New shoes

Whoo. That was a heck of a thing.

I don’t shop much. When I do shop, I tend to come away with the barest of essentials, which usually do not include things like clothes. Until about last month, I had worn the same threadbare shoes for the last five years. Yes, five years. A little superglue here, a few stitches there, and a ton of black shoe polish went a long way toward keeping those babies looking fresh. I realized that I actually had to get rid of them when someone pointed out that they were mostly just a shoe-shaped glob of glue, stitching and goopy shoe polish that rubbed off and left fecal-looking streaks on absolutely everything, particularly the nice clean floors at work.

Learning that I have been rude is one of the few things that will prompt me to immediate action, and to action I sprang. In the name of efficiency, I proceeded to a big box, a jungle of depressing fabric, appliances and synthetics whose name I will not mention. The people who worked there seemed uninterested in my problem. I wear a size 7 men’s shoe, preferably a solid color and nothing weird. My life is weird enough, thanks. I don’t need funky shoes.

But every damn shoebox I pulled off this place’s shelves was missing its right member. I tried Converse, Dockers, Sketchers, and about five other brands that I’ve never even heard of. No rights. Eventually, I went to the sales associate to ask why.

“We don’t know,” she said. The effort it took her not to groan deepened the lines on her face until she looked ancient and exhausted. “It’s company policy. We’re not allowed to talk about it, but it’s been that way since 2009.” I asked her if her boss would have more information. Her eyes hardened immediately. I knew I’d made a mistake. She grabbed her name tag and pulled it forward so that I could read it without looking at her chest. The little square of blue and white plastic identified her as the store manager. That was a bit embarrassing, but what really gave me pause was that it also listed her blood type.

I decided to leave.

After a few hours wandering around looking for a way out, I chanced upon a golden thread, probably pulled off some high fashion cardigan or tunic by another wanderer. It was wrapped around the necks and wrists of blank-featured white mannequins and stretched between them like the cordon at some bizarre opening night ritual. I followed it. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong direction first and soon ended up staring at a door marked “Employees Only.” The thread was suspended between a stray nail in the wall and the crack between the closed door and the jamb. I didn’t feel like an employee and suspected I’d be recruited or something if I proceeded through, so I turned around and went back the other way. 

It took a long, long time to find the exit. I had to stop and rest several times. I think I slept once. It’s weird how details like that haze away when you’re in an environment where the lights never go off. I was exhausted in a wide, bloodshot way that eventually bordered on a kind of psychosis. Articles of clothing seemed to reach out for me as I passed. They seemed to whisper things about me that I’d never told anyone, things about my childhood altar serving in the Church and my family, who I left hundreds of miles away to move to this place, and all the time I’d wasted of my short life playing video games. You are an addict waiting to happen, hissed the blouses and the belts and the khakis. You are a latent gameoholic, alcoholic, shopaholic. Buy things. Consume until you die. It is your fate.

What kept me going was that I’d read about this somewhere before. Big box stores optimize their layouts to get people a little lost. That way, they need to spend more time looking at stuff. The longer they look, the more likely they’ll pick up extra things that they never intended to get. Knowing this, I managed to avoid buying anything, though if there was food, I’d gladly have spent a few dollars on it. Maybe that’s the next big retail innovation: hot dog stands among the groves of slacks and camisoles.

When I finally reached the end of the thread, I nearly cried. There was the exit. Daylight, even. My shoes were finally in pieces. It was three days later. My wife had left several dozen frantic messages on my phone, which all appeared the instant I passed through the grimy automatic glass doors. My first action was to run to her and tell her that she had been right all along about the big boxes, that I was finally free and would never leave her for life in a modern labyrinth. 

Then, I proceeded to a boutique booterie in downtown Salem, where I paid a pretty penny for a very nice pair of locally made, artisanal shoes. Well, actually, I paid seventy-five bucks. I guess that’s not so bad, right? I’m still not sure what shoes ordinarily cost, but compared to three days of your life, $75 is a pretty good deal. And at least the shoemaker provided both left and right shoes free of extra charge.

I guess I’ll be buying local from now on.

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Haircut Warrior

If you have never had to cut your own hair, then you have not lived a full American life. This is particularly true if you are of that subset of American humans who value the practicality and comfort of a short, but not very short, epic ‘do. Shearing off a couple inches of long, flowing locks when they finally inch their way past your butt seems like a fairly simple proposition. Judging from my experience with a parade of hair stylists, all of whom ought to have known better, short hair is a mountainous challenge, a subtle artistic shaping of the head based on factors ranging from the shape of the scalp to the nature of the hair to the amount of moisture in the upper atmosphere on the given day of cutting. Every trim is a masterpiece. Except, you know, not. I’ve had more disastrous haircuts from certified woman-hair professionals than I’ve had zits on my certified oil well of a nose.

Actually, I’ve had wonderful experiences with barbers, every single on of whom have been perfectly happy to take my money despite the fact that I am a woman. For this, I am extremely appreciative. I’ve had other experiences with designated male spaces where the company hasn’t been so welcoming. (In fact, just today, in the menswear section of our local H&M, a couple of hipsters whistled and snapped at my fiancee and I until we left the area. I understand the concept of peeing all over the walls and declaring a space Free Of All Female Evar, at least in the sense that I understand that a man might be inclined to behave this way if he were to miss certain adolescent developmental stages, but in a fashion outlet? Really? Wouldn’t a nice bear cage be a better test of their masculinity?)

As I was saying, I can’t say enough about barbershops as an institution. I’ve never been to one where I haven’t gotten a great cut. My estimation of the skill of a barber to style short hair is vastly greater than my consideration of a hair stylist. Furthermore, the barbers were vastly more affordable on my limited budget…until I ran out of money altogether.

I accomplished my first self-haircut in 2008 with a pair of fabric shears. The impetus: poverty. Plain and simple. Well, poverty and grad school. The day before my haircut, I had not been poor. In fact, I had been extremely wealthy. My humble little starter bank account had contained no less than $15,000. For a single golden day, I had been the mighty ruler of University Hill.

Then I paid my grad school tuition and bottomed out my savings. Alas, payday for my pathetic part-time convenience store gig (thanks, recession!) did not arrive for several days, or even possibly weeks, depending on whether or not my manager remembered that I was still working for him by Tuesday. I was broke. Broke like a little Tonka truck that has been smashed to infinity by the merciless tires of an 18-wheeler.

Food was not a problem. Like all of the other employees of the convenience store, I unabashedly stole hot dogs from the grill. However, they constituted their own punishment in many ways, and my school, rife with random pizzas, proved a much more fertile ground for foraging. At night, I mopped for a friend’s cafe, and in return I got all the vegan food I could possibly eat. Which was, I assure you, a lot. I mention this because I feel that my nontraditional diet may have played a role in my deranged decision-making process as regards to my hair.

I’d been studying for about six hours, having returned home from work at 5:00pm and set right to work. The muggy night air oozed through the open window, carrying the scents of a city still exotic to my rural mind. Despite the fact that my studio was tiny and infested with at least three different species of cockroaches, the view from its one large window could not be beat. The array of the city’s lights lay out before me as though someone had spread out a giant picnic blanket in the dark and caught a million falling stars. As I sat on my narrow bed, gazing at this scene, my head stuffed with cataloging protocols and my belly stuffed with the best bean burger in town, just one thing vexed my mind: the fact that my hair was poking my ears.

There is nothing that annoys me more than when my hair pokes my ears. It is an abomination unto my soul.

Having nothing else to do at midnight, I began to scrounge around my place for something sharp enough to fix my hair issue. I came up with a pocket knife, a butter knife, and a pair of sewing shears that I’d borrowed from my mother years before and simply never returned. (I don’t know why. I don’t sew, but I do sometimes cut fabric for various secret reasons.) The shears seemed most practical.

My place didn’t have a bathroom sink per se. It had a sink, and a bathroom. The sink doubled as the kitchen and I washed my hands in the bathroom’s shower, which did not come with its own mirror. This left the sink a preferable option for hair operations. Scattering a small group of roaches I leaned close to the mirror, over the metal sink, and, angling the shears delicately at my head, took a snip.

A finger-long hank of hair fell to the ground.

I inspected my image curiously, seeking signs of success. My hair was certainly off my right ear, but a new problem had arisen: a wedge-shaped gap was now visible close to my temple. More cutting would be necessary to repair the general shape of my head. Again, I snipped. Whoops – wrong hair. Now half of my bangs were gone. Oh well. I’d never liked bangs much anyway. Off with them!

Over the next four laborious hours, I managed to remove almost all of my hair with the shears, which were dull well before I’d made it halfway. Eventually, I resorted to using the penknife as a razor. This worked badly. However, that did not matter. Morning had broken and it was time to bring home the bacon!

I stumbled out of my wheaty-smelling building and immediately frightened a pigeon. Several passers-by recoiled and my manager took one look and fired me. I shambled back to my apartment and passed out. While I slept, my manager called to re-hire me, my mom asked if I was the mangy baby bear everyone on the Hill was talking about, and my sister had found and summarily distributed a picture of my new look on social media.

If you ever doubt the presence of a compassionate consciousness in this universe, ponder this: every bad haircut grows away. The soothing flow of time rounds all embarrassment down to harmless pebbles in the bed of your memory. I believe I cried about my hair that day, but two months later, I did cut it again. This time, the result was, if not beautiful, passable. The next cut was standard. My style was established. Uncreative, but functional.

Today, I cut my hair for the 70th time. I have a kit now: a $15 set of electric shears, a hand mirror, a barber’s scissors, and an old baseball cap that I use to shape the back. I measure each hank of hair against my fingers to make sure it ends up between one and a half and two inches long, snip, and then use the shears to even up the edges and get a nice close shave on my neck. I like to think I look pretty good. It’s routine enough that I can watch TV while getting everything just right.