When we first moved into our current apartment, which is in a building dominated by non-english speaking immigrants from the Dominican Republic, I put up my two framed posters of the covers of art speigelman's Maus graphic novels. Hung them together on the wall of our living room, across from the lone window in the room. And over that lone window I hung up a knitted blanket that looked like an American flag--as a practical measure, since we didn't yet have curtains large enough for the unusually large window, and it was the only thing we owned large enough to give us some privacy since we'd already used the thicker Simpsons-themed blanket for the bedroom window.
It was tough living in a building full of people who didn't speak my language. Took a while to adjust, but adjustment wasn't helped by the way my neighbors glared at me whenever I smiled at them as we passed on the staircase or in the lobby. A few times I tried a 'Hola!' or two, got only stony silence in return. Once, our then-super, Jorge, came up to fix something, entered the apartment, took a look around, and then made an excuse to leave. "I cannot," he said simply. "Not right now. Maybe later." (Jorge spoke perfect english, which would later get him into a lot of trouble, but that's another story involving a sweat-shop he was running out of an apartment on the fifth floor and a few illegal immigrants stuffed into an apartment he was supposed to be renovating and the prostitution ring he was running out of the basement. Jorge, it seems, really took to the American Dream concept, with gusto.)
It took me four or five months to realize the entire building thought I was a neo-Nazi. Our building, see, is shaped like a Lego-inspired horseshoe. There's the east wing, which is where our living room is, and a west wing which faces our living room. Between, there's empty space (except on the first floor, where there's naturally a sidewalk and front door). All the people living in the west wing had a wonderful view of our American flag blanket, or on hot days when the window was open, our living room walls. Casual observers who didn't speak english--and therefore probably weren't too terribly familiar with the covers of art spiegelman's Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novels portraying the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats--saw, alternately, an American flag or these pictures hanging on the wall:
Greg made me take them down the instant I said, "Hm. You know, from a distance, I bet all you can see on our wall is two swastickas."
I told that story to give this one more context.
Saturday, I went, alone, to Harry's Shoes to pick up a pair of Birks, for whatever reasons. No, I know the reason: I'm a Southern boy, I hate shoes, I'm tired of flip-flops, and Birks are generally more acceptable than going places barefoot. The fact that I went alone is important. Whenever I go out in public unescorted, I manage to accidentally violate most laws of polite society.
Harry's Shoes is on the Upper West Side, and is a sort of institution, either genuinely or as a matter of branding, I'm not sure. They think they're an institution, at any rate. While browsing thru the selection, I heard more than one footwear specialist tell his or her customers, "We do look like a small store, but as anyone in New York will tell you, we have the most display shoe-to-stock ratio in the city. For every shoe you see out here, we have hundreds in the stock room." And there were a lot of display shoes.
Not a lot of display Birks, tho. I found one I sort of liked--wasn't in love with the style, but it was simple and versatile enough. I searched around for someone to assist me, and as I looked, I took off my glasses to wipe them off. I shoved the display Birk into an arm pit, pulled up my shirt tail slightly, and was wiping at the lenses when a (god help me for this one) person with brown skin tone and grey hair approached me.
Without my glasses, I can't see. Period. That's my only real defense here, but I think it's a good one, given just how awful my eyesight is. If a Nordic god had walked up to me, all I would've seen would be a white splotch with golden hair (and perhaps I might've made out a hammer or cane or something, depending, but not likely). If a Smurf had walked up to me? Blue splotch and white hat. I wouldn't've been able to tell Jokey from Vanity.
The guy--and I knew he was male from his voice, which was accented heavily with Brooklyn--asked if I needed help. I told him yes, and handed him the Birk, then, and only then, put on my glasses. He was already stooped over my foot, slipping off a flip-flop and shoving one of those mysterious, abacus-looking foot sizers under my sole. The top of his head was bald, a brown bald-spot ringed by curly grey hair. I was staring at my foot--I'd never actually had it properly sized, so was curious--and was about to put my full weight down on the metal thing when I realized my bare skin was currently touching an item almost certainly covered with the germs of hundreds of other sweaty feet. There is no Barbersol for foot-sizers. They don't come out of a jar filled with blue disinfectant; those metal things just hang out on well-trod floors all day, having foot after foot pressed against them like a fetish-whore in Amsterdam.
So I did not press my foot down. Or, rather, I hesitated. Stared at the diseased metal slab beneath my foot.
The next part will sound like a lie, but Greg will confirm it's true, because he's lived with me for 10 years and knows exactly how neurotic/insane I truly am. For the next fifteen minutes, rather than focusing on shoe-purchasing or my surroundings, all I could think about was that damn metal slab, and how many bacteria must now be crawling all over the ball of my foot and my heel (nothing else of me got near that thing). Not much else registered. So when my shoe salesman finally stood, and I had the chance to take a good look at him, I wasn't actually seeing him. A few features registered: he was indeed brown, he did indeed have grey hair. He, too, was preoccupied in that he was much more interested in taking care of an older woman beside me, probably because she would gain him a larger commission.
He asked me a question I didn't hear, so I said 'Yes,' because for some reason that's my automatic response to any question I didn't pay attention to (I find it makes life with Greg much easier to simply agree). He disappeared into a stock room. I sat in a chair, contemplating the many fungi and infections I had just been exposed to. I heard the older woman next to me tell her husband, "I think I should get these in black, and these in blue. But what about these?"
The salesman returned with a box, shoved a Birk onto my foot, did some stuff with a strap, and that was that. He turned to the old woman and began talking to her. I had my box. I had my pair of shoes. I waited a beat, then proceeded to the check out so I could, you know, check out and get the fuck home to boil my foot in water.
The concept of commission, by the way, is sacred to me. Relatives of mine have lived or died on it. And it's important to me: the person who helped me should be rewarded. In line at the counter, I searched around with my eyes, but didn't see my (oh god) brown splotch with grey hair. And when the young woman behind the counter rang up my purchase, she asked, "So who helped you? Was it Nathan?"
I shrugged, dazed, anxious. "I. I don't know." I looked over my shoulder again. "I don't see him." I moved back, intended to return to the Birks section and find him, but the young woman intervened.
"Well," she asked, chewing a piece of gum while talking, which is a mesmerizing thing, incidentally, people who can chew and talk at the same time. She wasn't comprehensible, but she still gave the impression of word-formation. "Was he an African-American with grey hair?" she asked. But I didn't understand her. The only words coming thru clearly were 'grey' and 'hair.'
So I did what I do when I don't understand the question [see above]. I answered, "Yes." And I was thinking, 'Oh my god, I bet that fat woman with the bunions used the same foot-sizer. Are those bunions or some sort of contagious growth? Are bunions contagious?'
"So Nathan," the young woman smacked.
"I guess," I replied. "He had grey hair."
"Was he African-American with grey hair?"
I just wanted out at this point, and the line behind me was growing restless. I didn't blame them. Probably everyone in the store just wanted to get home and disinfect their feet. "Yes. Must've been Nathan. He had grey hair, that's right."
She swiped my card, and as I was signing the receipt, my shoe salesman came up to the counter. I recognized him. And again, my only defense on this is that he was exceptionally brown, and that is the only thing I could say about him. In my defense, I don't think all brown people look alike, which is to say that individuals are not shoe-styles--there's no giant stock room of people with a race-sample-to-stock ratio. He could've been Turkish-American, or he could've been African-American, or Indian-American. He could've come from fucking France for all I know. I'm very bad at guessing nations of origin based on appearance because, christ, everyone comes from somewhere and nowhere at once, you know?
I smiled at Nathan, and said, "I told her who helped me. Thanks!" I turned to leave.
"You gave me the Birk commission?" Nathan asked in his Brooklyn accent. And for some reason, I knew what was coming. I knew what the young woman would say before she said it.
The young woman said, "No, Ahmet. I gave it to Nathan."
I bolted, ashamed, horrified.
The punchline, if you want to call it a punchline, is that I have to exchange the Birks, which are too small by at least one size. Because I didn't put my weight on the metal disease chart/foot-sizer. Which means probably meeting up with Ahmet, who thinks I couldn't tell the difference between a Turkish- and African-American, because I'm an American imperialist who sees all brown people as indistinguishable splotches. Which is true, but not true at all.
I see all people as indistinguishable splotches, no matter the color.
If it's any consolation to Ahmet, the Birks he sold me caused me a lot of torture during the one day I wore them. I think I got what I deserved. Also, the style of Birkenstock I ended up with is the 'Arizona' style, which I also think I deserve.
Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.
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