After finding a pair of Merrell lace ups for $20 in the clearance section of a quality shoe store, I periodically drop in to see if I might get lucky again. While those Merrells fit nicely, they are too flimsy for longer walks. The other evening I returned to look for something more substantial for my sensitive feet, which recently expanded half a size, making my already purged shoe collection obsolete.
As I walked around the back of the store while auditioning basic black hiking shoes, I overheard a well dressed couple in their late 50s or early 60s. She had bleached blonde hair, pushed back with a headband. His belly gently pooched. His hair and beard were unmistakably gray. He had tried on a pair of black lace ups.
“What do you think?” he asked her.
“They look orthopedic,” she said in a tone that implied: these make you less fuckable.
“They’re the latest version of my other shoes,” he said, as if asking for clemency. Presumably that earlier pair not only worked well but had received her approval. If the shoe fits, isn’t one meant to wear it?
Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced at his feet. While the shoes weren’t super stylish, they weren’t glaringly geezer, either. He looked like many men his age and I was not sure that even handcrafted Italian shoes could offer more than a momentary sleight of hand (or foot) to make him appear younger or thinner. Yet, I am not immune to the fantasy that a fabulous pair of shoes exists that will perform the complex task of communicating to the world my sense of taste, style, and the best aspects of my personality while also cosseting my feet and making me feel, and therefore look, like a million bucks without costing a fortune. Hopeless cause or worthy quest? It’s hard to say.
I put myself in the woman’s shoes: I imagined she wanted her partner to look as sexy and youthful for as long as possible. Yet, her summary veto of shoes he’d be perfectly happy to wear made me cringe. I recognized myself in both roles, as fierce fashion judge and demur defendant, all in service of “improving” or “being improved”. Often criticism is offered in the name of love but perhaps it’s a way to avoid true intimacy and vulnerability; none of us, no matter how amazing our attire, will get out of here alive, yet it’s easier to fixate on footwear than face our fears. Moreover, taste is highly personal and fashion mercurial. The line that separates a sexy stud from a fusty dud can, at times, be as barely perceptible as the length of a hem, the thickness of a fabric or color of a stitch, and could change on a dime. In a world that values appearance and first impressions, tiny details can make a difference yet, in the grand scheme of things, dressing well doesn’t guarantee deep happiness, lasting joy or connection. Ideally we’d quickly see through the sartorial veneer directly into each other’s souls and appreciate each other’s inherent uniqueness. But since that messiah hasn’t come, many of us, at least in the first world, shop.
“The thick sole makes them look orthopedic,” she said. He didn’t appeal the verdict. I completed my circumnavigation of the room, sat down, and removed that first pair of shoes.
While I laced up another pair of hikers, a chic European woman with short jet hair and slender build breezed by with her son, about 11 or 12. He had tried on a pair of black Nike’s with a white swoosh and white soles.
“They’re comfy,” he said as he bounded around in them, a big smile on his freckled face.
“No, no,” she said. “They have white soles.”
She paused to check herself in the mirror and tousled her hair a bit.
“But they’re comfy,” he said.
Her spouse arrived. His close cropped hair and a well tailored quilted orange vest gave him flair.
“How’s it going? Did you find shoes?” he asked.
She pointed to the black sneakers whose offensive white soles pleased her son’s soul. It seemed the husband agreed with her assessment. I resisted my temptation to ask why she objected. Did they not earn full style points? I kept my mouth shut. I’m not partial to white soles, either, yet they are quite common so people must buy them. Her kid didn’t seem to mind so why not get them and move onto other, more rewarding activities? The three of them left quickly.
I didn’t love either of the hiking shoes enough to purchase them on final sale. As I walked out of the store, I passed the husband patiently waiting while his wife shopped for shoes for herself. I wondered if they’d have a more memorable evening going home, shedding their shoes and making love, rather than fiddling with laces under fluorescent lights. I considered my own searches for shoes and hiking boots over the years and how much life force they’ve consumed. The thought sobered me. Later that evening, I went online and found those black hikers for less. I ordered them and will give them a more leisurely trial in private. I suspect that if I keep them, I will soon stumble across another pair that have more pizzazz. Should that happen, I hope I can laugh at myself. After all, I will be wearing them in the woods, where I seek refuge from the ego’s endless demands and relentless craving of ever cooler footwear.