The Surface of Soles

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My shoes touch the ground. They connect me to the earth, the floor, the stairs. They translate me from one surface of the world to the next. My weight leaves marks.

When I was a child, my hip was taken apart, and my knee cut in two. Everyone wanted me to stop limping. But the surgeries didn’t work. I still walk as I’ve always walked. I wonder what might happen someday, if a policeman pulls me over and draws his implacably straight chalk line on the ground. I weave as though I’ve been at a very wonderful party all night long.

These shoes are twelve grommets high and lumpy with adjustments. On the street, people stop me and say, What’s Wrong With You, or Cool Shoes Where’d You Get ‘Em, or Are Those KISS BOOTS? Like the shirtless man in the park last week who waggled his tongue at me and played Gene Simmons air guitar until I said, No, I’m sorry, they’re just boots. I didn’t tell him that they’re hand-built, or that they cost five thousand dollars, or that none of that came from Medicare, Obamacare, or any care but my own.

I wear elaborate shoelaces so everyone knows I know they’re staring. Today, they’re Rainbow Pride ribbons. Not that pride is always such clear a thing for me.

My shoes are machines. The moving part is me.

When I was a kid, we got my shoes from a store called Ludwig’s, at Swifton Shopping Center (one of the first real malls in the country—this was big excitement for 1960s Cincinnati). Every September my mother bought me the exact same black-and-white saddle shoes. Those things showed every scuff. I had to use two kinds of polish: waxy black paste in a tin, and liquid white polish from a bottle, dabbed on with a swab. Most times, I just made a mess, and they ended up an indeterminate stormy gray. I yearned for patent-leather Mary Janes, or Red Ball Keds, little nothing shoes that wouldn’t last a season. Not these solid warhorses that could withstand an attack by Red Army tanks.

We went to Ludwig’s because of their old men. Well, who knows if they were really old—all I can say is, my eyes were young. The men took my feet in their tough hands and pressed them down on the metal footprint. The gauge slid up and down, scraping against my arches. Toes too wide, heel too narrow. Everything fell off.

And then the shoemakers disappeared into the back room, where they crafted a prescription lift that matched the soles of my newest saddles. Two inches of stacked leather on the left shoe, for the leg that ended two inches too soon. They were careful craftsmen who did their best to make my difference invisible.

They were kind. I didn’t forgive them.

I have always needed men with special skills to keep me walking. I’ve never met a woman who does orthotic work; it has always been men, mostly immigrants who learned their shoemaking in Greece, Italy, Poland, or Germany. As if the Old Country were entirely populated by cripples, all of whom laid themselves down on the ground in despair once their cobblers had left for Ellis Island.

In 1981, I moved to Chicago, and had to go looking for more old men. I found Waxberg’s Shoe Shop, eleven floors above Wabash Avenue. I was in my twenties then, so the men did not seem quite so elderly. Ron, the owner, said, “I want to keep you out of a wheelchair,” which made me stumble in mid-stride; it hadn’t occurred to me that people saw wheels shimmering in the way I walked. I followed Waxberg’s when it moved from downtown Chicago to the far suburbs, an hour away from where I live, because these men are disappearing. There are no generations of cobblers anymore. This seems strange to me, because I can tell you that American feet are in a lot of trouble. Next time you’re on the sidewalk, watch the people ahead of you. You’ll spot shoes that are so broken down they look like they’re made of melting wax. Yet very few people are studying orthotic work. It seems to have become as esoteric as raising albino ferrets.

Every two weeks, I go to Waxberg’s. Chuck or Ed or George replaces the soles of my shoes. They’re complicated shapes—dramatic curves, flares, and angles, sort of like roller coasters, or leather manta rays. I walk hard and heavy, which wears them off in fourteen days. I would say that I still can’t walk without these men, but actually I can’t walk unless I can tell them what I know. Unless I can speak my body out loud. I have to understand exactly what my feet, my knees, my hips, and spine are doing during an adjustment. I use their language: peroneal, tibialis, pes cavus, and calcaneus. Invert, evert, and subluxation. I crisscross the laces up my calves. Rocker heel, shaft, buttress, and strike. I bought a belt sander so I can work on them myself in between appointments, but I still can’t do what these men can do.

I stand up. My boots weigh five and a half pounds.

Twice a month, I have to know myself perfectly, and I have to be able to explain myself perfectly. I try on the shoes six or eight times, squeezing between the aisles of shoeboxes, while Ed or Chuck or George looks on with tilted head and clinical frown. As I do, the proprioceptor neurons in my joints start to shut down. In fifteen minutes I can no longer tell where my feet are, or why they are beginning to hurt so badly. I have fifteen minutes to be exquisitely self-aware and articulate. If I can’t, I’ll be in pain for days, maybe weeks. Pain or no pain, it’s up to me.

So I have to know everything. The machines, the glues, and what the sound of the grinder means against the bottoms of my boots. After thirty years, I am the only customer who gets to sit in the back of the shop. The guys pretend to harass each other, the way my brothers did, forty years ago over the breakfast table.

They are kind, and this time I do care. I explain what I can. I bring coffee cake to atone for my ignorance.

But even they disappear. Jay opened his own shop. Arnold moved back to Holland. George hurt his hand with hot plastic, and was out for months. Chuck had a heart attack (he’s back now), and Ed went on vacation just when a buttress fell off the side of my boot. My partner might take a job in a city with no men like these at all. If I go with her, I will become the only expert left in charge of the way I walk.

As with all my medical relationships, the weight of knowledge, finally, is mine.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015