John P. Stevens High School
I was ten years old when my mother told me, between an irritated sigh and a hand-on-hip, “You ought to learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for once.”
Her idea made me scrunch my nose and tilt my head. I saw several problems with it. For one, people were icky and shoes were ickier and probably encouraged the transmission of cooties. Plus, as a kid in the adult world, most people’s shoes wouldn’t even fit me. I rolled my eyes with a huff when she turned her back.
What was she even thinking? Ugh, adults. Still, it got me wondering: while putting myself in the shoes of other people was totally impractical, not to mention pretty gross, maybe I could look at the shoes from afar. That is how I started shoe-watching. My mom wore navy suede pumps, with points just thin enough to walk the line of femininity and practicality. My father wore his old New Balances (“They’re five years old,” he liked to remind me, “but I love them because I still get to call them ‘New’ Balances”).
Old Uncles wore flip flops, Old Aunties their juttis (“embroidered shoes that we Indians were wearing way before these Americans discovered sandals,” I was told). Pretty Girls wore ugly mustard Timberlands to balance out their pretty faces. Mean Boys wore red and navy flecked Nike sneakers that shot past me as they chased Pretty Girls.
I was twelve years old when I went to New York for the first time. New York City’s vast array of people made it the optimal place for shoe-watching. There were waffle outsole trainers standing behind the counters of run-down delis with crooked signs that read OPEN: a naive invitation to the shiny leather Oxfords walking out of the McDonald’s next door, juggling a McMuffin, laptop, and their patience. There were Cool Dad sandals and collar-popping moccasins and all-natural, vegetable-dyed booties imported from Borneo.
But mostly I remember the tattered sneakers of the dancing man.
They were muddy enough that you would not see they were off brand. Caught in the blur of a dance, they looked rather like coffee just before it splashes out of its cup. Right next to him was a cardboard box, sloppily wrapped in scrapbook paper with a post-it taped to it that read, in hurried black print, “Please leave tip for me and daughter.” On the paper, too, was a smiling stick figure drawn with wavering hands and a neon pink highlighter. Every time tattered sneakers accidently brushed scrapbook paper box, a jingle broke free, the sound of change from the half eaten McMuffins of uncaring shiny leather Oxfords, clashing with the gentle lull of Dolly Parton crooning from the man’s stereo. When my brother and I walked by his tattered sneakers that day on our way to the Toys ‘R Us, we would not stop for more than a few seconds.
When he called, “Excuse me ma’am, what’s your favorite song?” I clutched the fresh twenty-dollar bill in my hand harder, convincing myself he was pleading with someone else. Blush pink crocs instead responded to the incessant tug of a brother’s hand towards candy, Wii games, and glory, and away from, as I heard someone muttering, “people that need to get a job.”
Those tattered sneakers kept dancing. Later that afternoon, I was sitting on the steps of Times Square with my family, my stomach content with fettuccine alfredo and Willy Wonka’s best. The shoes there were not as diverse—most of the people were tourists, their rubber Birkenstocks clashing horribly with white socks, tapping the steps impatiently, waiting for something more exciting than Fifteen Seconds of Fame to flash across the billboard littered sky. In this crowd of clashing, tapping, waiting Birkenstocks, tattered sneakers stood out, and I recognized the small hole on the sole of the dancing man’s right shoe immediately. My eyes flickered up and indeed, it was him—the crinkles beneath his honey brown eyes were unmistakable. Next to him was an unfamiliar girl—young, perhaps my brother’s age. They sat on the steps, their bodies angled toward each other the way bodies do in intimate conversations.
I leaned closer. His shoes were the color of cracked ground, as if life had shaken them like plate tectonics do, but the only thing shaking now, for some reason, were his quivering lips. He resembled the stick figure that had been scrawled on his tip box much more now—his bones just as thin and his smile just as wavering.
“So how was work today, Daddy? Can we buy the a-part-ment?”
She stumbled over the word, the way rubber Birkenstocks in sock clad feet stumble over Man-hat-tan. I glanced up briefly to see his teeth skirt over his bottom lip. The girl’s eyes darted up, too. He winced and we both looked down again.
“Not today baby girl.” I heard him swallow.
I struggled to swallow too.
She was wearing black Mary Janes and I concentrated on the silver buckle that laced each strap as my ears strained to hear her next words.
“That’s okay, Daddy,” she said. “There’s always tomorrow.”
I closed my eyes. I imagined that they were exchanging stick figure smiles. Their feet slowly ceased tapping. The fettuccine alfredo in my stomach felt like it was twirling around my fork again, the candy fizzing and popping like a merry-go-round.
The thing about the tattered sneakers of dancing men is that they look so unsuspecting in a city of shiny leather Oxfords and blush pink crocs and waffle outsole trainers. Yet, for me, it was with tattered sneakers that shoe watching became shoe wearing.
You ought to learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for once.
And so I do. I put myself in my mother’s navy suede pumps, imagine that I am walking the tightrope between femininity and practicality. I put myself in my father’s New Balances, imagine that I am still cracking jokes on three hours of sleep between endless meetings. I put myself in waffle outsole trainers, imagine getting just a little excited every time shiny leather Oxfords walk past my deli, because God, maybe this time they’d actually walk in, and I put myself in those shiny leather Oxfords, imagine entering McDonald’s with a laundry list of things to do running though my head, the least of which is “buy a McMuffin.” I put myself in rubber Birkenstocks and black Mary Janes and all-natural, hormone-free, vegetable-dyed booties and I am an overwhelmed tourist in this city of lights, a daughter who doesn’t know how to make her father happy again, a Whole Foods enthusiast…
I put myself in the tattered sneakers of the dancing man, imagine spending my days on the balls of my feet dancing with such zeal that my nights can only be spent trying to massage the knots out of my body, imagine yet another encounter with a tip box that just isn’t full enough, yet another encounter with my disappointed daughter, still yet another city-goer who turns away from me as if I am merely the wind that carries me through my dance. And I put myself in the shoes of blush pink crocs, imagine walking through that city in them again, walking into run down delis with crooked OPEN signs and remembering that looks can be deceiving, pausing at the dancing man to tell him that “my favorite song would be anything by Dolly Parton, really” and dropping my fresh twenty-dollar bill into his scrapbook paper-wrapped box. Perhaps he would smile and tattered sneakers would dance with a lighter bounce and black Mary Janes would get a tiny step closer to her a-part-ment, a step closer to her tomorrow.
This piece takes the tritest of clichés spins it into a unique and immersive exploration of childhood guilt and its consequences.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vedika Dayal graduated from John P. Stevens High School in Edison, New Jersey in June of 2019. She is now a freshman in the Global Management Program at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business. She continues to pursue writing as a member of Haas's undergraduate blog team.