by Bruce Berger
Some things never change, and that is a good thing.
Ever since I started camping in tents, I have enacted a nightly farce. On the advice of desert dwellers who warn that I will step on scorpions or even rattlers if I walk barefoot in the dark, I arrange my shoes by the tent flap so that I may step into them if my bladder wakes me in the night. And when my bladder breaks into a dream, my mind is far too blurry, too resistant to shaking its sleep state, to steer my feet into shoes. Recklessly I advance barefoot to my chosen spot, and over treacherous decades I have stepped on nothing livelier than a stray thorn. The only advantage to this charade is that my shoes are waiting neatly for me at dawn. I was startled, therefore, to crawl out of the tent on New Year’s morning, 2006, and discover only one shoe.
As usual, I was hiding out from the holidays at a ranch along the Gulf of California, arriving before Christmas and leaving after New Years’ hangovers had cleared from the highway, and this time I had pitched my tent at the edge of a small dry lakebed that a hill cut off from the coast. Shoes don’t wander off by themselves but nonetheless I initiated a search, scanning the lakebed, then prowling the more secretive scrub on the hill, though I could think of no agency that could get them there from my tent. The rancher was a close friend, I knew his family well, and I ruled out anyone’s practical joke. Switching to hiking boots that were the uncomfortable alternative, I held my tongue until midday, hoping the shoe would wander back. Then I mentioned the disappearance to the rancher.
“You didn’t leave your shoes out at night?” It was a pseudo question.
“Yes,” I replied.
“A fox took it.”
“A fox? ”
“I have been leaving shoes unprotected in the desert all my life,” I protested, “and never even heard of the problem, let alone losing a shoe.”
“You’re lucky,” replied Lico. “Foxes steal shoes whenever they can. No one knows why, but they love them. They’re regular Imeldas.”
I returned to the tentsite, looked in vain for pawprints in the lakebed and scoured the thorn bushes father afield, the enormity of this turn taking hold. There is probably no shoe I have owned in my life, except for the lost shoe’s mate, whose vanishing could produce such a disproportionate pang. This pair of shoes, as it happened, represented a conscious turn in my self-presentation to the world, and this theft was the latest plot twist in a most unlikely saga.
The shoe’s defection could even be the revenge of its breed on a lifetime of being ignored, for I had always and deliberately worn the plainest of lace-up black or brown Oxfords, void of the least splash. Shoes, I held, should be comfortable and anonymous. I hated shopping for them. I wore a pair until it disintegrated, then grudgingly bought another. Once, in Cologne, a shoe literally came apart in the street and I had to hobble in one shoe and one sock to the nearest Schuhgeshäft before I could go back to being a tourist.
Scorn of footwear was part of a more general bad attitude toward clothing. Being praised for what concealed you was, by implication, being told that the self underneath was unworthy of comment. People preoccupied by fashion were by definition superficial, and no number of snappy dressers worth knowing had tempered my stance. I didn’t need a shrink to tell me how this prejudice had come about. To be sent into public as a small child, undersized among peers, in a little suit jacket, neck-clutching shirt, tie and short pants because one’s mother thought it was “cute” was to permanently despise dressing for display. To be maternally nagged about appearance when one became old enough to drape oneself was to dress with scorn for any flourish and, as a statement on formal occasions, to deliberately underdress. By the time a fox made off with an attitude-changing shoe, the mother whose obsession with finery had backfired was fifteen years in the grave and a son’s rebellion had become mere unconsidered habit.
But I began to reconsider shoes, at least, when I met Fernando. Owner of two women’s shoe stores in La Paz, Fernando was obsessed with all footwear. Several times a year he flew to shoe conventions – in Guadalajara, in Monterrey, in Los Angeles – where the world’s leading manufacturers of shoes strutted their wares, and I knew that for Fernando this was more than the acquisition of inventory. The shoe, forever confined to the shape of the human foot, mediating between its tenderness and the world’s hard surface, like the pantoum or the sonnet, expressed the infinity of the human imagination. After thousands of years its incarnations were still changing, its forms still emerging and adapting. To be present where breaking trends, motifs and profiles converged from the globe’s extremities was to partake of the mind’s own far reaches in one of its thousands of specialized pursuits. During each of his three visits to Aspen Fernando bought multiple pairs of shoes, and I was fascinated by the secrets he showed me in my own town. The leather insoles of American shoes made a fine show from the heel to the arch and were replaced by synthetics in the unseen part that stretched to the toe, whereas Brazilian leather insoles maintained their integrity all the way. Italy once made the world’s finest shoes, but due to labor costs, the Italian shoes he bought in Aspen might have been commissioned from China, which turned out a gamut of footgear from the highest quality to the plastic slippers that flooded the world’s markets. Because of globalization, breakthroughs in style were less associated with countries than with individual designers who might not be working in their homelands – say, a Chinaman working in Italy.
In Fernando’s company, I was interested in the phenomenon of shoes without being interested in shoes. He offered a glimpse into one of the world’s unsuspected corners, revealing secrets that literally sustain us, meanwhile confirming the idiosyncrasy of each person’s reality. We meet in an agreed-upon world, a commons where we interact, while remaining lone citizens of a willfully chosen, wacky universe of our own. Fernando and I shared visits to the realm of classical music, a mutual obsession, but I inhabited a world of deserts and he walked in a world of shoes. Within our separate kingdoms we were both connoisseurs, even fanatics. Fernando’s presence made me shoe-conscious, and though I didn’t upgrade my clunkers, whenever we were to meet I inspected them for presentability. Since I had switched to the kind of convenience material that didn’t take polish, I held them under the faucet and dried them with paper towels. I knew that Fernando looked at a person first from the ankle down, forming a judgment, and I was sure that he suspected me of soul-rot. I also knew that he was as fascinated by men’s shoes as by women’s. How much better shod I would be if he sold them – why didn’t he?
“Men hate to buy shoes. They wear them until they give out. Manufacturers know this and don’t bother to change the styles. Men’s inventory sits in the stockroom taking space that could be filled by women’s shoes, which turn over once a season. I don’t sell men’s shoes because there’s no money in it.”
I was in a poor position to object, but suddenly an opportunity opened up: Fernando and I planned a month long trip to Spain, Morocco and Portugal in the fall of 2005. We would inevitably be hitting shoe stores on a daily basis, and if Fernando didn’t select the perfect shoes for me himself, his very aura would infuse me with the juju to buy my breakthrough pair.
I swatched Fernando deploy his keen eyes and probing fingers in Madrid and Marrakech, and when we hit Sevilla I got serious. I even had a certain street in mind. A self I could now hardly imagine had spent three years of the mid-Sixties in the nearby province of Cádiz, playing nightclub piano with an Andalucian band, and we made numerous expeditions to Calle Sierpes in Sevilla to visit a musical agent who got us gigs and kept our papers in order. As the name suggests, Sierpes is one of the terms for snakes and the street was indeed serpentine: narrow, twisting and dark, lined with small shops and dense with vendors, many of them gypsies, selling their wares in the street. Sierpes had an unsavory reputation and a Salesian monk once told me he was afraid to enter it. Without God on my side, I was drawn to Sierpes rather than frightened, for Franco’s police always kept order and the only Spaniards who frightened me were the police themselves.
One of my first acts when we reached Sevilla was to take a nostalgic walk down Sierpes, and I discovered that it had been widened, straightened and turned into a pedestrian street for upscale shopping. Clothing stores abounded and every third showcase was full of shoes. This was hardly the Sierpes I had known, but neither was I the person Sierpes had known. I liked that alloy of continuity and disruption: a passing tourist instead of a young musician, a street that represented indulgence and consumerism instead of tyranny and want, yet the same person in the same place. We entered a store and inspected. I realized Fernando couldn’t actually select for me, but he approved when I picked up an ankle-high arc of mahogany leather, somewhere between a shoe and a boot, and paraded the pair around the store. I liked the way they looked, felt and – though I knew it wouldn’t last – smelled. I kept them on my feet and had the store box the bituminous Oxfords I hoped I would never wear again.
Mission accomplished, or so I thought, but when we had crossed into Portugal and I was exploring downtown Porto with Fernando, pausing as usual at every shoe store window, my gaze was caught by a pair of Oxfords of the shape I always wore, except that they were cobbled from leather of three tones – chestnut, tan and cream – in an aerodynamic configuration. They were simultaneously the old and the new me. “In a style that doesn’t lend itself to style, they have style,” I said to Fernando, a phrase that comes off crisper in Spanish and which he liked well enough to repeat later. They fit perfectly and were immediately my lifetime favorites. I refused to take them off and had the store box my fresh Sevillian bootees. The latter joined the battered Oxfords in the small traveling bag I had deliberately kept light to spare my lumbar, and when we reached Lisbon and I lifted the bag from our rental car, my spine tweaked, then my back went into spasm. It was bitter to be laid up in a pension the following day while Fernando was out climbing the five historic hills, but advances in style have their cost.
I saw Fernando to his plane in Madrid, then returned south for a solo visit with old friends in the province of Cádiz, staying with my namesake Bruno, now a lively young man of twenty-three. Wanting to fly home with a single light carry-on, I asked Bruno to box everything I didn’t need – reading matter, purchases in Morocco, all shoes but the Portuguese favorites – and ship it to my address in Aspen. That would give the package six weeks to reach me before I left home for my annual half-year in La Paz. I gave Bruno more euros than I thought the postage would cost, and when he remarked that I had surely overestimated, I told him to spend the balance on beer.
I became increasingly anxious as the box from Puerto Real failed to reach Aspen. Friends in La Paz wouldn’t receive the Christmas presents I’d bought them in Morocco. Where, above all, was my link with Calle Sierpes? Had Bruno spent every euro on beer? I headed south in my Portuguese Oxfords, not having received the package from Puerto Real. The ranch where I spend the holidays is unreachable by road and I tried not to touch seawater with my precious shoes when Lico’s skiff reached the shore. I was newly protective of my feet as I commuted gingerly through the dust. And it was because of that charged, convoluted, trans-Atlantic preliminary that I was so traumatized the morning that I pictured some vixen barking, “Portuguese leather . Happy New Year!”
On leaving the ranch, I commented to Lico that I was keeping the other shoe. “There’s nothing like throwing one away to turn up the other.”
“Good idea, because we’re all over these hills looking for cows. We could stumble into it.”
Not the least of ironies was that after my life’s single binge of shoe-buying, my first obligatory act on reaching La Paz was to buy a pair of shoes. To avoid accusing Bruno of not sending the package, I waited a few more weeks, then sent a note mentioning that the items I had left never arrived. My friends in Puerto Real had not entered the age of e-mail and it took more weeks for my hand-written note to cross the ocean and for the reply to come back. In the meantime, a relevant e-mail arrived from another source: the friend in Aspen who forwarded my mail. A mysterious package had arrived. It was too beat up for him to make out the return address but it looked somehow foreign. Should he forward it?
I e-mailed back, “It’s from Spain. Open it and tell me what’s in it.”
The following day I received the inventory: assorted books and maps, a couple of colorful wool caps, a small box wrapped in Arabic newspaper and three shoes.
I hit Reply. “Three shoes? Not four shoes? Three shoes?”
“Three shoes,” he confirmed.
“What color?” I added to the e-mail chain.
“One brown and two black.”
My new sensibility reeled. I was down to one Portuguese shoe, one Sevillian shoe and the two black clodhoppers that had already spent years on my feet before I flew the Atlantic. I wrote again to Spain. Had only three shoes been put into the box or did one somehow slip out of the battered package en route? Bruno had found only three shoes, had wondered at it, but had mailed everything I had left, following instructions “to the foot of the letter”, the Spanish equivalent of English’s equally inscrutable “to a t” and, in this instance, unwittingly appropriate. The only suspect I could think of was a small street dog that Bruno had adopted, which might have had vulpine tastes. But Bruno lived in a second-floor apartment, the dog only went out in his presence, and surely Bruno would have noticed if the cur had trotted beside him with ankle-length shoe leather in its mouth.
Lico, meanwhile, found no three-toned Oxfords in the cactus. “After months in the weather, probably chewed by a fox, by now it won’t match the other even if it does turn up,” he said. “At this point you’re safe in throwing the other shoe away, unless you plan to have it bronzed.”
Fernando’s hilarity hit new heights. I should ask whether the Sevillian bootee that reached Aspen was a left or a right: perhaps I could assemble an Iberian pair. It was, furthermore, my fate never to have stylish shoes, even as it was Fernando’s destiny ever to be natty from head to toe. I was a follower of St. Teresa of Ávila, founder of the Discalced Carmelites and frequent visitor to Sevilla, who flaunted the worst peasant sandals of her day. I was a permanent member of the Secular Order of the Discalced, an ordained lowlife in footgear. Or so I record Fernando’s verdict, shod still in my bituminous Oxfords.
Bruce Berger’s books about the intersections of nature and culture in desert environments include The Telling Distance, winner of the Western States Book Award, and Almost an Island, an account of thirty years’ experience in Baja California Sur. For three years he was a contributing editor with American Way, and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Yale Review, and Orion, and have won the Ralph Kreiser Nonfiction Award and the Sierra Nature Writing Award. Also a pianist, he currently plays benefit classical recitals in Mexico. “Discalced” won the Grand Prize Silver Award in the Third Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing and was published in The Best Travel Writing 2009.
About Editors’ Choice:
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