One morning while I was in junior high, I encountered Dad on the stairs as he was coming up and I was going down.
He scowled. “Stay right there.” I did. He went to the basement. Soon he was back with a roll of duct tape.
“Siddown.” I did. He grabbed my foot. The toe of my sneaker gaped like a carp’s maw feeding at the surface of a muddy ditch. “How long has this been like this?”
I wriggled my toes, which were filthy black. “I dunno.”
“You don’t know how long you’ve been walking around looking like a bum?”
“Like, a week maybe?”
He “pfft’d!” He wrapped the toes of the gaping sneaker with three or four turns of the tape. “Stand up and tell me how that feels.”
I stood. “I dunno.”
He scowled, stepped back. “Is there anything you do know? Siddown.” I did. He grabbed the other shoe like he had the first, but it stayed resolutely shut. He started wrapping it anyway, but stopped after just one turn. “Nuts.” He ripped off the tape, anchored a fresh strip on my toe, and wrapped again, this time in the opposite direction.
“See what I’m doing?”
“Ruining my life?”
“I’m wrapping this one in the opposite direction, to make it mirror-image symmetrical.” I might’ve blushed on receipt of this, because it was about as blatant an expression of a father’s love for his son that I can recall ever receiving from the man. “Know what ‘symmetrical’ means?”
“Yes.” It’s not easy to mumble the word “yes,” but somehow I did it. “I’m in junior high. Geez.”
“Stand up.” I did. He seemed satisfied in the way he was whenever something didn’t turn out nearly as bad as he’d thought it would when he started, the satisfaction, I’ve since learned, universally enjoyed by fathers pressed upon to solve the predicaments contrived for them by their own offspring. “Pretty soon everybody’s going to be wearing duct tape shoes.”
I didn’t know whether to be hurt because he was mocking me or touched because he was profoundly delusional of my power to influence my peers.
I wore those shoes like that for probably a couple weeks before Mom noticed. Her shoulders sagged as they always did upon her discovery of compelling new evidence that her own children were conspiring against her best efforts to keep up appearances that we were not destitute. Or weird.
“Oh, why did you do that?”
“I didn’t do it. Dad did it.”
Her shoulders sagged a little more, and we both knew we were done discussing the condition of my shoes.
Because I was neither working nor dating in junior high, Dad’s handiwork probably had no effect, good or bad, on either my professional or my romantic prospects. So when the sole of my Cole-Haan folded under my right foot at the Castro muni station recently, I thought for just an instant, “Do I have any duct tape?”
For an instant, I said. And not so much because I seriously expected to fix my Cole-Haans with duct tape, but because I miss the days I could be so practical, in a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sort of way, with my appearance. I have so much more at stake these days. Call it an indication of how far I’ve come since junior high.
At the risk of disappointing some in my audience, I’ll say I don’t know why I bother wearing dress shoes to work. While it’s true I’m a well-paid, highly-respected professional at a renowned financial services company, I can’t say with any certainty that my footwear has had anything to do with my success. If any of my leadership has factored the condition of my shoes into their justifications for my many promotions, raises, bonuses, and stock option grants, that fact has never made it into my personnel file.
I have been upbraided for my shoes exactly once in my professional career. During a performance review that had gone well, really well, so well my manager gave me a sizable raise. But then he said, “Think how much more you’d be making if you wore decent shoes to work.”
He awarded me a boost of fifteen cents an hour, from $2.70 to $2.85. “Take this raise and get yourself some decent shoes,” he said, shaking my hand. I did the math: At fifteen cents an hour, I’d have had to work maybe 100 hours to earn enough for a new pair of shoes commensurate with my responsibilities at Del Taco, which is to say, a pretty crappy pair of shoes.
At the Nordstrom Rack I observe the prices. I do the math. My latest raise was enough so that I’d have to work maybe 75 hours to afford the shoes commensurate with my responsibilities. So that’s progress, I guess.