Shell-Shock in a Shoeshop


THIS small exposition of a social phenomenon is presented to the sorority of shoestore sufferers merely in the hope that it will be diagnosed as correct, and not condemned as another extravagance of an embittered shopper.

Things are seldom what they seem. The other day I went to what I supposed to be a mark-down sale of boots and shoes, but found instead that I was attending a reception; or perhaps it would be more correct to call the social function at which I found myself a leapyear party, because, in a shoestore, it is apparently always leap year.

Women in bevies were crowding and jostling each other just inside the entrance, shrilly demanding some particular clerk, the name of the coveted salesman rising above the steady stream of feminine chatter with flattering insistence. I was deafened by the Babel of tongues among which various phrases crashed through into my consciousness.

‘ Where is Mr. Johnson? I must have Mr. Johnson. He’s the only man that knows just what I want.’

‘Is Mr. Jackson here? Say, Edna, do you mind just catching hold of that gentleman that’s talking to the fleshy woman in blue? He’s my special friend. All the others make me get shoes that are too big for me.’

‘Oh, Mr. Sampson, here I am! You know you told me to be sure and always ask for you.’

‘Good morning, Mr. Benson. How are you this morning? Popular as ever, I see! I want you to show me the very latest thing in tango-slippers. I think everything of Mr. Benson,’ the speaker then announced to all whom it might concern. And the mountain of flesh from whom this flattering declaration emanated forced her way toward her coveted idol, Mahomet being utterly unable to go to the mountain.

I looked around me in despair. Each clerk was either surrounded by a group of ladies, or having a confidential chat with one alone on some cushioned sofa. Broken bits of conversation continued to assail my ears; sometimes the subject-matter was such as would be tossed to and fro between any two people meeting at an afternoon tea; sometimes there was an interchange of personal gossip concerning the large world of society in which the majority of the shoe-purchasing and shoe-selling world seemed to move side by side. The feminine confidences to which I found myself listening were the more astounding in their intimacy from the fact that often they were evidently being poured into the ear of a total stranger. A young girl in fur coat and pearl necklace bent confidentially toward a swain in whose blacking-stained palm her silk-stockinged foot was temporarily reposing, and exchanged ballroom badinage. Stout matrons repeated the latest mots of their grandchildren, or deplored the manners of the new generation, sure of a sympathetic listener at their feet. Somehow the intimacy implied by an appeal for sympathy always seems of the closest possible brand.

Among the confusion of faces, I suddenly detected the puzzled one of a rather deaf contemporary of my own. I made my way to her side, and indicating a confidential confessional that was in progress at a little distance,I shouted, ‘Don’t you admire shoe-men’s sympathy?’

She looked alarmed for my reason. ‘Schumann’s Symphony?’ she murmured vaguely. ‘Why, yes, I think it’s beautiful, if you mean the one in D minor.’

This would never do. ‘It’s no use trying to talk in a shoeshop,’ I yelled, backing away.

‘Did you say you had shell-shock?’ my deaf friend inquired again.

I nodded violently and withdrew to continue my observations.

‘Is this the new democracy?’ I asked myself in a daze. But no. I had been to other mark-down sales. I have traveled from automatic attics to bargain basements, and everywhere the old order prevailed to the extent of the purchaser and the dispenser of wares being separated by that imaginary equator which divides the seller and the sold. Perhaps the absence of that symbol of separation, the counter, explains the greater freedom of intercourse in the shoestore. But as I had come to buy boots and not to moralize, I decided to be very up-to-date and ‘cut in’ on some confidential couple. Accordingly I boldly placed myself beside a seal-skinned siren who was discussing with her chosen partner a movie she had seen the night before, and said firmly, ‘I have come to buy some boots. Will you please wait on me when you are quite through talking to this lady?’

My sarcasm passed unheeded. Without glancing my way, the clerk merely pointed to a distant corner and replied, ‘I am busy. Perhaps one of those other gentlemen can attend to you.’

It was in that corner, neglected and alone, that I evolved the theory that the shoeman is as yet in a state of transition. He is an unclassified animal, a sort of social Soko, or missing link. Perhaps eventually he will arise from his ‘ probably arboreal ’ crouch, and will stand upright on two legs and proclaim himself either a man or a gentleman! Perhaps he will have a consulting parlor, in which ladies may lay bare their souls (I repudiate the obvious pun) less publicly than at present. But for the moment the shoe-specialist is certainly in an anomalous position, into which he has been pushed by the incredible intimacy of his rich and common ladypatronesses. Perhaps there is some psychological reason why, in removing the shoe, one removes also a shell of reserve (perhaps shell-shocked sensibilities have caused it to disintegrate) while a new sole-protector is being tested.

It always establishes a pleasantly cordial relation to find one’s self hand and glove with a courteous clerk on the other side of the counter; but it is almost startling to find one’s self foot and boot — so to speak — with an impassioned salesman kneeling at one’s feet!