|At last "The Choosing Shoes Blues" sees print!|
I'm happy that this Canadian publisher entrusted Donna to compile this collection. This is the 85th anthology that includes one of my stories...and I think I had the most fun writing this one. I'd written "The Choosing Shoes Blues" several years ago for another anthology that failed to materialize. Sometimes when I'm writing a story I feel myself transported back in time, where I can feel, smell, taste how different life was in past decades.
With this story I revisited 1951 Los Angeles. I once again roamed the aisles of the Sears store at Slauson and Vermont, and wiped down the lunch counter at Owl Drug Store where I held my first official job. Sure, I'd earned money as a baby sitter, but now I got a real pay envelope, with Social Security deductions, rather than a handful of quarters.Once again as I wrote I could feel my toes turn to ice as water seeped into the flimsy shoes I'd treated myself to on that first payday...the first I'd ever worn that I'd chosen for myself.
I'm so enjoying this book...I notice a recipe for chili that I might try tonight, as well as one for fudge that's tempting indeed. This book would make a great gift for Gramps for Father's Day...I think older men would be tickled at the post-Depression-era recipes for not-quite-ham salad and a Sunday mac and cheese dish that calls for lard. Younger male forbears will grin as they read of how their offspring remember how they rested on the back porch or visited the old fishing hole. You can buy Grandfather, Father and Me here:
The Choosing Shoes Blues
My big sister, Patti, and I rarely agreed on anything in our adolescence, but when it came time to shop for back-to-school shoes, we sang the same tune. And it was the blues.
Back in l951, the high school set considered black patent leather Mary Janes or Capezio-type instep strap shells as good as it gets, so of course we longed to step into them ourselves. But Daddy believed in function, not fashion, plus he moonlighted as a shoe salesman at a department store where he enjoyed an employee discount.
Even though World War II was behind us, and the economy was good, these were still conservative days, and Daddy, who well remembered the Depression years, worked two jobs to provide for a wife and three kids, and to send a few dollars monthly to his aging mother.
For weeks Patti and I had been showing Mama the ads in the daily Los Angeles Herald-Express, and pleading our case. But though she’d been sympathetic about our entreaties for straight skirts, pullover sweaters and Peter Pan collars, when it came to shoes, she agreed with Daddy. Shoes were costly, and a single pair each would have to last the entire school year.
We pouted, we sulked, we sighed, but all to no avail. One inevitable September Saturday morning we piled into the back seat of the family Chevy, and Daddy drove to the Sears Roebuck that anchored the shopping strip at Slauson and Vermont.
“Meet me in the shoe department in about half an hour,” he said, pulling into the rear parking lot.
Patti and I exchanged gleeful glances. While Daddy punched in at the time clock and got his cash register set up for the day, we could browse Lerner’s, Mode O’Day and some of the other dress shops that lined Vermont Avenue. And we could peer into the windows of Buster Brown, Kinney’s and Bakers, and admire the latest trends in footwear and accessories.
That half hour sped by, and we finally had to drag ourselves back to Sears. In those days, shoe salesmen still used a shoe-fitting x-ray unit called a fluoroscope to determine proper size. Patti stepped up first to have Daddy measure her feet.
Patti’s feet had grown into a size seven, so she grinned and gave me a quick wink. She now wore the same size shoe as Cousin Patricia, and would benefit when Aunt Betty, Daddy’s sister, came over with her annual armload of hand-me-downs.
Aunt Betty lived in a large house in Altadena with a swimming pool. When her daughter, Patricia, a few years our senior, purchased new school clothes each fall, we got the cast offs. We looked forward to trying on the discards, and some of the sweaters and jackets were very welcome. Mama would discreetly set aside most of the dresses and blouses for the Goodwill, though, since she considered them far too mature or worldly for us. But Patricia’s shoes were to die for…ballet flats, moccasins, even some Cuban heels.
But I still measured my same old size six, so this meant that whatever shoes I…or rather, Daddy…chose would be the ones I’d trudge to school in every day all year long, unless I could double or triple my babysitting business, which paid a quarter an hour.
I’d edged over to the shelf that held the rounded-toe Mary Jane look-alikes, and brandished a pair under Daddy’s nose. “These look really nice,” I cooed.
“Nonsense. They’d fall apart in a week.” Daddy knew shoes, so there was no debating.
My heart sank when he plucked up a pair of black objects that I could only describe as indescribable. They looked like squat, stocky, clunky Mary Janes…but without the strap, dumpy, stubby loafers…but without the slot for the penny. But to Daddy they simply looked…sturdy. I knew I was doomed.
“These are shoes made to last!” Daddy declared.
“Why, they look just fine,” Patti said, feigning delight. I grimaced but nodded.
The first few weeks of school I skulked about, hoping nobody would notice my footwear. I caught a few girls glancing downwards and hiding grins. I pretended not to notice, but determined to find a way to get some other shoes. Patti, of course, left the house each day light-footed in a variety of secondhand but fashionable shoes.
So I landed a soda fountain job at Owl Drug Store, right across from Sears. I’d be working Mondays and Fridays, 5 to 9 pm, and all day Saturday, earning the munificent minimum wage of sixty cents an hour. I’d fry up hamburgers and toss together root beer floats, and at the end of Saturday afternoon, Lucky, the fountain boss, would hand me a paycheck.
The first thing I bought, of course, was a pair of Capezio-style strapped shells. In about six weeks I’d worn holes in the soles. When I took them to the shoe repair shop I learned that they were too fragile to resole, so I had to make do with liners I cut from an old cardboard box. They lasted another week until I had to slog home from the drugstore one night in a downpour and the sodden straps fell off.
Reluctantly, I dragged out Daddy’s nondescript clunkers and wore them for the rest of the year. I could be fashionable…or I could be warm and dry. Why did those two alternatives have to be so incompatible? Once I even caught Lucky smirking at my feet when he thought I wasn’t looking.
Fortunately the following autumn black and white saddles came into vogue, so when we took our annual trek to the Sears shoe department I eyed those stalwart oxfords with genuine appreciation and even expressed gratitude for Daddy’s discount. Now I could save my paycheck for brand new angora sweaters and matching angora socks, and leave the latest batch of Cousin Patricia’s leftovers, mostly out-of-style tweed sheathes, to Patti, along with the outdated size seven Mary Janes.
Somehow that early experience killed my lust for stylish but flimsy shoes. Over the years I’ve tended towards loafers, sports shoes and pumps. And recently I’ve come to realize that the Hush Puppies I favor today look suspiciously like descendents of those stouthearted shoes I once blushed to be seen in.
That, of course, was in those distant days before I came to share Daddy’s practical philosophy of good value for money…and learned that utility should trump fashion.