Walk a lifetime in my shoes

“Oh yes. . . . Well, I’ll let him answer for himself.” Disregarding my shaking head, she handed me the telephone.

“Good evening, sir,” the voice said to me. “This is Mr. — ” The name wasn’t familiar, and now I have forgotten it. “I’m calling to see how you like your new shoes. I hope that you’re enjoying them.”

Good grief. How do I like my new shoes? I can understand someone calling and asking me how I like my new Porsche or my new Rolex or my new 36-foot cabin cruiser, none of which I own or ever will, but my new shoes?

“Well, I really don’t know. I haven’t worn them yet,” I admitted.

“You’ve had them for more than three months and you haven’t worn them yet?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, no. They haven’t got their laces in yet.”

There was a short silence. Then: “I’m sure that you had laces when you left here, sir. You tried the best shoes plantar fasciitis on, and I laced them up for you. Don’t you remember?”

“Well, of course I remember. But they aren’t ready yet. They’ve had only 46 coats. They probably won’t be ready until around 80, perhaps more because the leather has more grain in it then some of the other shoes I’ve had.”

“I see,” he said. I could tell that he really didn’t.

I was getting a bit miffed; my dinner was cooling, and I wasn’t handling the whole thing very well, even though everything I had said was clear to me.

You see, when I was in my mid-teens back in the 1940s, owning a pair of Hartt shoes was one of my major goals in life. Finally, at 16, I had saved enough money to buy my first pair — $17, I think. That was a lot of money when I was earning only 25 cents an hour. I loved those medium-brown, Balmoral-style shoes with premium-leather uppers, tough leather soles and a chamois-textured interior. Furthermore, they had been crafted in Fredericton. Being a Maritimer, that fact was important to me.

My first Hartt shoes didn’t go outside my house until they were ready to make their debut. Each morning before going to my summer job at the aircraft factory, I took the box from my closet, removed the best dress shoes for bunions without laces (laces got in the way and the hard tips could scratch the leather), opened the tin of medium-brown Kiwi shoe polish and, with a soft cloth, applied a thin coat. Then with the softest piece of flannelette that I could find from a pair of worn-out pyjamas, I buffed vigorously. Usually I had time to apply two coats before setting off for work. In the evening, I repeated the routine, sometimes buffing up to four coats.

Finally, one morning, after about six weeks of polishing, I slipped my feet into my Hartt shoes and stood on my bedroom mat near the window. The early morning sun reflected off the toecaps and, in them, I could see my medium-brown face grinning back at me. They were ready.

Those shoes, rebuilt once with full soles and new heels, partied and danced with me through high school and university. In bad weather, I put pieces of flannelette over the toecaps to protect them from scuffing inside my rubbers or boots. My Hartts almost had a personality of their own. For instance, at a reunion some 45 years after graduation, a woman whom I had known slightly when we were teenagers, said to me, “I don’t believe we’ve met, but for some reason I seem to remember your shoes. Isn’t that strange?”

Yes it was. Also, it was a little humiliating to learn that my shoes had made a more lasting impression than I had.

Last May, it happened. At breakfast, a CBC voice told the country that the Hartt shoe factory in Fredericton was closing. I was shattered. The several pairs of Hartt shoes that I have worn over the years had all been fashioned in Fredericton. Even if they were to continue making them somewhere else, the shoes would never feel the same to me.

I fretted for a couple of weeks and finally decided that I had to have my last pair of Fredericton-built Hartt shoes. I telephoned the store that I knew stocked them and asked the salesman whether he had a pair of Hartt Balmorals in my size — black, I thought, would be appropriate. He hadn’t, but he could have them for me in three days.

Three days later, the obliging salesman laced my new black Balmorals. I walked around the store’s carpeted area. As always, they were perfect.

At home, I opened the box, withdrew the shoes and admired them. Then I removed the laces, opened my tin of Kiwi and began the process.

“Well, you see, we were away most of the summer,” I explained to the salesman while my wife enjoyed her hot dinner, “and I’ve been pretty busy, so I haven’t spent the time I should have with them. But I figure that they should be ready by the end of the month.”

“I see,” he replied. I wasn’t certain that he did.

“I’ll tell you what: Sometime when I’m downtown, I’ll wear them and drop in to see you,” I offered.

“That would be nice,” he said very slowly. “As a matter of fact, I would like that very much because I’m rather curious.”

He is a very nice man; but, really, how do I like my shoes? What an odd question.

Don Tait walks the streets of Ottawa in his well-polished Hartt Balmorals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *