One thing we do know about shoes: they stand for more than themselves. Imelda’s overstocked shoe racks signaled that she wasn’t just a slave to fashion. Her shoe collection defined her as a selfish dictator who spent thousands on fripperies while her people went hungry. And Carrie? Those designer stilettos told millions of enchanted TV viewers that she was the young, trendy, smart and single New Yorker they all wanted to be. A little shallow, maybe, but, hey, it was the ‘90s. Who wasn’t shallow?
Need more proof of the metaphorical power of shoes? Try these –
- If the shoe fits ….
- Put yourself in her shoes …
- It will be hard to find someone who can fill her shoes ….
- Before you judge, stand in her shoes ….
Or, try these Short Takes ….
My Big Toe
I wanted a cigarette that breezy May afternoon. I wanted to find an outdoor café to sit and smoke a cigarette and admire my freshly manicured finger- and toenails. Coffee and a cigarette. (I haven’t smoked in over thirty years). I fancied wearing a short flowered skirt with sandals. The right, or left, sandal would dangle on the big toe of my crossed, bare, tanned leg – a “strappy” sandal, as my granddaughter would call it. My ankle would swing and turn to toss the sandal up and down as I sipped my coffee and dragged on the cigarette, smoke emitting from my full coral-brushed lips.
The skirt would be green with white and pink flowers and a tight waistband above its billow. My hair would be bobbed and curly, showing the length of my neck –(I never wore it quite that way) and blonde – (which it didn’t become until I turned gray). I would smile at passersby, a smile that hinted some secret, with an elbow on the small round table, two fingers cradling the cigarette. If I had my druthers, I’d be in Amsterdam or Paris or Tel Aviv – any place cosmopolitan, as long as there would be admiring men with tight butts.
I would be young and scrubbed fresh, wearing little make-up and full of promise and promises – my nails sans polish, hinting at the nakedness beneath the billow and the willingness to bare my rugged, elegant soul. I would not be at Cosi’s in suburban Maryland sitting at an outdoor, haphazardly placed, close-to-the-curb wrought iron table. With a decaf and a chocolate chip cookie, without cigarette or tan or green flowered skirt, I cross my khaki-jeaned legs and dangle my ergonomic sandal on my rosy painted (right) big toe.
Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1950s was full of huge brownstones, where families speaking West Indian dialects of all types could be heard. All seasons of the year, bicycles and skates ruled the sidewalks: big, heavy metal skates with a key so you could tighten up the toes and put the key on a string and wear it around your neck. I had the baddest skates on the block and I loved skating up and down on my side of the street, down to my tree boundary and back. Skating on Brooklyn sidewalks was hard. Cracks, uneven pavements, bumps and roots were there to trip you up. The trick was to memorize your skate area, or, if you were big, to skate in the street. I was not big.
One day I was sitting on my stoop inside the gate, taking a rest and admiring my skates and skating ability. A big boy from down the block came past my gate. He sounded friendly, but I scarcely looked up: it was forbidden to talk to strangers; I did manage to grunt, “Hi.” To my horror, he stopped and asked to see my skates. I slowly took my skate key from around my neck, unscrewed my skates and handed them to him. He just walked away. I sat frozen behind the gate, as my skates disappeared down the street. Tears flooded my eyes. I don’t know how long I sat on my stoop, but soon grandpa came home and opened the gate and sat next to me. He listened to my story. Grandpa gathered me in his arms. It felt reassuring to know that he cared about my skates, as much as I did. He walked around the neighborhood looking for my skates. He never found them. The next day I sat on that very same stoop, inside the same gate, waiting for grandpa. I saw him come lumbering down the street with big heavy shiny new metal skates and a skate key hanging around his neck. That fall I didn’t remove my skates from my shoes. If someone wanted to see or touch them, they had to take my feet, too.
Flip-flops and Jackboots
Twenty pairs of flip-flops lined the lanai by the front door, some jeweled or flower-adorned leather, others everyday utilitarian nylon and rubber. In Hawaii guests always remove their shoes before entering a home. The red clay soil clings and creates indelible stains.
The plink of a ukulele, laughter, and joyful aloha drifted from the open door on this January evening. But my enthusiasm and anticipation of the party was suddenly marred by a flashback. This is the curse of old age – no occasion is without an association; no emotion, even joy or delight, is pure, free of baggage.
The flip-flops reminded me of the row of shoes I had seen just months before along the banks of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary. Sixty pairs of shoes commemorate the 1944-45 slaughter of Jews in Budapest.
These shoes were cast iron, set into concrete at the edge of the water: slouching work boots, some with broken laces; classic women’s pumps with worn-down heels; women’s dress shoes with straps hanging from the side-button closure; little girls’ Mary Janes, one turned on its side, stepped out of hastily: and the high-top toddler shoes we all remember from the 1940s, the laces untied. You can envision a mother loosening those laces and setting the barefoot child on the riverbank in front of her. She must have put her hands on his shoulders to comfort him.
To efficiently rid the city of Jews, the militiamen of the controlling Arrow Cross Party herded Jews from the ghetto, marched them to the banks of the Danube River. You can hear the ominous rhythm of the jackboots and the order, “STEP OUT OF YOUR SHOES.” In spite of their worn, pathetic condition, shoes were valuable. Shoes could be sold on the black market.
You can hear it … “REMOVE YOUR CLOTHES.”
To save ammunition, the naked Jews were lined up six deep. They must have clutched each other’s hands as they faced the river – men, women, children, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers – children crying, the shots from the firing squad echoing, and the splash, splash, splash. Some must have prayed: Blessed are You, O Lord. The waters of the Danube ran red with blood, and the current washed the bodies away.
I walked the cobblestone path alongside the memorial shoes on that embankment with other tourists, all of us silent. Some wept.
We had waltzed to “The Blue Danube,” listened to Mozart arias in the evening entertainment on the ship, dined on the foods and savored the wines of Vienna and Budapest, seduced into a romantic, fairy tale world.
But the Danube is neither blue nor beautiful, and the pleasure of the river cruise was darkened by our history. I have read compelling novels and edifying nonfiction on the 70th anniversary of WWII, but none of the words are as unforgettable as that sculpture of shoes.
I got rid of Eric’s shoes first, within a few weeks of his death, weeks when making a meal or answering the phone or opening the mail or buying milk felt like insurmountable tasks. Still unable to do much more than sit on my porch and try to understand what had happened and where Eric had gone, how he died of cancer only weeks after diagnosis, one morning I woke up and knelt on the floor in front of his side of the closet and pulled out all his shoes. Dress shoes for work in black and brown and cordovan, loafers and laced, boots, slippers, Birkenstocks. The cast-off running shoes and worn-soled Oxfords at the back of the closet were coated with sticky dust. Except for a new pair of running shoes, I stuffed them all in a black plastic bag and took the bag downstairs to go to Goodwill.
I ignored Eric’s chaotic bureau top, layered with old receipts and stray socks, a blue exam notebook with scribbled to-do lists, album reviews torn from newspapers and magazines, tins of buttons and shirt-collar stays, an abalone shell full of coins, a wrist brace, an old license, a forgotten pair of glasses. His suits and sports coats and shirts and ties hung in his closet, unmoving. His bureau drawers were stuffed.
A year later, when I still hadn’t cleaned out anything of Eric’s other than his shoes, I talked to his mother about it.“I don’t understand why I felt compelled to clean out Eric’s shoes when I haven’t touched anything else of his.”
“Somehow you knew the trouble that can come from shoes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jews don’t wear the shoes of someone who died.”
“Why?” A converted Jew, I knew nothing about this custom.
“If you dream that someone comes and takes your shoes it’s a bad omen, it means you’re going to die soon. You don’t want the deceased to come back looking for his shoes. Which he might if you have them around.”
I didn’t tell her I’d given the running shoes to Eric’s best friend, John. They had the same size feet and Eric had bought the shoes just weeks before he stopped being able to run. I was happy John had the shoes, even though seeing them on him startled me.
Now I worried. John had been struggling with depression since Eric’s death, seeming even more unable than I to thread his life back together without Eric. Still, I didn’t say anything. I waited for the shoes to wear out, like grief, the constant pressure finally smoothing the grip, a slip here and there and then a full slide into new shoes, new days, a new way to wake up.