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The Shipwreck Rose: Lost Soles

Wed, 05/15/2024 - 18:42

When I was younger, it kept occurring to me that I should take photographs of my feet, wearing my shoes, to create an art installation of footwear-as-autobiography. The white art-gallery wall would be ringed with a lengthy series of framed color images — perhaps 16 inches square, like a Polaroid enlarged — of slippers, combat boots, snow boots, saddle shoes, and gladiator sandals from 1980, when I was the first kid at East Hampton Middle School to wear Converse sneakers like the Ramones, up through the present day (when my only interesting pair are the muddy Hoka clodhoppers I took to work in the fields at Share the Harvest Farm in 2022). Beside each photograph in the progression of artistic color photographs of footwear, arranged chronologically, would have been a date and a few sentences of fashion-history-slash-sociological commentary: “Purple suede needle-nose winkle-pickers, 1982, with silver bondage-style buckles. Bought on Eighth Street, New York City, with my mother’s credit card during a field trip with a ninth-grade art class. These are the purple suede punker shoes my friend Antonia said were so embarrassingly weird and kitsch that she didn’t like to be seen standing next to me when I was wearing them.” Et cetera.

I do think this was a good idea, this shoe autobiography (“Lost Soles”?) art exhibition, and whenever I have reason to buy a new pair I look down at my feet, turn my ankles this way and that, and remember my project that never happened.

I do wish I had photographs of all my favorite footwear, but I don’t. I did take mental snapshots.

Many of life’s moments of reflection on shoes, and what shoes mean for an American woman’s identity, take place in the ladies rooms. In my case, the ladies rooms of nightclubs, restaurants, cafes, publishing houses, firehouses, speakeasies, and bars. The ladies room as female space, inner sanctum, in which you pause for a quiet moment of silent meditation. Sitting there in a stall or standing in front of the full-length mirror by the door, a ritual reflection.

When I was 19, it was a very good year. It was a very good year for white-rubber flatform sandals with ankle straps that closed with Velcro. Silver toenail polish, a snapshot on a brownstone stoop on East Third Street in the East Village. In the Polaroid snapshot you can see the bottom of a pair of white “leggins” (weirdly, they were called “leggins” then, not “leggings”) decorated with Pop Art flowers in pop colors of bubble-gum pink and sunshine-yellow. The white rubber flatforms were two or three inches high, and buoyant underfoot. Sound track: “Subway Train” by the New York Dolls as I bounced down the avenue in the sunshine of my youth. This was a year when I wore my hair in long, multicolored dreadlock extensions from Antenna, the revolutionary hair salon in London; I had a 27-inch waist, and — in my “Dating Game” daisy leggings or a vintage miniskirt — got wolf whistles and catcalls from construction workers on the street. (And didn’t mind the wolf whistles at all, if I’m honest.)

When I was 21, it was a very good year. It was a very good year for whiskey-colored leather vintage 1970s Frye boots, worn with Levi’s 501 button-fly jeans so ancient, worn, and torn, you could see most of either thigh through the fraying and holes. Soundtrack: “Kitchen Action” by Da Willys, live at the garage rock-and-roll loft party where Joey Ramone chatted me up on the line for the bathroom, and actually talked me up against a wall, in the din of drums, bass, and beer bottles, for five minutes, but was so slurred that I have no idea of a single word he said. R.I.P., Joey.

In Budapest at 25, the Polaroid shows my feet underneath a brass-legged, marble-topped cafe table at the Muvesz Kavehaz on Andrassy Ut: in a pair of brown telephone lineman’s boots with the chunky 1990s heel. The photograph is hazy with cigarette smoke. In Manhattan at 28, wearing genuine vintage navy-blue Betty Grable pin-up pumps and seamed stockings in the ladies rooms at the Chatterbox, gossiping about sweater girls and applying red lipstick in the mirror. At 30, at the old Condé Nast headquarters on Madison Avenue: Marc Jacobs’s famous Mouse flats, the original leather ones with the peekaboo toes, a Polaroid snapped on the fire escape at the back of my office, where girls bullied by their male-editor bosses would come to cry and smoke cigarettes. Then a decade of stiletto heels: Stuart Weitzman’s stretch-suede knee boots with sharp heels and toes; Manolo slingbacks in silver satin acquired at a sample sale in, if memory serves — no, it doesn’t serve — the Pierre Hotel. Or maybe the Carlyle. And then a shocking plot twist! Black-scuffed, sooty-smelling, bright-safety yellow firefighter’s boots, steel-toed, several sizes too big, riding in the back of an open-cab American LaFrance pumper truck that rattled along a rutted road through the woods of Nova Scotia under the cold, cold moonlight.

It’s been rawther a long time since I owned any shoes that felt worthy of a Polaroid or that seemed to reflect anything in particular about my character or my autobiography. It’s been plain white or cream-colored sneakers for years now, a long procession of Pumas (perhaps enlivened by a neon-lime logo on the side), Adidas three-stripes, and, lately, the same boring old Reebok Club C Vintage style that, to my regret, The New York Times’s shopping guide, Wirecutter, featured in an article on “The Best White Sneakers” last week. That The New York Times has a weekly shopping guide is a bit depressing to begin with, but it does seem proof positive that we’re living through an era of increasingly dull and homogenous mass consumerism when Wirecutter news flashes appear in the morning inbox promoting scintillating topics like “the best white sneakers,” “the best no-show socks,” and “the best beard trimmer.”

The snappy trick I would like to pull off, to fill the fourth white wall of the imaginary art gallery displaying my imaginary exhibit of shoes-as-autobiography, would be to capture an iPhone photo of my own feet wearing a pair of Hoka Speedgoat hiking shoes — lightweight, ground-gripping, and ugly as sin — as I step over an ancient stone wall, in a green pasture as Highland cattle turn their heads slowly to look at a wayfaring stranger, on the Great Glen Way long-distance walking path between Fort William and Inverness in Scotland. Although the procession of white sneakers is certainly symbolic, in the literary sense, you don’t really want to conclude your “Lost Soles” autobiographical exhibition with white sneakers, or a Polaroid snapshot of yellow-polyester hospital socks stretched out in the distance at the end of a Medacure electric adjustable bed.



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