The reason I didn't just buy a new pair of black Timberlands was because I had little hope of finding a pair exactly like these. I had got them on sale at Macy's nearly three years ago. They were waterproof, warm, and aparently indestructible. I wore them year-round, they were the the dog walking shoes, the shopping and errand shoes, the shoes to go out and play in, the shoes to wear to work when I was feeling grumpy even though they didn't look elegant, they were the shoes for doing chores in the yard at the Tick Ranch and for standing out in the meadow in the middle of the night listening for the sound of Sweetie's tags after she had sneaked off to chase something.
At last, though, it became apparent that the soles were getting thin, and the lugs had worn away so they didn't have any traction any more. I went looking for new Timberlands and ended up getting rather more expensive and rather more dressy boots to go with the new job where you have to look like a grownup. The bargain I made with myself to justify the more expensive boots was that instead of buying new Timberlands I would repair the old ones. No, no, I know it doesn't look good on paper but there you are.
Which was a great opportunity because I used to walk past the shoe-repair shop in Union Station on my way to work, back in the days when I commuted by MARC train, and then later on when I'd stop there for the Rustic Apple Pie that alas is no more. The shoe repair place, like the pharmacy, seems to belong to another age, when the station itself felt less like a mall. As though somehow they decided to stay just as they are, with their limp hair and then lips and figure flaws, while everybody else went and got a full makeover.
So I thought, "Great! I get to take my shoes to the cute old shoe-repair place," that already was as fraught with romance for me as an Edward Hopper painting.
The price they quoted me for replacing the sole was more than I had paid for the boots. But I was committed, determined. "They'll do it right," I said to myself, imagining all the important people who pass through Union Station and the expensive shoes they must bring to be repaired, and of course I had been composing fairy tales about these people in my head and they all chimed in and said "Of course we are very demanding," and another voice in me said, "I bet they wouldn't let you even do shoe repairs at Union Station unless you were really really great at it." Also I couldn't remember noticing any shoe repair shops anywhere in my neighborhood.
I picked the boots up a week or so later and they looked great. But then about two weeks later the lower layer of the sole, the part they had just replaced, started peeling back from the toe.
"You and your romances," I said to myself. "Look at where it got you." I should have taken them back to Union Station but I kept forgetting to pack them with me when I left for work, or else I'd take them and then get too busy to run over to the station, and soon weeks had gone by. Too embarrassed to take them back with a complaint at that late date I decided that I would find a shoe repair place round here, and pay again to have them repaired properly if that was the price of my folly. And then I began to notice shoe repair places all over my neighborhood.
There was one at the mall in Silver Spring, one in Kensington, there were a couple of dry cleaners who offered such services, they were everywhere. How had I not noticed this? I don't know. But still, almost the whole winter went by before I got around to taking the shoes for that second round of repairs. That was yesterday.
I took them to Langley Park. People around here groan about Langley Park. It is a confluence of strip malls at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Avenue. Really rather ugly strip malls, with vast expanses of parking lot and the shabby old stores, and everything somehow looks cheap. Everything is sort of cheap. It is the shopping hub for immigrants. On weekends the intersection is congested with vehicles coming in and out of the strip malls. All around the area are old apartment complexes packed with immigrants who sort of swarm across these two busy streets to do their shopping in the ethnic grocery stores and dollar stores and gaudy dress shops and beauty products places and chicken places and cheap furniture stores that occupy the strip malls. It is the Ugly Clock No I Mean Holy Cow That Is One Ugly Clock Capital of the World. I like Langley Park. I call it the Global Village.
In one of these strip malls I had noted the presence of a shoe repair place. I had somehow got the notion lodged in my head that the proprietor would be an older Latino man, all alone in there or maybe with one assistant and the usual shoe polish, shoe stretchers, shoe laces and related products for sale. Very dull, very quiet and slow. Which was probably part of the reason I had never made it into the place. But my other waterproof boots were no longer waterproof and I had never liked them as much as these. So there could be no more procrastination and scatter-brainedness.
It was a long narrow, surprisingly bright space with a counter running the length of it. Near the door a man stood behind a register, apparently planted there. He was African, and this gave such a jolt to my previous assumptions that I never quite recovered my balance. The whole time I was in the store I was in a sort of daze of wonder, finding it almost impossible to take it all in. There are just these--blanks. What was in the display case behind the register? What was in the window?
I held up my shoes and he pointed toward the back, where another African man stood behind the far end of the counter. He was wearing safety glasses that made him look look simultaneously hip and droll, as if he had been suddenly translated there from a cell phone service commercial and was determined not to look surprised. At the very back, separated from the rest of the store by a partition with a glass window, was what appeared to be a little dressmaking department where two women were having a discussion. The shoe repair man in the hipster safety glasses took my boots and immediately, without a word, started applying some glue to the sole. A tall slim young black American woman came in and sort of hovered about asking about a pair of white shoes that she had apparently left there some time before. He didn't seem to know anything about the white shoes but kept cheerfully gluing my boots and the woman kept chatting away about the boots and smiling and I began to wonder if she had all her marbles. I looked at the wall behind the shoe repair guy and there was an enormous poster advertising a book, "Crossing Cultural Worlds with an African Wife" was the title. Behind me I noticed an array of movies on DVD, all African and very soap-opera like. Right in front of me were lengths of patterned fabric in bright colors, neatly folded and arranged by price. The discussion between the two women behind the partition grew louder. It seemed to be wrapping up. Next to the movies along the wall were shelves full of hair products: straighteners, mostly, and pomades in brightly colored tins. I could see the woman who was seated at the table pointing as she spoke, evidently giving some last instructions about whatever business the two were transacting. Pomades! Such an old-fashioned word, and look at those tins! Wonder what they smell like. I expect they are really pungent. Who uses pomade? I didn't even notice when the woman who was the customer came out and went to the register. I only noticed her when I heard her, at the top of her voice, accusing the woman in the back of having stolen her dress. "Do you expect me to believe that she doesn't remember the dress, and when I brought it here she told me it was the most beautiful dress she had ever seen?" If the man at the register said a word in response I didn't hear it. "How could she forget the most beautiful dress she had ever seen? Oh, no, I see what she is about," I walked towards the counter, past the pomades and then past the videos and then past a stretch of wall that was dedicated to hair bobbles and assorted shiny things. "If you don't return my dress I am going to call the police! In fact I am going to call them right now. What is the name of this place? Telling me she has no memory of the dress. Right here in this shop she told me it was the most beautiful dress she had ever seen, she had never seen anything like it."
As if I hadn't seen enough in that place, now I was watching the very process by which a little thing like an extravagant, casually mercenary and probably instantly forgotten compliment to a customer had somehow become an intimation of the most sinister and conniving intent. And yet I would have put money down on the likelihood that that woman when she brought the dress put no small effort into positioning and angling for just such a compliment on the dress. But that wouldn't matter, I recognized the suspicion of envy, a powerful suspicion in many cultures, including some West Indian ones. Had she been harboring that suspicion all this time? Did it always attend compliments on one's possessions? I walked back out and I heard her giving directions to the police dispatcher but she didn't seem to have a clue where she was. "I'm in Langley Park," she kept saying.