I was seated in the doctor's office the other day and noticed that almost all of the people were wearing running shoes. The running shoes looked hardy, immortal, resistant to disintegration, subject not to the onslaught of weather or use, but only to the shifting sentiments of taste and style.
What happened to all the shoemakers repairmen, I thought. Those small Italian and German men of my youth hunched over their benches, carving strips of leather, fitting them into place onto and under worn out shoes, fitted the replacements with stitches or glue, rounding and curving the skin of animals into the soft reworked footwear of thousand and thousands of my neighbors and friends.
Then I remembered holes in the soles of my own teenage leather shoes, too poor to repair them or replace them--in those teenage days I was not the shoemaker's friend but their competitor--cutting cardboard to fit inside the shoe as temporary expedient to keep out the dirt and the cold and the rain. The elements eventually won, of course, in their inexorable drive to conquer my comfort; but for the next day or two, after my repairs, the cardboard was resilient and affective, I was clean--at least the insides of my shoes were--and warm and dry.
One summer I worked as a garbage man, hoisting large cans of industrial animal waste, blood and flash and fat gathered from the alleys behind butcher shops and supermarkets, onto the garbage trucks, then jumping back on the truck to evenly distribute the oozing mass, all the while feeling the slop disintegrate into and soon through my cardboard insoles, rushing against my feet, heels, arches, instep and toes, with the warm stickiness of the animal refuse.
The elements won during those moments; but I made good money that brief time as a garbageman, so I stood proud and tall, although on squishy feet, on the back of the garbage truck as we headed to the next pick up, nodding to friends and acquaintances who saw me as a working man; the man who would give his paycheck money to his mother every week, as she served me and I ate her cooking with prideful relish, all the while feet being dried and warmed by the oven near the kitchen table.
Old shoemakers came from a proud tradition of European leather workers; they served long hours as apprentices to other crafty and aged shoemakers; only finally, after many years of assiduous learning, opening their own shop. I wondered if the same could be said of the Central and South American, Chinese and Indian factor workers of today who fashion by machine the Nike and Adidas running shoes. Are they proud of their work? Are they part of a generational tradition; do they prize personal craftsmanship and the integrity of their finished product?
The nurse entered the waiting room, gestured to me. I went inside, sat in an inner waiting room, and doctor entered, carrying my thick medical folder. He sat close to me, personal. Once settled in the chair, he crossed his legs, lay his folder on his lap, and asked questions, taking notes with an old fashioned, elegant fountain pen. I noticed his pristine polished leather shoes, black loafers, the soles of which were only slightly scarred with use.
I took comfort in his total demeanor, that his medical work would reflect his shoes and appearance: sturdy, well-kept, prideful and knowledgeable; a continuation of a workmanlike tradition of craftsman, focused on detail. I was confident he would repair the holes in my aging body with the pride and craft of my boyhood shoe repairmen; now that I could afford his service.