Forward Living: For shoes, he leaves his comfort zone

Several pairs of shoes in the closet. Only one I can wear. For many years, day after day I’ve worn that one pair of creamed-colored shoes. I found them at Clarks in the Tanger mall in Riverhead. A discontinued model. They are so comfortable any other shoe seemed designed for some alien species. Trouble is the cream color looked more and more grey and wrinkled and plain awful, no matter how comfortable the shoes had been. I went back to Tanger mall, but I couldn’t find a pair that worked for me. I kept putting on the cream-colored shoes.

Years passed. For formal events I’d bought a pair of black shoes in Boston prior to a friend’s daughter’s wedding. Not trusting my willingness to suffer for the sake of formality, my friend accompanied me to the store.

“This pair,” she said, pointing to a narrow, cruel-looking pair of shoes. “Perfect,” she thought.

But for “normal” life the cream-colored shoes remained my only choice. One day I had to face reality when my dog Nina and I became a therapy dog team and we visited hospitals and nursing homes. Everyone working there had sparkling white shoes. Even Nina wears white paws. People might wonder: Why such dirty shoes? So inappropriate in a medical environment. I never felt they were dirty. They were incredibly comfortable. That’s all I knew. So comfortable I even forgot I had shoes on.

I do not like shopping malls. You circle around vast parking lots. Tall, bulky SUVs always ready to run you over. You worry about new scratches and dents after leaving your car to fend for itself alone while venturing in stores where no one knows you. Salespersons are chatting away. I ask, “Do you work here?” Reluctantly, “How can I help you?” By then I’m ready to go back to Orient and take the dog for a walk in my beat-up old shoes.

Who needs fancy new shoes anyway? My neighbors don’t care what’s on me. I like the old frayed shirts, the worn corduroy pants, the shapeless down coats. Yet it’s true, getting dressed up can be exhilarating. When it’s the exception, not everyday life. And I like to shop where people know me. In the same way I like my doctor to greet me as a friend, not as an inconvenient interruption. I’ve had it with click-click culture. Give me human voices, handwritten notes, local history. “It takes a village …”

Once upon a time I would go to Brandi’s shoe store in Greenport at the corner of Front and First streets, across from Colonial Drugs. The owner would tell me what’s available, what he would recommend, like a chef in a restaurant. He was an older man who seemed amused as you struggled with your choice. I took my mother and grandmother there. And friends. It was one of the few places where I could find plain white woolen socks. You could get your shoes repaired in the back of the store. There was a side door for that and a cobbler working away near a window. Now the store has been gone for years.

And Arcade! New visitors to Greenport will never know what it meant to so many of us. Our own independent five-and-dime. A barnlike space you could walk through from the parking lot to Front Street, as if it were a garden to explore. The wooden floor was uneven and unvarnished. The air you breathed, a mixture of a thousand scents that would confuse the best trained rescue dog. Rolls of fabric, flip-flops, dungarees, notebooks, Gorilla Glue, you’d find it there. Problems in the house? You’d head for Arcade for a solution. The owner might even be your guide. Even if you had nothing to buy, the place had a calming effect. A trip to the good old days of small town USA, a Norman Rockwell detour.

When I was a child my mother treated me to a custom-made pair of shoes. It was wartime in Brittany. How could we afford it? Let me tell you: They were simple clogs carved out of a piece of wood right in front of me. Inexpensive. What the farmers’ children wore in all seasons. You put a handful of hay in them. Noisy, uncomfortable, but they made you a local boy instantly. You didn’t want to stand out, a skinny 7-year-old freshly arrived from Paris.

Back to Clarks/Bostonian Outlet No. 819. Today the manager is helpful. I find a pair of white leather walking shoes. Clarks “Wave” design to “enhance the experience of walking longer and farther with less fatigue and greater comfort … ” Nurses’ shoe white. I glow in the dark. Perhaps not quite as comfortable as my cream-colored companions. But at least I match my dog’s white paws.

Pierre Gazarian is a poet and a writer of one-act plays. Email: [email protected]