Read Old Man Scanlon

Cool Shoes

This piece first appeared in Gravel Magazine.

05 September 2015

Cheryl and I honor Uncle Edward for the matter-of-factness, good cheer, and indeed courage with which he faced the greater part of the vicissitudes of his later life—and we smile when we remember Edward, the shoe aficionado. He grew up in Brockton, the heart of Massachusetts shoe manufacturing, whose heyday persisted until well after the war, when job offshoring nearly strangled it. In his teens during the Depression, the first thing he did upon getting a job was to devote his future wages to buying a pair of dress shoes on credit. Once, when I asked him offhand if he’d ever worn sneakers, he drew back haughtily, and scorned them as “cabbage-picking boots.”

At any given time in the years we knew him, Edward fielded a footwear collection of vaguely scandalous proportions. He started a December romance when he noticed that an attractive widow at his independent living facility was wearing Ferragamos. On what turned out to be his last trip home, when a cross-country flight was at the limit of his powers, he bought two pairs of high-end Alden shoes at a price which could have gotten me a lifetime supply of cabbage-picking boots. Alden is the last Massachusetts shoe—not sneaker—manufacturer extant, and Edward appreciated that they continued operating in the U. S. He could still name a couple of dozen former Brockton manufacturers and recite brief corporate histories. The old man was true to his shoes to the end.

Uncle Russell’s attitude toward clothing is more congenial to me. He’s the uncle who took an electric drill to a pair of Thom McAn bluchers when he decided that his feet weren’t well enough ventilated, and who lately has marked his laundry with his name on the outside of his collars. No form over function for Russell. I am likewise indifferent to fashion and opt for comfort.

I am ignorant of the identifying marks of Ferragamos in the wild, and I can’t remember a day when my feet have not delighted in the caress of a pair of cheap cross trainers. I have optimized how I choose the day’s clothes: same pants as yesterday, next tee-shirt from the first-in, first-out queue. I wash my clothes when they are near to achieving sentience. I wear my clothes until they’re exhausted, thin, threadbare, patched. In line for coffee one day I was nonplussed when an apparently homeless guy snarked “Nice pants!” at my holed-in-the-butt dungarees. I believe in using things until long after they wear out.

nig hair

I have not always affected such doctrinaire superiority to style. Nearly half a century ago I tried to be cool. It wasn’t yet the disco age, but there were unfortunate incidents involving bell-bottoms, paisley shirts, big hair—and these are just the offenses for which there’s undeniable photographic evidence. Surviving self-inflicted ridiculousness builds character, and these lapses in taste and judgment still remind me of paths I didn’t take. They’re part of normal growing-up pain, embodying the “finding yourself” cliché. Now, they cause me mirth, not shame, and the occasional shaking of the head as I rue the agita I caused my family.

Those were the years when my grandmother would cajole, “Why don’t you get a man’s haircut?” I have long since done so, fulfilling my destiny to be the old crank tut-tutting about piercings, tattoos, and rappers’ shorts. It feels good to have come this far, to be part of the obdurate rear guard, resisting malignant change. I can relate (as we’d say in the Sixties) to Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as Zeuxis Laughing. In my thirties I thought that man looked so beat, a half-crazed simpleton. I think I know better now. He’s seen a few things, and the years have not been uniformly kind to him, but he’s alive, jubilant to be where he is.