A few weeks ago on a business trip to Minnesota, my favorite dress shoes finally gave out. I had purchased them over ten years ago, around the time I met my wife. The shoes held tremendous sentimental value. They also held about a pound of adhesive between the sole and full leather upper. I had sniffed so much rubber cement in previous attempts to fix them that I started having visions of appearing in an after school special on the dangers of “Huffing,” getting a personal visit from Nancy Reagan telling me to “Just Say No.” But walking into the hotel, my toe caught a curb and the sole fell off, leaving me with one dress shoe and one moccasin. Time for replacements. I went to one of those massive shoe warehouse stores where you can buy everything from steel-toed boots to clown shoes. I must have tried on a dozen pair. Nothing fit quite right. Not like my old favorites. The whole exercise took me back to high school when I worked in a shoe store and I would try desperately to help all the ladies find just the right pair of Naturalizers to accommodate their bunions. The manager used to tell me,
“You want to know the secret to selling more shoes and getting a big commission?”
“Sure!” I answered.
“When you’re slipping on the shoe, just give the old ladies a gentle calf massage. Works every time.”
I stifled a gag. “Ewwww. Isn’t that awkward? Rubbing a perfect stranger’s calf?”
“Not if you don’t make eye contact.”
Needless to say, I never earned that big commission check.
Back at the big box shoe store, I continued to wander the aisles, and not a soul offered to massage my calves. No one even offered to let me select from the questionable grab-bag of loaner dress socks. I was alone. On a mission. But I was failing.
I started to lose heart, choosing loafers at random. I just wanted something that felt good and didn’t look like it came from Liberace’s closet. I spied a pair of very plain black shoes with a slightly pointy tip, but not so pointy that I looked like a genie. Without much of a thought, I slipped them on my feet.
* The shoes.
I took a few steps, and it felt like I was walking on pillows of marshmallows resting on a bed of Twinkies filled with goose down. Yes. It was that soft. But not so soft that I felt like I was going to wrench my knee.
I took one of the shoes off and replaced it with the best of the other clod-hoppers. Had to do the comparison test. I slipped on the opposing shoe and proceeded to walk down the aisle looking as if I had been injured in an obscure farming accident. While embarrassing, this exercise confirmed for me the pure awesomeness of the shoes. I had to make them mine.
Then I looked at the price.
These would be the most expensive pair of shoes I had ever purchased. Even with the "Big Deal." Granted, I am a cheap skate when it comes to clothing. It probably comes from wearing a lifetime of hand-me downs. Working through my sister’s dresses was an especially painful period. Still, the frugality wore off on me. I have learned to accept the fact that I will never be the most fashionable guy in the room. But these shoes were calling out to me. I was sure it was the voice of God. Or a salesperson. But who’s counting.
I threw caution to the wind and bought the shoes. They made my feet feel like they were encased in velvet. A kind sales clerk with a voice straight out of the movie Fargo rang up the sale. I told her I was from out of town, and she replied with, “Well. Good nooz fer yoo! No tyax ahn shooz in Minn-ah-so-tah.”
No tax? Bargain!
I proudly wore them out of the store, their leather soles slip-sliding along the carpeted floor. Once outside, I found a patch of sidewalk not coated in snow and scuffed up the soles so I could walk without fear of tripping. After scuffing the soles, I put them back in the box and traded them for my tennis shoes so not to get them all messy in the slush and salt of the parking lot. Back at the hotel, I slept like a baby, dreaming of my lovely new shoes.
It wasn’t until the next day that I noticed something wasn’t quite right.
I had left my room and taken the elevator to the lobby. As I walked out of the elevator, I could swear I heard a supermodel sauntering in stilettos through the hotel’s grand entry. Either that, or someone was firing a tiny handgun. I looked down in horror to see that the noise was coming from my shoes. And it was loud and high-pitched. What had been a black velvety dream the night before had become a walking nightmare.
Maybe it’s just the flooring? Maybe the marble tiles are loose? I thought.
I tried to walk a bit lighter, but this only made it appear as if I was trying to sneak up on the bellhop while doing an impression of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. When that didn’t work, I sped up, which echoed the sound effect of a woman in a murder mystery trying to escape an oncoming attacker. Men looked up from their newspapers in hopes of seeing a really hot bombshell rapidly hip-swaying through the lobby. Instead, they saw a panicked girly-man hustling toward the exit.
Disappointing on so many levels.
I made it to the car and froze momentarily. Not from the cold, but from the shock of my shoes. How can I walk around in these all day?! I am a man. My favorite meals involve charred animal flesh. I stink, even when I’m not sweating. I watch sports. I can belch my high school fight song. Both verses. I pee standing up, unless it’s pitch black in the middle of the night, then cleanliness trumps manliness. It’s practicality over pride.
I removed the left loafer to double-check the brand name inside, half expecting to see a label that read “Fashion Gal” or “Sexy Trex.” Nope. A man brand. And no metal tap shoes on the bottom either. Just a hard leather heel, probably filled with blasting caps.
But I had no choice. I thought about returning them, but how could I do that? For one, I had already scuffed the bottom of the shoes like crazy. And second, what was I going to say? I can hear it now, sheepishly approaching the counter.
“Um. I’d like to return these shoes.”
“OK. What’s the reason for the return?”
“They make me sound like a woman.”
“OK. But are you sure it’s the shoes? I overheard you talking on your cell phone, so I personally think it has something to do with the fact that you know lots of show tunes, care about your shoes, and giggle like a fifth grade Brownie at a sleepover.”
I wouldn’t be able to deny her assertion. She’s right on the money. Gabby is considering hiring our beautiful friend Shannon (A.K.A. “Uncle Shanny”), who has a man laugh, to come teach Jake how to bellow like the big boys lest he be shunned on the playground. Still, I would go parade around the tiled entry of the store and holler,
“I sound like a girl wearing high heels! Close your eyes and you can’t distinguish me from Marilyn Monroe, sister!”
* My shoes sounded like Audrey's "Clickety-Clacketys"
But I never returned the shoes. They were mine. Thankfully, the training room I was teaching in was carpeted, and the company cafeteria had enough ambient noise to muffle my “clickety-clackety shoes”. But every time I walked on the hard floor, I could feel the anxiety bubble to the surface. Especially when I was walking through the airport later that day. I turned a lot of heads from gate 15 to 36. I projected that everyone who was talking on a cell phone momentarily interrupted the conversation to say,
“Do you hear that? It’s a guy! No! I’m not even kidding!”
Going to the bathroom was (and still is) the biggest challenge. Every men’s room in the country has hard tile floors that echo like the Grand Canyon. When I walk in, my “click-clack” immediately cuts through the silence. The guys in the stalls think that a very overdressed cleaning lady has wandered in unannounced. I know this because they all begin to cough loudly to alert her (me) that the space is occupied. Never fails. I can’t imagine how confused they must be when they overhear me stop and use the urinal on the wall. Baffled for sure.
I find it funny how something as simple as the sound of my feet hitting the floor can make me self-conscious. It’s such a small thing. I like the shoes. I like the way they look. Love the way they feel. Yet Gabby and I went out Sunday after church, and I felt compelled to change my shoes because they made a higher pitched sound than the heels she was wearing.
It’s no wonder then how hung up we can get about going against the grain of the more crucial norms of society. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. To have the great car. The big house. The great job. The well-dressed and well-mannered kids. The biggest party.
To do more.
To earn more.
To be more.
It all seems so important. Especially when every time we turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or listen to the radio, someone is confirming for us that this is what we should be striving for. Chasing a dream that someone else defined for us. So when we don’t get there (and who ever does?) we beat ourselves up, stress ourselves out, and keep trying harder.
So today, as I slip on my shoes, let every step I take be a reminder. To remember that all of that extra noise is just nonsense. Time and energy spent pushing myself in the wrong direction. What I forget is that when it’s all said and done, I can never be more. I am as God created me. With all my failings and faults and funny sounding shoes. Simplicity in complexity. And what God wants most from me is to own all of that. To embrace my quirks like a badge of honor. Wear them on the outside. Front and center.
And to keep walking. Comfortably.