Being six foot three has its advantages. I’m hard to lose in a crowd, I usually get to see pretty well at concerts, and I can walk through parts of town that you can’t. However, there are times when I’d trade it all for a more normal skeleton. These times are the times when I have to buy new clothes. Pants are bad enough; the clothing industry seems to have decided that anyone with a waist size over 36 inches must be built like Danny DeVito. But the worst of all, the bane of my existence… is footwear.
I have size 14 feet. At that size, shoe manufacturers seem to have trouble envisioning anyone who exists outside of a sporting arena. They must think the coaches put us in cryogenic chambers between games and Powerade commercials. The problem is, I’m not an athlete. I don’t cross-train. I don’t need special orthopedic jelly bladders. I don’t want to think about orthopedic jelly bladders.
And I think athletic shoes are pretty hideous. I don’t want shoes that look like giant faux-leather bondage steamed buns.
I only found an athletic shoe I liked once. It was a New Balance running shoe, I think. I went through three pairs of those in succession, just so I didn’t have to go through the process of looking at a million ugly shoes again. Then they cancelled that line in favor of something with more gratuitous strips of leather substitute running all over the place.
Eventually, I found something I liked. The army surplus combat boot. It’s durable, it’s simple, it’s subtle, it goes with all sorts of different outfits, and I doubt they’re going to get cancelled in favor of something Day-Glo.
I wore the same pair for a couple of years, during which they led a tough life. I wore them through New England winters. I dumped a paint tray on them while doing some contracting work and had to scrub them clean with harsh abrasives. The insoles disintegrated. The black veneer rubbed off until they were a sort of mottled black-and-tan color. Then, the right heel sprung a hole. Over the next couple months, the hole spread. I started looking for surplus stores. Couldn’t find a size 14. But no hurry. It was summer, and ventilation is good.
As fall approached, I got more panicked. The hole had grown over an inch long, and was sending a sub-rip down toward the sole. I went on a quest. My local surplus store didn’t seem to have them. So I went to the next town over. I spent a while idly looking at parkas while the two guys in front of me talked about manly things (there are three types of people in army surplus stores: guys in their thirties with thick mustaches trying to be manly, teenage girls with short hair dyed multiple colors, and bewildered mothers trying to understand why their children want the three-foot-long flashlight rather than the one-footer. Which of these I would prefer to identify with, I’m not sure).
I think one of the manly guys was trying to get hold of a pair of arctic survival pants large enough to accomodate his thirtysomething-manly-man-Miller-Genuine-Draft gut. He made vague references to his motorcycle. Finally, the owner got over to me and told me that they didn’t carry size 14, but that I should try a size 13 and promptly brought out a size 13 imitation combat boot. You know the ones – those things which try to imitate army boots and Doc Martens all at once. Ech. They didn’t fit, anyway. So I put them back in the box and went to put them on the counter. I tried to thank the store owner, but he was busy discussing why the 8-inch carbon-steel survival knife is really what the well-equipped man needs, not the puny 5-incher which can fold on you unexpectedly. Somewhat intimidated by the phallic imagery, I left the store, while behind me an eight-year-old plaintively whined at his mother while waving a three-foot-long flashlight at her.
However, Mr. Arctic Pants had mentioned another surplus store, so I went there. It was kind of scary—a huge warehouse sort of place with aisles of camping gear. One of those places with the big “NO STUDENTS” signs, to keep high-school kids from fondling the camp stoves, I guess. They had no size 14’s on the rack, but I figured I should ask if they had any in back. However, this place intimidated me a bit. They had a security guard, the owner of the store was this scary woman who lurked on a balcony overlooking the whole place with an adding machine looking harried, and I was sort of concerned they might suspect me of fondling a camp stove. Feeling threatened, I went and looked intently at thermal underwear until I felt bold enough to go ask for help. The counter guy was apparently the owner’s son. So he took me back to the boots rack, where he looked at the rack pensively, said “Huh” sagely, then turned to me and said, “Nope. Just 13.” I was starting to get annoyed at these size-13 people. But I thanked him and left. I bought a small pouch because I was afraid otherwise the owner would sic the blue-haired counter lady on me, and I’m not man enough to face anyone with a whole counter of survival knives at their disposal. And a water purifier to boot.
So in desperation I went back to my local store, which I hadn’t tried in a few days. I figured I was going to have to resort to those bundles of cloth homeless people wear. But I went up to the counterperson and I said, “Do you carry boots up through size 14?” And he thought to himself for a moment, and said, “Yeah, sure. Come on back.” Ecstasy thrilled through my every pore. We went back to the boot rack. No 14’s. He said, “Hmmm”, and vanished into the Employees Only area. I stood and waited. I toyed idly with the MREs. (The MRE is fascinating to me. It stands for Meal, Ready to Eat. It’s a small brown plastic rectangular package, stamped with one of a variety of evocative legends. “Beef Stew”. “Chili and Macaroni”. “Ham Slice”. It has that strange attraction of things that are surely repulsive, but somehow compelling nonetheless. Some day, I tell myself, I’ll eat an MRE just to see what it’s like. This dovetails nicely with the things I tell myself I’ll do when life no longer seems worth living.)
Eventually, my savior-boot-man came back out of the Employees Only door, with a pair of boots in his hand and a perplexed expression on his face.
“Well, all we have are these.”
“Are they 14’s?”
“Yes, but, well…”
And he handed them to me. I looked at the label. 14 regular. Great. Then I realized the two looked a bit different. And I looked at the second boot. 14 extra wide.
“Sometimes we get a pair that’s mismatched like this.”
So close, only to have victory snatched from my very grasp.
“If I come back next week or the week after, do you think you might get more in?”
“Well, we’re having trouble with our landlord, and we might get evicted, so we’re probably not getting any more shipments until that gets worked out.”
I felt like beating my head against a German-army-issue gas can. I needed new shoes before the hole in my right boot wrapped all the way around, and here I was with an almost-right pair in my very hands, but not quite.
Suddenly, inspiration struck.
“Can I buy just one boot?”
My savior-boot-man-turned-betrayer looked confused.
“Well, we don’t usually do that…”
“You don’t understand. In my hands and on my feet are the only three 14 regular army boots in the entire metropolitan area. I have been looking for a pair of 14 regular boots for weeks. Now, if I polish the left one I already have, I can make a pair with this one. Victory will be mine, and I can spit in the eye of those athletic shoe people with their sports drinks and energy bars and orthopedic jelly bladders. I need this boot!”
“Well, OK, I guess so…”
YES! A pair of boots was mine. I felt good. I felt fulfilled. I felt whole. With a warm feeling in my gut, I ordered a round of MREs for everybody and left, boot in one hand and a new 8-inch survival knife in the other.
Originally published in Grumble Magazine