When I was 5, my mother instructed my father to take me out shopping for shoes. Shopping for us had always been my mother's thing but, on this day, she had her hands full with my older sister, and she was very pregnant with my soon-to-be younger sister. It was a Saturday, and Ma wanted me to have a new pair of shoes for school on Monday. School shoes. Nice, solid Mary Janes that I could wear to school, during an era when little girls wore dresses and tights and shoes - never sneakers - to school. They should also be shoes that I would be able to wear to birthday parties. Ma and Daddy weren't poor, but they just managed to keep their heads above water. Money was not in unlimited supply, and a new baby was on the way.
I should mention here that I was born pigeon-toed, and had been forced, for several years, to wear a heavy, metal splint attached to my shoes during the night. The problems with my legs and feet also meant that all of my shoes, until I was 4 or so, had to be custom-made by an orthopedic shoe-maker. Now that I was past the worst of my leg and foot problems, my parents were free to buy me off-the-rack shoes, but continued problems in this area meant that I could only wear very well-made shoes. Cheap shoes were very painful and didn't offer the support I needed. (I never completely got over these problems, and still have to be very careful about what I wear on my feet.) Sending my dad out to buy me shoes was a real leap of faith on my mother's part, but she knew she could trust him to get me the best shoes money would buy. One thing my dad has never been guilty of is being frugal, especially not when it came to shopping for his children.
So, Dad and I walked to the subway station and caught the F train into the City. First, we had to go to 34th street, so he could get money from the bank. This was 1972 - long before ATM machines and direct deposit. We had to rush into the city, so he could cash his pay check before the only Bowery Bank branch that had Saturday hours closed at 1pm. We got to the bank, waited on a long line, and finally deposited his check and got some cash. My mother, I think, expected that we'd walk over to Macy's, which was just down the street, and where there was a very good shoe department. My father had other ideas. We got back on the F train and headed downtown.
"I know a really good shoe store," he told me, "We'll find just the thing for you."
We got off the train at West 4th street. Greenwich Village. The Village in 1972 was nothing like it is, today. Back then, it was still a bit of an untamed, Bohemian place. Emerging from the subway station, it felt like we'd arrived in another country, where there were falafel carts, hippies in full feather, and amiable drug dealers who thought nothing of approaching a man with his little girl and asking if he'd like to buy some hash. Also music. The Village was all about music. Guys playing conga drums and acoustic guitars in Washington Square Park, the sounds of The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkle and Three Dog Night coming from the many records stores and head shops along 8th Street. The smell of incense. The entire neighborhood was a feast for the senses.
"It's not far," Dad said, "Let's see if I can remember where this place is."
We spent what felt like hours - but was probably really 20 minutes - walking around, looking for the shoe store he was so determined we find. After several false starts - nope, it wasn't on 8th street or 4th street...no, MacDougal was all wrong - we ended up right back on 6th avenue. The store, it turned out, was just a few blocks up from where we'd gotten off the train, not a few blocks down. I feel pretty confident, 40 years later, saying it was on 12th street.
When we got there, I tried to read the sign. I was only 5 years old, and not really reading yet, but I knew my alphabet. The letters on the sign didn't mean anything to me -the words they spelled didn't look familiar. I looked up at my dad.
"What does it say?" I asked.
"You don't know Swedish, do you?" he asked.
"Well, those words are Swedish for 'shoe store,'" he explained, looking as if he knew this for a fact. I believed him.
We got up close to the window and looked at the display. There were lots of clogs. Clogs were big in 1972. Most of the shoes were for grown women but, on the left side of the display, was a small selection of kids' shoes. I saw just the type of shoes my mother was expecting: t-strap Mary Janes made of leather, with tear drop eyelets by the toe. They came in black, dark blue, and oxblood. I was just about to ask if I could get the oxblood (I'm sure I didn't know from "oxblood" at 5 - I would have asked for the red) when I spied something in the back corner of the window. A pair of leather hiking boots. Children's hiking boots. The leather was the color of caramel. The soles were made of thick rubber. The long laces were red-and-white candy-striped. They were beautiful. I looked up at my father and found that he was looking at me, smiling.
"Those are nice, huh?" he asked.
"Yeah." I answered.
"Wanna try them on?" he asked.
"Can I?" I asked.
"Yeah, sure." he answered, and we went into the shoe store.
A minute later, a thin, blonde woman was lacing up the boots she'd just put on my little feet. The leather felt even better than it looked. It was soft to the touch. The padding around the ankles was thick and rich. The red-and-white laces looked so much more beautiful from up close.
"How do they feel?" my dad asked.
"Really good," I answered.
"Get up and walk around in them," he said, "you know how sensitive your feet are."
I got up and walked up and down the carpet, stopping to look at my feet in the mirror, and admire the boots. They were the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.
"They comfy?" dad asked me.
"I don't even feel them!" I answered.
"You're walking pretty straight in them," he said, "Do you want them?"
"Can I?" I asked, taken by surprise. Being able to take these home and keep them, forever, had never even entered my mind.
Dad turned to the blonde woman, who stood next to him.
"How much are they?" he asked.
"Fifty dollars," she answered, adding, "They're imported."
I didn't know a lot about money, but I knew that $50 was a lot.
My dad didn't miss a beat.
"Can you put her old shoes in a bag?" he asked the blonde woman and then, looking at me, "You can wear them home."
The whole subway ride home, I stared at my new boots. I stuck my short legs straight out in front of me and just stared. Everything about them made me happy. And they were mine. I don't think my dad and I did much talking during that subway ride, but I remember looking away from the boots and finding him smiling down at me. When we got home, it was a different story. We walked in the front door and climbed the steps up to the third floor, where my very pregnant mother was in the kitchen, cooking. She didn't look up from the stove when we walked in, but called out, "How'd it go? Did you find anything?"
I ran into the kitchen. I'm sure my smile was a mile wide. My mother looked down at my feet. She then looked up at my father, who stood behind me. She wasn't smiling.
"What are those?" she asked.
"Her new shoes," my dad answered, "They're Swedish."
"Those aren't shoes, Hector. They're boots. Hiking boots."
"They cost fifty dollars, Ma!" I blurted out.
My mother's eyes opened wide.
I didn't understand her reaction. How could anyone not love these boots?
"You don't like them?" I asked.
My mother somehow managed to smile. I now know how difficult that must have been.
"I do like them," she said, sweetly, brushing my bangs away from my eyes, "They're beautiful boots, baby, but you can't wear them to school."
Looking up at my dad, she asked, no longer smiling, and not sounding very sweet, at all, "Did you seriously pay fifty dollars for those? She can't wear those to school, Hector. What can you have been thinking?"
I looked up at my dad. The look on his face was one that I've since come to know well. I call it the "shit, now I've done it" look.
"These are the ones she wanted." he said.
"She's five years old, Hector. Of course she wanted them. That doesn't mean you had to buy them. Especially not for fifty dollars. I've never owned a fifty dollar pair of shoes in my life. That's more than her prescription shoes used to cost. I can't believe I can't even count on you to do something as simple as buy a good pair of Buster Brown shoes."
"Well, what am I supposed to do, now?" my dad asked.
I looked up at Ma. I could feel my heart sinking.
"Do I have to give them back?"
My mother sighed.
"No, baby," she said, "you can keep them." Then, looking up at my dad she said, "There's no way you can return them, since you let her wear them home."
"So..." my dad said, "that's that, right?"
"No," Ma answered, "That's not that. The baby still needs shoes. Not boots. Shoes. So don't get too comfortable. Take her out to Buster Brown and get her a pair of good, solid Mary Janes that she can wear to school on Monday."
"Right now?" my dad asked.
"Right now." Ma answered.
My dad and I headed down to the Buster Brown store on 5th avenue in Brooklyn, where he let me choose a pair of red Mary Janes.
© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves