring love.) Now, so many people contact Ülgen to appear on mürmur that he struggles to meet demand between the shifts he works as a waiter at a Manhattan restaurant.
Some mürmur guests arrive at Ülgen’s apartment near-broken—lonely, addicted, aggrieved. Others want to unburden themselves. Many are merely curious. Quite a few are used to being turned out, or away. “All the time, people who are homeless or on drugs show up,” Ülgen told me. “They want to tell their stories. They want their voices to be heard. I’m not going to deny anybody because of the fact that I feel they might be a suspicious character.”
I got to know Ülgen a few months ago, after spotting one of his ads not far from my apartment. His project seemed intriguing and brave, if also possibly ill advised, and on a recent afternoon, I arranged to meet him at his building in Alphabet City. His third-floor walk-up is dim and tidy, with two sofas, a (mostly) decorative hammock, two leather chairs, a terraced glass coffee table stuffed with paperbacks, and a lofted bed. Incense perfumes the air. But for the recording equipment and ranks of vinyl records, the vibe would be vaguely bedouin. At twenty-seven, Ülgen is unobtrusively handsome, with a medium build, thick eyebrows, and dark hair now mostly gone silver—an effect frequently mistaken for affectation. He speaks with a slight accent.
Despite the diversity of his guests, Ülgen tends to circle similar themes in each episode. He’s particularly concerned with the relationship between authenticity, vulnerability, and interpersonal connection. That these subjects are not especially novel doesn’t prevent him from eliciting reflections that are moving and often funny—or from free-associating on them in winning style himself. He tacks swiftly from high to low—between pondering the challenges of monogamy and frankly lascivious banter about blowjobs. In this, his sensibility can recall Louis C. K.’s; Ülgen shares his probing, experimental, occasionally blundering style.
In an episode recorded last summer with Dennis Nolte, a fortysomething tourist from Holland, he finds a kindred spirit. Some years ago, Nolte quit an office job to travel the Netherlands by bus, a vehicle that doubles as an art project. Making frequent stops, he invites people to write down their dreams on slips of paper and deposit them in the bus. It’s a footloose lifestyle that has enabled him to duck long-term relationships, which he fears might hamper his freedom.
Early in their conversation, Ülgen lewdly suggests that Nolte might have other motives for his reluctance to commit, and for a moment Nolte appears derailed from a story he has recited before. Then he turns thoughtful. “I created this life for myself because I knew this was the way that I could be meaningful,” he concludes. “For myself and others.” Discussion shifts to the death of his father, and to Ülgen’s erratic relationship with his own dad. The intimacy the two men achieve in the course of an hour is startling.
One problem with an open-door policy, of course, is that many guests are less willing than Nolte to wrangle with the issues that interest Ülgen. Though his audience is modest, he has suffered no shortage of self-promoters. As a remedy—after several dozen episodes marked by self-involved monologues—he adopted an often abrasive on-air personality. Otherwise earnest and upbeat, Ülgen can be peevish with guests. Without knowing much about what they do for a living, he will criticize their work. He accuses people of pretension. Speaking to young adults, he asks who pays for their housing or cell phones.
Ülgen is unconcerned by the fact that such moments do not necessarily endear him to listeners. And the irony—of his having to assume a character to achieve what he considers to be an honest exchange—isn’t lost on him. “I’m more provocative than I usually am, but that doesn’t mean it’s insincere,” he said. “It’s like improv, in a way, when you get that genuine reaction—whether someone is appalled or laughing hysterically.” When it’s effective, his surliness acts as an astringent, scrubbing away the small talk strangers use to guard themselves. “To reach the place that I want to get to, I may be exaggerating certain parts of myself. I have to force the two of us to get out of that gray zone.”
When he was nine, Ülgen moved with his mother from Istanbul to Rochester, Minnesota. The change was jarring. Turkey had been warm and vibrant, and though Rochester makes regular appearances on “Best Cities” lists, Ülgen found it cold, isolating. In Turkey, he’d been popular with his classmates. At his new school, he couldn’t even communicate. By early adulthood, he still hadn’t acclimated, and after three years at a local college, he dropped out and began working graveyard shifts at a gas station. His relationship with his mother and stepfather grew strained. In his free time, he often watched Woody Allen films. He had never been to New York, but Allen’s films made the city seem to him like the place he belonged. And yet, life there appeared semi-fantastical—as though it could belong only to other people.
Then something semi-fantastical happened to him. One day at the YMCA gym, Ülgen met Lester Lynch, an opera singer in town from New York. Over the course of a week, they became friendly. Lynch is originally from the Midwest. He seemed to see something of himself in Ülgen, and invited him to move to New York to work as his assistant. He said he would cover Ülgen’s flight, put him up in his apartment, and pay him a stipend.
Ülgen agreed, but after less than two months, he and Lynch had a falling out. (They’ve since reconciled.) Ülgen scrambled to find work, bouncing between apartments in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. Though he was in a dire state of limbo, he loved New York—its noise and color, its mix of people—just as he’d imagined he would. He was struck, too, by the consistent generosity of people he did not know. Some employed him in restaurant positions for which he was unqualified. Others invited him to share their apartments.
Still, even as strangers opened their lives to him, Ülgen felt unable to open up himself—a handicap that seemed to stifle meaningful relationships. About two years ago—soon before he launched mürmur—a nascent romance disintegrated, and Ülgen embarked on a trip that he regards, in retrospect, as suicidally reckless. Without telling his family, he flew to Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the Syrian border, about sixty miles from Aleppo. From the airport, he caught a ride with a group of men who had come to pick up the elderly Syrian man who’d sat beside him on the plane. Ülgen could communicate with them only slightly. In the car, when they began shouting in Arabic, he grew nervous, but on parting, he and the men exchanged hugs.
He traveled by bus through border towns that had become violent as the war in Syria intensified. In transit, he listened to Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF. In the towns, reputedly some of the most dangerous in the world, he often met people who asked whether he needed help, and invited him to share their meals. A few hours after midnight one morning in Gaziantep, Ülgen sat on the street crying. Five garbagemen approached and sat down. They passed cigarettes between them and spoke to one another in Arabic. Then, after perhaps ten minutes of silence, they stood, patted Ülgen on the back, and walked away. Ülgen felt deeply moved—inspired. “That was a turning point,” he told me.
The most powerful episode of mürmur I have heard features Gregor Lopes, a young gay man recently arrived in New York from Florida. Lopes is deaf. Early in the conversation, he and Ülgen bond over a remembered fondness for Tom and Jerry, whose slapstick antics don’t require that viewers hear—or understand—English. Lopes asks Ülgen to turn on a light, so that he can better see the words Ülgen’s lips are forming. Ülgen closes a window to dampen the buzz of a chainsaw outside, which first perplexes, then amuses Lopes.
Lopes requires none of Ülgen’s customary prodding. His parents are immigrants, he says, and they have often been abusive. Neither ever bothered to learn sign language. His father understands only Portuguese, and they communicate haphazardly. Since he came out, at fifteen or sixteen, his parents have alternated between aggression and pretended ignorance. His mother, he says, once menaced him with a kitchen knife; another time, his father forced his hands into a heated oven, to suggest what would happen to him if he didn’t repent.
Lopes came to New York to escape—to be allowed to be himself. At the time of the interview, he is homeless, living in emergency housing. “I have a place to sleep and feel safe,” he says. “But it’s not really mine.” Rules require lights out at eleven. The other residents of the facility do not understand sign language, but here, where fights between tenants are common, it’s a blessing. Lopes doesn’t talk. He doesn’t let on that he reads lips, and his neighbors leave him alone.
“I have a lot,” he tells Ülgen, his voice raw. “People underestimate me.” Ülgen, seemingly overwhelmed by his guest’s emotion, is quieter than usual, content to provide Lopes a vessel. “I don’t have my own world,” Lopes says. “I hated learning speech. I had to go to speech therapy for five years to learn how to talk like this.” Though speech allows him to interact, it remains difficult to judge the nature of that interaction. “I can’t even hear myself,” he continues. “I don’t know how I’m doing.”
Chris Pomorski is a writer living in New York.
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