(This is a snippet from a longer piece in progress.)
It was spring and time for shoe shopping. There were two shoe stores where we shopped: Barney’s on Union Street, and the Junior Bootery in downtown Schenectady. The Junior Bootery sign is still there, the paint on the old brick building fading away over a parking lot behind what is now the DMV.
Going to the Junior Bootery was an outing, with Mom bundling us all up, trudging the two blocks to the bus stop, and riding the 3 miles downtown, then trying to keep us herded together. The Junior Bootery prices were a little cheaper, I believe, as the big outing involved school shoes for everyone old enough for school. But Barney’s was just a two and a half block walk, and that’s where we went when shoes were outgrown between school year purchasing.
I was in kindergarten, and I liked my old Buster Browns: a sort of soft oxford with the big round toe and soft side flaps. But they were too small and my toes were pushing up against the front, so on a sunny May Saturday, off we all trudged to Barney’s, sans Dad, who was sleeping late on the sofa.
“Well, hello there, Mrs. Early, I see you have brought the whole family today,” the smoky salesman said as we tumbled through the door. He grinned at all of us, a jumbled crew. I was five, my sister eight, and John was just two, and in a stroller. He looked pretty mad about it, his dirty blond bangs fringing a frowny face that could have scared even Count Chocula away. We scattered through the small store, which featured a huge picture window looking out onto Union Street, with a view of the Friendly’s restaurant, flanked by Musler’s ladies fashion and a small plant shop (which has since become a pet hospital). It was brightly lit, with lots of seating, and those old leather stools with the ramp to put your foot for the shoe saleman to tie the shoes for you.
“Yes, well, we just need one pair today, for Barbara,” she said, nodding in my direction.
I had wandered toward the big windows, my eye drawn to the MaryJane’s in the display: bright black patent leather and shiny! These are the shoes dreams were made of, in kindergarten. These were the shoes that said, “I’m cool. I belong here.” These were the shoes I could see my face reflected in….
“Weeeelllll, then, let’s get you all measured up!” said the salesman, heading toward me. He smelled of cigars and shoe leather, and had one of those thick moustaches that would now be called a porn-stache. It was salt and pepper colored and looked as if it might be hiding part of his breakfast.
I must have cringed, because his pornstache drooped a bit.
“Barbara! Do what the nice man says,” my mother scolded, as she bent over the stroller to release John from his baby-bondage-seatbelt.
I sullenly crossed to one of the chairs. Mr. Pornstache brought out the metal foot measuring device, and gestured for me to sit down. I sat down, and he sat in front of me on the ski-slope stool, again gesturing for me to put my foot up. I plunked my foot on the ramp, and he proceeded to unlace my right shoe and slipped it off.
“Ok, miss, please stand up,” he said stiffly, and indicated for me to put my foot in the cold metal measuring device. I did so, and he leaned down and adjusted my foot with his thick fingers, pushing until my heel was firmly against the rear of the device, and then proceeded to push the side sliders together, and finally pulled the front slider to the tip of my big toe. He pulled his glasses up from a chain around his neck, and peered through them with his neck at an odd angle, as if he could only seethrough a long spyglass held at just the right position.
“Ok, missy, now, which shoes do you like?”
I sprang free from the foot prison and ran, one shoe one, one sock on, to the patent leather Oxfords. My mother, dragging a pouty John behind her, picked up the shoe and turned it over. Her already stern face seemed to get a little sharper and sterner as she sucked in a little air and said, quietly, “No.”
The salesman sidled over and said, “Well, if it is the price, we have a similar shoe on sale today – it’s brown, and not patent leather, but it is still a Mary Jane style.”
There was a long pause. My mother didn’t like being sized up as a budget conscious housewife. She probably should never have had children; she would have made a formidable, steely executive at some big corporation, or the Mother Superior at some enormous Abbey somewhere in northern Europe, surrounded by blue eyed postulants doing her bidding. She ruled with an iron fist, and her decisions were final. “Because I said so,” was her standard refrain.
But to the salesman, she never spoke a word in response. She just gave Mr. Pornstache a look with her pale blue eyes fixing him in her gaze. He muttered, “I’ll go get it from the back in the young lady’s size.” He slipped away as my mother replaced the shoe on the stand, not looking at me.
I stared out the window. Why couldn’t I ever get the shoes I wanted? The only reason we were even here was because Kathy’s cast off shoes had been left outside by mistake and gotten moldy, and so – for once! – a new pair had to be purchased for me in the off season. And where was Kathy? Sulking in the back of the store, somewhere, jealous because I was getting new shoes instead of her! Even though I almost never got new shoes, still, she was jealous.
Mr. Pornstache returned with a box and sat down on his ski-slope. I walked over, sat in the chair, and dutifully put my foot on the slope. He pulled out the shoes… and…. ICK! Oh, noooo. I hated them! Mousy brown, and with a sort of tapered toe that ended in – gasp – a squared off tip! They had a sort of Mary Jane strip across but that was ruined by a little buttress that ran vertically to the front of the shoe. Ick ick ick!!
“Why, these fit you like a glove!” he exclaimed, and pointed to the walkway covered in a rubber like coating, for walking up and down with the shoes to prevent scuffing the soles. My mother asked for the box, and turned it so she could read the price – which seemed suitable as she nodded to the salesman.
“We’ll take these,” she said, as John began to sob in the middle of the sales floor.
“No!” I said. “I don’t like them!”
“These are perfectly good shoes and You. Will. Wear Them.” She pulled out her wallet as she simultaneously scooped up a blubbering John and plopped him back into the stroller.
On the walk home, I trudged behind Kathy, Mom and the stroller as it bumped over the broken sidewalk pieces along Regent Street. How was I going to be able to show my face at school with such ugly shoes?
When we got home, my mother told me to put on the new shoes, and show Daddy, so I did. He smiled at me but then reached for the box, turned it over, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Mom then explained to him that this was a good price, it was less than half of the price of the other shoes in the store and as they began to bicker about money, I went outside.
I got the big tricycle out of the garage, and proceeded to ride up and down the driveway. I had a plan!
How would I ever get out of wearing these shoes? The ONLY way would be if the shoes became useless or damaged before I grew out of them. Knowing this, I rode the tricycle using the tips of my toes as brakes, instead of braking the normal way. After about an hour of this, I had managed to wear a hole completely through the tips of the shoes, rendering them useless. Or so I thought.
When my mother saw this, her lips tightened and turned blue.
“You. Are. Going. To. Wear. Those. Shoes,” she said slowly, in a voice barely over a whisper, but still as clear as a church bell. “You will wear them until you grow out of them, even if your toes are sticking out the top.”
And, I did.
This was probably not the first time I’d learned that my mother was not to be crossed, but it is the first time I remember clearly that there was (almost) no getting anything by her.