in his shoes

my father died 18 years ago today. cancer. he was a smoker and drinker, both to excess. i have neither habits. another habit of my father’s was polishing his shoes. as a child i would sit and watch as he spent an entire sunday every couple of months polishing his shoes. when he died he had 56 pairs. all varieties of brogues, wingtips, and loafers. he polished them to a flawless high shine. sitting in his undershirt and a dirty pair of khakis, he would work up a sweat. i never saw him do any work about the house. i don’t think he knew the difference between a flat and a phillips head screwdriver. he thought me cocky and arrogant. i recall a fishing trip we took in 1992. we were staying at a roadside hotel—one where norman bates would have felt comfortable—in eufaula, alabama. we were arguing about something or other and he challenged me with the question, “what two ships fought in the civil war?” we southerners always try to bring up the civil war to test each other’s knowledge. if i didn’t know the answer, i wasn’t a true southerner and certainly not as smart as i thought i was. so i pondered for a few moments, thought of one ship—the monitor—but couldn’t come up with the other name. “see, you’re not so smart, are you?” i smiled and asked, “dad, which state is farthest east—new hampshire or vermont?” he looked at me, then walked into the bathroom and closed the door. a smart-ass i certainly was. he didn’t know the answer. what he did know was how to put a shine on a pair of shoes. his trick was not to buff but to use a damp rag and rub to a high shine. he did one thing in particular: he shined the soles. well, the instep of the sole. he served in korea and he told me that is where he learned to shine shoes and i know that the first thing he looked at when he met a man, was his shoes. he certainly believed, “shoes make the man.” i inherited his love of shoes, though i don’t own anywhere near 56 pairs and i don’t spend sundays polishing mine. i do polish as needed. after he died, i did something to remember him. rather selfishly, i went to john lobb in paris and order a pair of bespoke shoes. i’m embarrassed to say how much they cost but let me just say, more than the airfare. the experience of having bespoke shoes made is thrilling and a wonder. the smell recalls sitting in a new car. the feel of a fine piece of sculpture. brancusi? i loved the whole experience. and i came to treasure something unexpected: the john lobb box. it was a simple side-stapled box, with paper-wrapped board and a printed label. i expect once upon time this label was actually engraved. i love it in every way. now i have a few pair of ready- to-wear lobb shoes, and those came in a lovely heavy-duty board box with the john lobb logotype embossed on it. it is lovely, too, but the box for these bespoke shoes seems just right, truly unpretentious. it seems less about design and more about function and simplicity. i have learned that john lobb no longer uses this box. this makes me sad, but knowing it also makes me treasure mine that much more. my bespoke lobbs have been resoled twice and should last me twenty more years, provided i shine them often. my dad would be pleased to know that i honor him in this way. he loved his shoes. today i can remember the two ships that fought in the civil war:  the monitor and the merrimack. i’m ready for that question now, dad.

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