R.E.M. – Good Advices
Today my best friend sent me a link to a video from some VH1 program back in 1987. It was a VJ doing the usual VJ thing with Natalie Merchant there to chat about things during the breaks. It was super awkward because the VJ clearly didn’t know anything about 10,000 Maniacs and Natalie clearly didn’t want to be there, but there she was. You can watch the whole thing if you want to but I am going to link to the relevant part at the mark here. Go ahead, watch him ask Natalie about her shoes.
Ok, it kind of drags on a bit but I want to talk about shoes. Natalie’s shoes, my shoes, people’s perceptions of shoes. First of all, I love that Natalie says they are her dream shoes. I also have had dream shoes. Shoes where you find them and you immediately feel like you are complete. Shoes that state, this is me, I am grounded in these shoes. For me, my dream shoes said to the world, everything you need to know about who I am can be read by looking at my shoes. And you should always look at people’s shoes. Always. If, like the interviewer, you are puzzled by my shoes (or Natalie’s shoes), well, sorry, you just didn’t get it. The shoes will speak to the right people in the right way. I have based my life on it. “When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes” is good advice that has never steered me wrong.
Natalie said her shoes remind her of her grandfather’s shoes. My shoes were old man shoes too. Literally, they are men’s shoes. And let me tell you, Natalie Merchant is tiny and finding shoes in her size is probably no easy task. My old man shoes were a men’s size 6. They rarely come that small. What’s great about them? They are sturdy. They are practical but not in a “practical shoe” way. There’s a tiny bit of a heel but not like a woman’s shoe heel, it’s the whole back part of the shoe so it’s stable. And they lace up so you can make them nice and snug, unlike the slip-on nature of so many women’s shoes. They are a little dressy but they are comfortable. You feel strong and confident in a good pair of shoes like that. Perhaps most importantly, you will not look like everyone else in these shoes.
When I got to college I think I had some regular sneakers, maybe a pair of Keds, and probably a pair or two of flats to go with skirts or dresses. I’m sure I had boots for the winter but after two years getting schooled up in Maine as to what is appropriate footwear for snow, they were likely nothing like the boots my classmates in Pennsylvania wore. By my sophomore year I was really on the hunt for “my” shoes. There is nothing like the conformity of your peers to make you long for something that will set you apart. I knew exactly what I wanted but I had no idea where to find it. I had looked in thrift stores and the big army/navy store I. Goldberg’s in Philadelphia, but I kept striking out. I didn’t want combat boots, I didn’t want Doc Martens, I wanted something more refined, slimmer.
My work-study job was in the theater department as a dresser. Sophomore year the spring musical was Sweeney Todd, set in Victorian London, with a large cast and a good number of male roles. We made the costumes in the costume shop ourselves but one day I came in and saw they had been to the storage space off campus and come back with shoes for everyone. There they were. MY shoes. Black, lace-up, ankle height, low-stacked heel, old man shoes. I asked where we had bought them and was given the name of a men’s shoe store down by the bus station in Philadelphia, near Chinatown. When I finally had enough money saved up I took the train into the city, found the shoe store and left with my dream shoes in hand.
I wore them everywhere with everything. Summer, winter, rain, no matter. I had to have them resoled twice and the heel repaired once. I felt invincible in them. I loved nothing more than taking some $20 bills, folding them in thirds and putting them in my shoes, then lacing them up tight and heading off on adventures; sleeping out for concert tickets, taking the train up to New York or Providence. No one was ever going to guess I had over $100 in my old man shoes. Eventually they developed a crack by my pinky toe that was their undoing. I went back to the shoe store in Chinatown and bought a second pair, though they had changed ever so slightly, now with a cap toe design, that was just never quite as comfortable as the originals. I still loved the second pair but at some point I must have allowed my mom to get rid of them because I wasn’t wearing them any more.
Fast forward to middle-age and not being able to wear heels but not wanting to wear what look like orthopedic shoes either, I started looking for my dream shoes again. I had a couple of different attempts with women’s shoes that were ok and I felt sufficiently comfortable in them, but they were a compromise. I tried a pricey pair of Frye boots that looked online as if they might be close enough to work but when they arrived and I tried them on they were not right. Too pointy, the heel just a tiny bit too high. I sent them back and resigned myself to my sensible mom shoes but couldn’t stop hearing, “Oh, how do I feel about my shoes? They make me awkward and plain, How dearly I would love to kick with the fray…”
Then just after Christmas of 2019, I was looking for something on Etsy and lo and behold, someone was selling my shoes. They were a tiny bit too big (a men’s 6 1/2 now being the smallest they make), a little bit too shiny, and they had the cap toe that my second pair had, but they were the actual real Stacy Adams shoe that I wanted, at less than half the price. I was trying hard to not let myself spend the money on them but my husband said I never spend money on myself and I should get them.
They arrived in January of 2020. I wore them to the office a few times but they were on the stiff side and the leather sole on the carpeting coupled with being a bit too big meant I kind of felt comically slippy in them. I was determined to break them in but not really sure how to go about it. When the pandemic arrived and shut everything down, I put them away and didn’t really think about it for a year and a half. I wore almost no shoes at all during the 18 months I worked from home. I was either in slippers or flip-flops around the house and sneakers if I went out for a walk or the infrequent forays to the store. Once we were ordered back to the office in the fall of 2021, the other shoes I used to wear all the time to work had become so uncomfortable I could barely walk in them. It was time for my old man shoes to come back out.
While I would prefer to be working from home full-time, on the days I have to go to the office I lace up my shoes and look down at my feet and it gives me the little boost I need to get out the door. The snug fit around my ankles shoring me up both physically and emotionally. I see them and I see the memories of my old shoes and all the places and things I did in them. I feel like I have my armor suited up for the day, my trusty shoes ready for anything. I may be a middle-aged mom at a desk job but you can look at my shoes and know that’s not the whole story.