Shoes and me

Posted: Nov 29, 2006 12:01 AM

Dear Frau Professor,

It was wholly a pleasure to hear from another shoemaker's child with an immigrant background, and to learn that a column about my father had struck "a personal note with me, having been raised by a shoemaker in Germany. Your article describes my old man par excellence, who now in his mid-70s and officially retired from his shop in a small town near Duesseldorf still repairs shoes for his customers."

Why, sure. Good shoemakers grow rarer and rarer, and those who have found one are well advised to stick with him - even though he claims to be retired. Just hand him a pair of shoes in need of heels-and-a-half-sole, and he won't be able to resist making them presentable again. It's a matter of pride.

Now on to your question: Is there is an English equivalent for the German phrase, zusammen schustern? You tell me it is used to describe slapdash work. As an equivalent, I'd suggest the English phrase, "cobbled together." I'd bet other languages have similar phrases, shoes being as ubiquitous in human cultures as feet.

The phrase may be a libel on cobblers of all nationalities, but one can understand how it came about: Cobbling can have the look of a make-do art, especially in cases where some emergency treatment is needed for a floppy sole or a broken heel, or if the customer can afford only half-soles or heels but not both.

I've seen my father study and study a pair of muddy old boots some poor sharecropper had brought in hoping against hope to save them for one more season. Finally, like a surgeon talking to the family in the waiting room, he would deliver his verdict - good, bad, or We'll Give It a Try.

The old man would take me with him some Sundays when he'd drive all over the Ark-La-Tex - to little towns like Longview and Tyler and Lufkin in East Texas, or to Ruston and Minden in the other direction, or up to Magnolia despite the condition of Arkansas roads back then.

The trunk and back seat of the old Chevy would be packed tight with just-fixed shoes. He'd show them to fellow members of the guild as samples of what he could provide if they were interested. And they were. Because there was a war on, and it took ration stamps to buy a pair of new shoes - but not second-hand ones. It was a sellers' market.

There was a Walt Disney comic circa 1944 that had Donald Duck on the cover in a cat costume; Donald was sitting on a backyard fence in the middle of the night and howling - so the neighbors would throw their shoes at him. He was collecting them for resale in a box labeled: SECOND HAND SHOES - NO RATION POINTS. Nobody had to explain that cartoon to me.

I grew up playing in huge mounds of old shoes waiting for my father and his crew to fix and sell. Other kids may have grown up with Dick and Jane and Spot; my early childhood vocabulary included Cat's Paw and uppers.

The golden age of the second-hand shoe business ended with the post-war flood of cheap imports. My father's trade was one of the first casualties of what we now call globalization. Who'd fix a pair of shoes when it was cheaper to buy new ones?

My father had to find another line of work, and wound up selling dry goods and then furniture to the same loyal clientele at the same location on the same Easy Credit Terms. But he remained a shoemaker at heart; just buying and selling stuff never gave him the same satisfaction. I believe I can understand. To this day, the smell of shoe leather is the smell of home.

I still prefer to have my shoes repaired rather than buy a stiff new pair. I used to know a fine shoemaker in a small Arkansas town - Mr. Kraeszig - and I took the same rundown pair of shoes back to him so many times for one final fix that he finally told me it was time to take them off life support. Even the best doctor can do only so much for a patient.

The whole family was in the shoe repair business back then; one of my cousins in Chicago still keeps an old Landis stitcher in his basement and does an occasional half-sole just to stay in practice. Another keeps a beautifully shined shoe last in the hallway of his swank double apartment just off the Magnificent Mile - under a spotlight. Just as a reminder. It's the same one his father had used as owner and proprietor of Harry's Shoe Hospital on Halsted Street. Now, like Harry's, Greenberg Shoe Co., 836 Texas Ave., Shreveport, La., exists only in memory.

Enough about shoes. My respects to you, Frau Professor - and respect, since you teach chemistry. Chem was my downfall as a college student. I was probably the briefest pre-med major Centenary College ever had. A demanding but kind old professor did me and medicine a great service when he offered to give me a charitable D-minus in his course if I would take a solemn oath never - never! - to have anything to do with chemistry for the rest of my natural life. I leapt at the deal, and neither I nor the world of chemistry has ever had cause to regret it.

As for the world of shoemakers, thank you moving me to revisit it as it once was - before plastics had replaced leather in so many shoes, and what once was a widespread craft had become a small specialty. To again be zusammen schustern,or together with shoemakers, if only in memory, was wholly a pleasure.


Inky Wretch