by Ruth Horowitz
My mother always worried that I would develop bunions if I wore the wrong shoes. As each school year began, she and I made our way up to Dr. Tax’s Shoe Store on Queens Boulevard. In the 1940s, Dr. Tax had a “modern” x-ray machine, the fluoroscope, touted as a vital instrument in the pursuit of a pair of sensible shoes. I would stand up on a small platform and place my feet into an opening at the bottom of an old-fashioned console radio-looking cabinet. Peering into a viewer at the top, Dr. Tax could look at the x-ray of my feet to determine if the shoes were a proper fit. Whether or not this procedure actually helped my mother buy the right shoes is unknown, but going through it persuaded her that my feet were being well looked after. And that I would not get bunions.
Once examined, I would come home with the same pair of heavy brown leather oxfords, sometimes a buckled and fringed style, sometimes, lace-ups. Small in size as I was, their weight in pounds was a hefty burden; I felt entirely rooted to the ground, and yearned for the day when I could make my own shoe decisions. The holy grail of my childhood was to own a pair of Capezios, the ultimate nothing shoe. Feather weight and fashionable, “girlie” and grown-up, they were unadorned soft leather flats made by the ballerinas’ supply store of the same name, and very importantly, worn by the older girls I marveled at.
A childhood ballerina herself, my mother enrolled me in ballet lessons early on. Once a week, I left PS 150 to climb the hill on 42nd Street where, in the basement of a Chinese Laundry between Queens Boulevard and Greenpoint Avenue, Erika Iskot took us girls through a rigorous practice of ronds de jambe and battements tendus to the music of Tchaikovsky. With each new set of exercises, Mrs. Iskot had to move the record needle to a compatible piece of music. With her dark hair drawn into a roll at the nape of her neck, and invariably dressed in a finely knit pink top, black practice pants, a short over-skirt, and fishnet stockings, Mrs. Iskot conveyed in her demeanor the seriousness of the dance. And we - the dozen girls or so of varying ages, sizes and skills – strove to honor her commitment to foster our budding dance skills. Our pursuit of prima ballerina-hood took place in a starkly bare basement overhung with large pipes and the thick smell of Chinese laundry wafting down from above. This simple setting also sealed the idea of Capezio shoes in my imagination. I was, after all, a dancer.
For school shoes my mother was adamant, and continued to take me into stores known for their Buster Brown style shoes. In junior high, she schlepped me to a Coward’s Shoe Store on a memorably painful shopping trip. Each pair of shoes was brought out, tried on and rejected by me. While my mother negotiated with the salesman, I felt myself sinking into the mire of thwarted desire. Part of the problem was that I had very wide (EEE) feet, and so very little choice. Another, the expense, was always an issue.
The main problem, however, was that no shoe that pleased my mother would ever please me - and vice versa. Salesmen were always caught up in our quietly fraught disagreements. That day once again, my mother opted for the extreme clodhoppers, a pair of beige suede lace-ups, oddly repeating the original Dr. Tax fringe. I had little say in the matter, and during the brief time the salesman left to box the shoes and bring them back, I silently dissolved in tears. Embarrassed, my mother took me aside: Don’t cry, she counseled, the salesman won’t understand. This was one time my mother’s understanding of others did not serve me well. Once home, the shoes remained snug in the shoe bag on my bedroom door, and never left.
High school saw me in klutzy saddlebacks. Only in college did my lot change: I was finally released from my mother’s shoe-buying strictures, freed to buy what I wanted in a pair of shoes. Of course, I got my Capezios. Unexpected, however, was the unbridled shoe-purchasing brought on by this new freedom. Empowered by my release, I became a voracious purchaser of all kinds and colours of flimsy, possibly bunion-producing shoes, one for each outfit and occasion. But I never got bunions….
By the mid-seventies, I was living in Canada. One day, a package arrived from my mother. In it, I found a pair of Zurich Birkenstocks she’d bought ($12.00 new) from a classified ad at the back of the NYTimes magazine section. At long last, I thought, a pair of shoes my mother and I can agree on!
David smiling in his new sneakers;
a glum Ruthie in Buster Browns.
Ruth has been homesteading with her husband in Nova Scotia since 1974.