Learning To Dress, Part 2: 
Good Shoes Gone Bad

by Jeff Lewis

Warning:  This is bloody.

I’d like to use this forum to dispel a number of misconceptions about shoe hoarding.  As a rule, I applaud anyone who owns a few too many shoes—as long as there’s no straying into Imelda territory—but a line must be drawn:  your collection should have no more than one dilapidated shoe.   While it is foolish not to have a pair of grungy tennies for unforeseen painting or muckraking—actual or journalistic—you need only one pair, stored out of sight in a low-humidity environment.  Save your closet or shoe tree for stylish shoes, be they pumps, Pumas or patent leather moccasins.  For those of you who hang on to your shabby shoes, I’ll detail a quartet of common shoe-cache fallacies, in hopes that you’ll see your folly.  First off, we have:

The Disposable Footwear Fallacy

As the son of parents who sort of lived during the Depression, I was raised on the belief that scuffed, out-of-fashion or even malodorous shoes have their uses as disposable footwear for impromptu roof repairs, hikes through bogs, concrete mixing or costume parties.  This is true, but far too many people take this to an extreme and save all of their old shoes for doing odd jobs or muddy walks.  Both homeowners and men who are easily coerced into mud football games are especially susceptible to believing this fallacy—particularly the homeowners, who never know when a weekend sunrise will inspire them to change the mustard trim in the kitchen to a yolkier shade of yellow.

I have a solution that will free up space in your closet:  use Goodwill as a lending library for shoes.  Here’s how it works.  Donate all unneeded shoes to Goodwill, in order to receive the fair-market tax deduction.  They’ll take them, soles or not, in most cases.  Let’s say you donate six pair and claim $30.  I’m not a CPA, but I believe that will save you about $9 on your taxes, which will buy you at least four pair of disposable shoes (if you have the option, buy unmatched single shoes—they’re a great deal).  Just make sure you get a left and a right and don’t forget to boil the shoes!  You don’t want someone else’s onychomycosis.  Of course, if you’re really lucky or have appalling taste, Goodwill might still have your own shoes.

By the time you’ve gone through the four disposable pair, you’re bound to have worn out some of your good shoes, so the cycle can continue.  The same principle should be applied to work sweatshirts and overalls (you still need to boil!).  Incidentally, you also can use your neighbors’ house as a storage site by surreptitiously leaving a box of your shoes on their doorstep and then buying them back later for a quarter at their garage sale.  At worst, if the neighbor didn’t hold on to them, you saved yourself a trip to Goodwill, although it is harder to make a tax deduction, unless you are brash enough to ask your neighbors for their Goodwill receipt.

(Incidentally, this section does not apply to cat burglars, who need to maintain a constant supply of worn shoes—in order to avoid leaving a signature footprint—but can’t afford to be noticed by nosy Goodwill clerks or neighbors.)

The Red Army Fallacy

Many bohemian types go for a falsely chic Ché Guevara look, hiding a t-shirt with CG’s likeness under a sweater with epaulets.  A threadbare tweed blazer tops it off.  Tsk, tsk.  A cousin of this debacle is the second-hand army boot/Catholic school skirt combo.

I must admit that, in the past, I’ve strayed into this territory unconsciously, including (unfortunately) on my first date with my wife.  The shoes that I wore that evening were an ex-roommate’s standard-issue patent leather dress shoes, from his army days seven years previous.  He’d left them out for a Salvation Army pick-up, but since they were still fairly shiny, I salvaged them.  They had his name and dog tag number written on the insole, but I figured that lent them an air of authenticity.  By the time I wore them out on our date, they were undeniably battered, with heels worn sideways at about a thirty-degree angle, due to my idiosyncratic gait.  The shoes on their own were bad; I matched them with an oversized navy blue corduroy jacket that I thought had a nautical flair to it (a topic for another week).

It’s amazing that I survived that first date because we ate at a Thai restaurant that requires patrons to take off their shoes, giving Lynn a close-up of both my dress shoes and cheap holey socks.  Be careful what you wear on a first date, because if the two of you become betrothed somewhere down the line, you may hear about your outfit for a long time.

The Signature Model Fallacy

I know—and am related to—several crazed athletic shoe-hoarders, who keep boxes of unopened Nikes, Pumas, Converse and Adidas in their garage, waiting for the day when the children at the shoe factories rebel, sending the demand for mint-condition black market high-tops skyrocketing.  This is a good business plan because—mark my word—this will come to pass.  However, the black market value of worn athletic shoes is fickle, so there is no need to hang on to your old stinky shoes, even if they are Hakeem Olajuwon-signature Ponys, or made by the company that bet the farm on Patrick Ewing and lost.

I practice what I preach:  when the nails that secured the cleats of my prized pair of Rudi Voeller-signature soccer shoes poked through into my foot, I replaced them, even though they were dear to me.  Rudi’s silly mustache, bobble-head, and stiff puppet arms made him a masterful flop artist, perhaps the greatest in Europe.  If you’ve ever seen a European sporting event, you know that’s high praise indeed.  It was tough to switch to a newer model, but I did.  (One of my psychopathic teammates refused to change his shoes when he encountered a similar nail problem.  The nail, he said, “fired him up.”)

Another time, I tried to salvage a pair of high tops that I’d left in a dank place.  They had a rodent smell, but because they also had sentimental value—they featured the colors of my favorite basketball team, the Golden State Warriors—I did my best to rehabilitate them.  A trip to the library netted me several sample perfume packets from glossy magazines, which I rubbed into the inside fabric before washing.  In retrospect, I should have chosen GQ and Men’s Fitness, rather than Cosmopolitan and Redbook.  The new scent was still rodent, only prettier.  Perhaps Cool Water Cologne would have been a better choice; the subtle hint of sandalwood would have dulled the rodent undertones.

Trying to make the best of the situation, I wore them anyway, hoping that a basketball game’s collective BO would mask the stench.  Initially, my shoes were an asset, spreading confusion on the basketball court, while the players on each side tried to figure out the origins of the funky odor.  When my explanations produced blank stares, I learned my lesson and threw the shoes out.

The Just-One-More-Washing Fallacy

When the smell of your shoes becomes unbearable, you have passed the stage where washing will fix the problem.  Even if you haven’t foolishly rubbed perfume into them, shoe odor is systemic and incurable, despite what Odor Eaters and Dr. Scholl’s may claim.  To prove my point, I’ll provide you with a typical case of shoes gone foul, and illustrate why no amount of machine or hand washing could save them.

Before I start, I need to get one vital fact out in the open.  I have been known to have plantar warts.  I’m not proud of them (and they’re currently in remission!) but I need to mention them because they are at the crux of this story.  Over the years, I tried countless methods to rid myself of them, including freezing, lasers, chemicals and letting a quack doctor cut into them before the local anesthetic kicked in (the same doctor pulled a similar stunt on a relative; after the painful procedure, the doc told him to stand up.  Light-headed, my relative passed out, smashing his head against the door knob).

When I established that the traditional treatments didn’t work, I taped banana peels to my feet.  Not surprisingly, this didn’t work either.  Nor did duct tape.  I was in the middle of one of these self-ministrations in my old bedroom at my parents’ house when Lynn arrived to meet the parents for the first time.  My sweet mother answered the door and, after a warm greeting, told Lynn, “Jeff will be right out.  He’s just in the other room treating his warts.”  Thankfully, I’d already told Lynn about them—both the warts and the parents, that is.

At the time of this exchange, I was up in Northern California during my summer break from graduate school.  When I returned to the university in the fall, I worked as a teaching assistant, or TA, for a mean-spirited history professor.  He was a nice enough man if you didn’t have to work for him, but he took a disliking to some of his TAs and would make their lives miserable.

For example, he once berated a fellow TA for missing class when she threw out her back and then explained to the rest of the TAs in our weekly teachers’ meeting that she was a liar because she could not produce a note from a doctor.  He also announced at another meeting that Pablo—a middle-aged man in exceedingly poor health—was a terrible teacher, who lacked energy and drive.  My boss, it seemed, despised the weak.  Because he may be the type to hit me with a libel suit, I will refer to him as Professor Ajax Fury—pronounced “Ahhyaaks Furree”—in order to protect myself from litigation.  It is not his real name.

My TA position gave me free access to the university’s health center, so I decided to take one more clinical stab at my plantar warts.  After a few painful but ineffective freezing sessions, a nurse referred me to a doctor who was developing a new treatment method that combined freezing and cutting.  Fun!  Anyway, on our first session, he was planning on being fairly conservative and, therefore, asked me to tell him when the pain became “too much.”  He seemed to be more competent than the quack doctor that I referred to earlier, so I was game.

The years of treatment gave me a fairly high pain threshold for both freezing and cutting in the plantar region, but only a vague idea of the clinical definition of “too much.”  After a while, the doctor emitted a concerned-sounding “Hmmm” and a “I think I was a little more aggressive than I planned.”  There was a decent bit of blood coming out of the ball of my left foot and heel of the right, so he applied pressure and a compound to halt the bleeding.  It took a while, but eventually this worked, so he patched me up with large fancy band-aids and he sent me on my way, just in time to teach my 11:00am class.

I don’t remember the details of the class, other than feeling a little strange and noticing partway through that my feet were a little squishy.  That made me feel uneasy, especially when I noticed that my blue suede shoes were now dark purple, but the professor was known to show up in the last ten minutes of class, so I didn’t dare end it early.  Plus, Professor Fury required all TAs to attend his lecture, which began at noon.  I didn’t want to land in the doghouse with my fellow TAs, so I decided to demonstrate that I was legitimately injured before skipping out of lecture.  Anyway, it wasn’t like blood was gushing out of my shoes; it was only seeping out slowly.

I needed to get to the lecture hall before the professor arrived—a difficult proposition when you have to walk across campus using only the toes of the right foot and the heel of the left.  I reached the hall just as he entered it and waved plaintively.  I croaked, “Excuse me, Professor Fury,” while making sure to keep a beleaguered expression on my face.  He halted, turned and cheerfully asked, “Hello, Jeffrey, how are you today?”  I heel-toed up next to him and said, “Professor Fury.  Um.  I had some holes cut in my feet and...”  I pointed down at my shoes and rocked from one foot to another to produce an audible squish-squish.  “...I’m losing a bit of blood.”  Squish-squish.

A viscous liquid was clearly ebbing and waning through the suede with each squish.  I continued, “I think I should go to the health center.  I’ll try to make it back if I can.”  He looked at me paternally and said, “I’m very concerned, Jeffrey.  What are you doing here?  Go straight to the health center and I’ll have Matthew take notes for you.”  As I heel-toed back towards the health center, I wondered whether it occurred to him that I’d chosen to leak a little extra blood because I didn’t want to hassle with his possible reprisal.  Most likely, though, the professor just thought I was dim.

Squish-squish played well at the health center too, and two nurses attended to me in short order.  By the way, you’d be surprised at the carrying capacity of a size-ten suede shoe.  It certainly shocked the nurses, who weren’t ready for the onslaught when the shoe came off:  Buckets of Blood—or at least a bucket-like plastic trough that one nurse grabbed so she had somewhere to pour the contents of the shoe.

After that, they waited to take off my sock while they hurriedly summoned a couple of doctors.  They stripped off my now-very-heavy Mervyn’s dress sock; I’d worn my synthetic socks with thick sole padding:  very spongy!  While I oozed, the doctors made good time stitching up the left foot, amusing themselves by ridiculing the last doctor’s suturing skills.  I noticed, though, that they did appreciate the suturing ability of a tight suede shoe, because they left on the right one until they were done with the left foot and ready with the plastic trough for the next gusher.

After finishing up both feet, one of the doctors gave me a few stipulations for my recovery.  He said that the feet would heal in a few days, provided I walked on them as little as possible and didn’t get my feet wet for the next week.  Wet feet would lead to infection, which could result in the loss of my plantar warts, along with my feet.

This meant staying in my apartment for a few days, walking around on my knees, and washing myself in the kitchen sink.  Before I left the health center, a nurse gave me a stash of jumbo-sized Ziploc bags that I could wear as booties on my trips to the bathroom.  She thoughtfully placed my rather stiff, damp socks in one.  Since I didn’t have socks for my heel-toe walk home, I wore two of my new bags because I preferred the cool plastic to the feel of the bloody suede.  I don’t care much for my blood after it’s been out of my body for a while, you see.

I luckily had a three-day weekend ahead of me and plenty of homework, so staying in my apartment wasn’t a hardship, although it did keep me from going to the laundromat.  Initially, I left my shoes and socks outside, but worried that the neighborhood coyotes would tear into them, so I zipped them inside multiple baggies and left them near a window.  That was a bad decision.

If your shoes or socks get thoroughly soaked with blood, you should throw them out immediately.  I've found that the scent of blood never fully washes out of leather, and synthetic dress socks become stiff, like plaster of Paris, if you aren’t willing to wring them out immediately.  What’s worse is that the smell of death can transfer to other clothes or, in my case, a mattress pad.  If that isn’t reason enough, there’s this:  blood-soaked shoes are not as valuable as an icebreaker as you’d think.  Apparently, their novelty is outweighed by the fact that they are technically a biohazard.

Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004