An Elegy for Shoes

Katherine Pickett

Alone on a city bus in St. Louis, two British Knights sit side by side, riding the same route for hours. Up and down they go, bumping along the busy thoroughfare in a blue plastic seat near the back of the bus. Darkness falls. Just one week old, the BKs gleam white under the fluorescent lights, waiting, waiting. But no one comes. The beloved basketball shoes have been forgotten. Will they ever be reunited with their owner?

A friend once advised me there are three things in life you should never skimp on: a haircut, toilet paper, and shoes.

Matching black sandals, made of faux leather with a wedge heel, sit at the bottom of a wardrobe in a beachfront hotel in tiny Cuyutlán, Mexico. Although they have been given many chances to “break in,” they know they have failed to provide even the slightest comfort. So fashionable, with a toe strap that hugs the wearer’s first toe, the two shoes cannot keep themselves from cutting into soft, fleshy feet. They are not forgotten. They are abandoned.

My friend was right.

In Boston and Washington, DC, two pairs of boots that have never crossed paths nevertheless meet the same fate. These boots were not meant for walking, but that’s just what they did. And so they are dumped—one pair in a bin outside the famed Boston Public Library, the other mere blocks from the White House front lawn, where an Easter Egg Roll is taking place. What a surprise to be removed from feet in the middle of the sidewalk and deposited into a trash can. Their vacation has taken a dark turn. How long before the blood dries?

Some shoes may be like a best friend, always supportive, there for you when you need them. Others are frenemies, stylish and fun, but deceptive in how much they will eventually hurt you.

A first pair of Nike casual tennis shoes, made of blue canvas with the distinctive white swoosh along the side, feel superior knowing they are a young woman’s go-to shoes for an entire year. This, even though they turn Chicago white socks Cubbies blue in the rain. But when the padding in the heel peels away, they are sent to the showers. Black leather Merrell sandals, once hailed as “the most comfortable shoe known to mankind,” eventually give way under the pressure of daily wear. When they become misshapen, they are accused of “letting themselves go” and are ruthlessly discarded by the very person who caused their destruction.

We must choose wisely.

Four-inch platforms that tie on the side are the perfect pairing with red-and-black floral print party pants. It is they who catch the attention of the impossibly tall, impossibly good-looking day trader at a friend’s housewarming. The party is never over when they are around. The festive footwear travel from Chicago to St. Louis with every intention of being donned again. Are they to blame for their owner aging out of the style?

A good pair of shoes might wait years for their turn to shine. Will they see a new city? Will they walk in gum? What excitement will come their way? They are at the mercy of their owner.

Gorgeous maroon high heels with a business flair, worn only once but loved for much longer, cannot stop pregnancy from expanding the feet that once slipped inside. Long do they remember the day they dangled from a perfectly shaped foot in the halls of the St. Louis Art Museum waiting to be seen for an interview. After a passerby said, “I love your shoes,” they glowed with pride and walked a little taller.

Lacing up, slipping on, or buckling the straps on a pair of shoes brings to mind the last best time we wore them: a wedding, a house party, a stroll along the boardwalk with a friend.

Darling green low-cut Chuck Taylors walk into a thrift store near their home and come out with the wedding dress of their dreams. “Forty dollars,” the saleswoman said, “since you came in here wearing those shoes.” But the cool kicks meet their match when a puppy is brought into the house. With their soles ripped out, the emotional attachment is no longer enough. Good-bye, Chuck.

Meanwhile, a pair of Doc Martens last for more than a decade with regular use. Though their insoles have to be replaced twice, the treads show little wear. Illinois to Missouri, Missouri to Maryland, these clodhoppers never surrender. Indeed, like soldiers who refuse to give up their post, they stand at attention on the shoe rack even after they are deemed too mannish to be worn. Together they bravely leave home for the Vietnam Veterans of America and, it is hoped, a new permanent owner.

“Icky Thump,” “Blue Orchid,” “House of the Rising Sun”—I can tell you exactly where I was when I first heard these songs. The day the Dead Weather’s first single debuted, I was in my car listening to the radio outside of a department store, getting ready to return some shoes.

Two pairs of high-heeled sandals, one black, one brown, are each plucked from the shoe store shelves on the very day they are needed. Comfortable and fashionable, they are the envy of many women. These strappy, sassy shoes accentuate the positive under denim skirts and cocktail dresses, and they can stand for hours, never having to worry about Band-Aids or blood stains. Indeed, parties and cocktail hours are occasions for a celebration of feet. They are exalted!

And then. And then. Parties and cocktails give way to midnight feedings and play dates, and before long, both beauties are benched. For years they await the return of a social life, but it comes too late. When at last they are dusted off and slipped on, they stretch and pinch, wobble and dig, and finally—break. And so, they too leave this world for the garbage heap.

Like those most memorable songs, I recall the day I first encountered so many of my shoes. Where I found them, what they meant to me. And just as often, I remember how abruptly we parted. I mourn them all....

There is one happy ending, however.

A kindly bus driver, tired from her shift, discovers a pair of British Knights at the back of her bus. She returns to the station and carries the shoes inside, where they wait to be reclaimed. This time their owner does not disappoint. “You came back!” they cry as she enters the station office. The owner embraces the shoes she believed lost forever. Then she carefully ties the laces together, drapes the BKs over one strong shoulder, and they all walk out together. What joy to once again feel loved!


About the Author

Katherine Pickett is the owner of POP Editorial Services LLC and the author of Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro. Her personal essay “Dented” was published by Lowestoft Chronicle and selected for the 2011 Lowestoft Chronicle print anthology. Her articles have appeared on Publishing Perspectives, JaneFriedman.com, Writer Beware, IBPA Independent, and elsewhere in print and around the web. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her handsome and strong husband, Chris, and their two awe-inspiring daughters.