I am not entirely sure why, but I feel led to write a story about shoes. It really isn’t because I am an avatar for Imelda Marcos; I don’t have two hundred pairs of shoes in my closet. In fact, I have one pair to work in, one pair to run around in one pair for weddings and funerals, and some sandals. Shoes have had some interesting impacts on my life however, so I suppose that they deserve their fifteen minutes of fame, or at least a moment in the sun.
And a moment is the most that I can give them, at least as regards my early years, exactly because of the sun. I was born and raised in San Diego where, unlike my current home in Washington State, the sun tends to come out. Because of this happy phenomenon my neighborhood friends and I rarely wore shoes. School, church, and the occasional piano recital or some such event were the only times we allowed the noisome things to imprison our leathery dogs which barked to be free.
This fact, of course, led to a predictable slew of inconvenient and painful events. Glass was always lurking in vacant lots or city streets looking to see who’s foot might be sliced open, and the dreaded stubbed toe was frequently the payoff for running or bicycling or even inattentive walking. Buried fires at the beach would get your attention in a hurry and grounded bees and doggie doodoo in the grass at the neighborhood park were always a real crowd pleaser. Still, the risk was worth the reward. Cuts could be stitched up, stubs could be babied, burns salved and bandaged and doodoo washed off. We lived for the feel of our bare feet on the grass and sand and asphalt that made up the surface of our corner of the world.
There were however times when the shoes had to go on, and in order to cover both formal and informal occasions we had leather and athletic shoes to cover our feet. Buying these shoes was always an adventure. My mother would take my brother and I to the Buster Brown shoe store whenever old shoes simply could no longer contain our growing feet. We were not a rich family and purchases of clothing and shoes had to wait until there was no wiggle room left. I consequently looked part of the time like an overstuffed sausage. When it was no longer to be endured, away we would go to Sears or Penny’s to buy our clothing and to Buster Brown to get our shoes.
I was always excited to get new shoes because I hate having my feet cramped and confined. This is why to this day I kick my shoes off when I travel in a car and used to when I traveled in an airplane. The latter has produced some awkward moments in the aftermath of the ‘shoe bomber’. I once had a passenger point me out to a flight attendant who asked me the point of shedding my footwear. I explained my comfort-driven action and pointed out that the Shoe Bomber attempted to light his Converses while they were still on his feet. This answer satisfied the flight attendant, but I have made it a habit to travel in sandals ever since.
The salesman at Buster Brown was a true professional, and he fussed and fluttered and carried on over my feet to get just the right match. He would pull out his tape measure and check the circumference of my feet at their midpoint. Then he would break out something that looked like the deck of an aircraft carrier that I would stand on one foot at a time. This device had moving parts which would slide up and down and side to side to measure the length and width and every angle of my feet. The salesman would then disappear behind a curtain and then reappear like the Wizard of Oz with a half-dozen boxes under his arms. We would try them all on until the right pair in all the store were resting comfortably on my feet.
This was not the end of the process however. The final test came when I would walk to a machine that resembled one of the old upright scales which, for a penny, would give you your weight and tell your fortune. This device, however, had a slot at the base into which I would stick my feet, and a screen on the top of it into which I would look while I turned on the X-rays. Yes, X-rays. On the screen, which glowed an eerie green, would appear the bones of my feet and the outline of the toes resting within the outline of the shoes. Of course we could feel how much more comfortable our new shoes were than the old models, but it was so much fun to ram our feet into that machine and expose them to more radiation than was received by Hiroshima! People simply didn’t know about the dangers of such things in that early part of the nuclear era, which would explain the radium dials on our bedside clocks that enabled us to read the time in the dead of night. It’s a wonder that everyone my age doesn’t glow in the dark.
One of the times that I had to wear the leather dress shoes was at Sunday School. My family went to church only in my ninth or tenth year, and the summer of that year was pure misery. We would have to sit on hard chairs in the unventilated Sunday School room for an hour while our teachers told us Bible stories, illustrated by the ubiquitous flannel figures which seemed magically to cling to a board covered with some sort of fabric, and led us in the usual familiar songs. I hardly remember a bit of it. That summer was one in which I was outgrowing my shoes, and nearly all I can remember is the agony of feet stuffed so tightly into my shoes that I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. I sat in that chair and changed the position of my feet, untied the shoe laces, stared at the clock and tried to hold my breath for a full minute (I never was able to do that), in short I did anything and everything that I could get away with to distract my attention from the unrelenting torture that my feet were undergoing. Unfortunately, nothing succeeded in granting succor to my aching pups except exiting that building and peeling those shoes off as fast as I could. We would all walk home together; me with my little grey jacket and pants, my tie, and my shoes with the socks stuffed in them tied together and dangling from my hand.
As I grew older shoes began to take a new place in my life. The schools of San Diego were like any other in that social and cultural divisions existed. Before the advent of surfing as a cultural distinguisher the dominant social divisions, in my schools at least, was between the “Soashes” and the “S.A.’s”. I really don’t know if ‘soash’ has ever been properly spelled; heaven knows I just made this spelling up out of thin air. The best way to communicate the proper sound is to take the word ‘social’ and leave the ‘al’ off. The name came from a description of the members of that group as socialites, or preppy, sort of, or into climbing up the social ladder. These were the kids who were usually better off economically and wanted to play sports and date a cheerleader or even the homecoming queen. One very obvious identifier of that group was their white tennis shoes, or ‘tennies’ as they were then called.
The opposing group was the S.A.’s. I have no idea where that name came from either, but it may be something that Spanish speakers started: “Hey, Ese” some would say to others as a greeting, and ‘Ese’ in Spanish sounds like S.A. I really don’t know if that was the origin or if it was something else. What I do know is that S.A.’s were thought by Soashes to be hoodlums, and they they were not wrong by much. The S.A.’s usually wore khaki pants and white button-down shirts with the tails out and James Dean hair styles, but they always wore hard, pointed black leather shoes which they called ‘knobs. The reason for that name was because if you got into a fight and had a clean shot you would try to plant that hard, sharp pointed shoe in your opponent’s, well, knobs.
I grew up in an S.A. neighborhood but secretly hated knobs, and although I owned a pair for use when necessity dictated, I preferred to wear a pair of dark canvass tennis shoes if I wore shoes at all. Keds, I think they were. I would hang out at the park or my friends’ houses, or even at the houses of my brother’s friends, and be safe because my tennies were dark and I was ‘Freddie’s Little Brother’. My brother had a very good pair of knobs and was experienced in using them. It is a valuable thing to have a pugnacious and respected older brother. When called upon I could produce the required khakies and white shirt and knobs and do my best hard guy imitation to acceptable neighborhood standards, whether I liked it or not.
It could be a very bad thing to be walking in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong style of shoes. Far better that you be wearing no shoes at all. Whole neighborhoods were set apart by social division just as schoolyards were. North of El Cajon Blvd. was solidly Soash, and south of University Ave. was S.A. It was unhealthy to show up at a park or recreational center inappropriately attired as to footwear. In fact, I rarely ventured into other nearby neighborhoods on foot; shod or not, since somebody could recognize me from school as an outsider. It was better to stay on home turf and mingle with others at the beach or in more distant neighborhoods where a sort of truce existed.
A huge break in this constipated social fabric came when the surfing craze hit in about 1960 or 61. The new group, the ‘Surfers’, were initially drawn mostly from the Soashes, and therefore the battle lines were between S.A.’s and Soash/Surfers. Before too much time passed however the new class of Surfers grew to such proportions that most other groups were simply overwhelmed by the size of the Surfers as a group. It became bad judgement to pick a fight with a group which consisted of most of the young people in the entire city. The S.A.’s and many others found themselves driven to the margins of society and this gave me the chance that I had been waiting for for years; the knobs went into the trash and it was tennies and sometimes normal leather shoes from then on.
One of my final acts as a child also involved shoes in a slightly unusual way. On my graduation day from high school I lined up with my graduating senior friends to take the final walk and get my diploma. I was completely uninterested in the whole thing. I did not go to the Senior Prom because I did not know how to dance and was too shy to ask a girl anyway. I did not attend any of the social and ceremonial functions common to such an event, and I only attended the graduation exercise because my parents said that I had to. When the moment arrived, there I stood with cap and gown and some old, beat up shoes. Nobody looks at your shoes, anyway.
The school officials finally began to call our names and, since there were nearly a thousand of us, it took some while to get through the list. At last they did however, and we took our diplomas and returned to parents and friends for handshakes, backslaps and so on, and then my friends and I gave our caps to our parents, returned our gowns to the school, peeled off those old shoes and chucked them into the trash, and headed to the beach in the shorts and T-shirts that we wore under our gowns. School was over. Childhood was over. We were headed to whatever our futures would bring, but we would do so after one more summer barefoot in the sun.
I still have no great love of wearing shoes, and do so only as a matter of extreme necessity. I am always amazed when somebody says that they have more than two or three pairs of shoes. I suppose that I shouldn’t be however. To some extent many people still do define themselves by shoes and clothing and other material articles, and I guess that I do so in my own countercultural sort of way. I can’t really think of a deep or philosophical point to use to sum up this story. It was just a story about me and shoes, so I’ll leave it there.