General 10-10-2004

Letters from a Writer: If the Shoe Fits

Jean Sramek is thinking about the political meaning of design, particularly as regards that piece of proto-technology, the shoe.

Jean Sramek

When my brother Jim was in grad school in Colorado, his choice of casual footwear was a great source of contention between him and his girlfriend, Tammy (yes, yes … their names were Jim and Tammy), who was from northwest Louisiana and was convinced that only hippies and hoe-moe-sexuals wore Birkenstock sandals. Once, while stopped at a gas station in her native land, she observed two gentlemen looking funny at Jim’s Birkies and knew that these men were surely talking about beating my brother up, or at least telling him what a purty mouth he had, all because of the shoes.

Before you admonish me for my prejudice against all things Southern, let me assure you that you have no idea; as far as I’m concerned, the Mason-Dixon line is somewhere around Faribault.

Eventually, Jim and Tammy made a rule that, while they were on vacation, he couldn’t wear his Birkenstocks. Another rule dictated that Jim was not allowed to talk like either Pee Wee Herman or Homer Simpson while they were traveling by car. I lost future-sister-in-law points when I pointed out that it was unfair for Tammy to make all the rules. I lost even more points when I said, in Pee Wee’s voice, “If you make any more RULES, you’ll turn into a RULER! HA HA!”

Tammy was right, but not in the way she thought she was. Shoes are artifacts that signify your membership in the tribe. Birkenstock sandals (and their rubber American cousin Teva sandals) send a message to the world. Gold rings worn on the third finger of the left hand say “I’m married, and it is sanctioned by the state.” Large-framed plastic eyeglasses with the stems attached at the bottom of the lenses say, “I am a 46-year-old female civil servant and I have never been on a date.” Birkies or Tevas say, “I am a certain sort of person—possibly an artist, a graduate student, or employed at the whole-wheat bakery; I am politically active and far left of center; I drive a fuel-efficient, slightly rusty Japanese car that bears four or more bumper stickers espousing my views, although with the birth of my first child I may succumb to minivan or SUV ownership, but feel liberal guilt about it; I spend my meager disposable income on outdoor recreation and the accompanying designer gear, including these sandals; they represent the material world which I simultaneously shun and embrace.”

Birkies used to say all those things much louder and more emphatically, back when they were expensive and hard-to-find. Now anyone can get them. On-line availability and Birkenstocks’ kicky, more fashionable colors have widened their purchasing audience to include crunchy conservatives, self-absorbed subscribers to Outside magazine, and apolitical faux-Deadhead college students trying to piss off their parents. The patented molded cork footbed and famous Birkenstock comfort no longer send a message to the world, at least not to my satisfaction.

I work for the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota; it’s one of the handful of weird jobs I have to support my true calling as a Creative Artist, and like all employment with a nonprofit organization, it inevitably demands “tabling”: setting up a tent or booth at a public festival or event, handing out literature, and chatting people up. It is a highly inefficient method of publicity, but it gets you out in the fresh air. While tabling an event this summer, a nice older gentleman and his wife, ex-Minnesotans but residents of Florida for tax purposes, engaged me in a discussion that started out being about organic certification but turned out to be about their gated community, how lucky they were to find a home “far away from the Puerto Ricans and Blacks” but how south Florida has “really turned for the better, because so many of our neighbors are Christians now,” and—get this—their active and rewarding membership in the John Birch Society. All the while, I thought, “Why must I be tortured this way? I’m wearing Birkenstocks—shouldn’t that exempt me from conversations like this?”

What I should have done is say, a la Pee Wee, “The secret word of the day is RACIST. When you hear the secret word, scream real loud! AHHHHHHHHHH!”

During a subsequent episode of “tabling,” a young vinyl siding salesman in the next tent struck up a conversation about politics. I knew where it was headed, but I played along.

“Are you a Democrat or Republican?” he asked me suddenly. I said (truthfully) “Neither.” He lit a menthol cigarette, scratched his tattooed forearms, and rushed on, “Because I’m George Bush all the way. I mean, he’s done a great job with the war in Iraq. Just think of how many countries we’ve liberated.” The young man went on to talk about his ambitions, how he was going to make a lot of money someday, and how people on welfare are lazy and how we should support our troops or shut up. My neutral demeanor cracked. The salesman stopped in his tracks. He looked at me as though I had stung him. “Oh, you don’t agree. I get it.” I shrugged, mumbled something, and watched him go back to his tent, glaring at me.

I thought, “Dude—look at the clues. I’m down here promoting free-range beef and biodynamically grown vegetables. This is a T-shirt from the Lysistrata Project. I’m reading the latest copy of Mother Jones. I’ve got long hair and I’m wearing Birkenstocks for Chrissake. I’m a commie pinko tree-hugger. Anyone can see that. And you’re a Lite-beer-drinking, working-class dupe who sucks up to the Bush regime because you think they’re going to make you rich someday. You know how I know? Because not only are you too dense to realize that Republicans never, ever look like me, but you are also COMPLETELY not wearing Birkenstocks.”

Actually, Tammy wasn’t all wrong. I bet this guy would have beat up my brother. My brother hated vinyl siding.