I sit in front of my drum set, waiting for everyone to show up for practice. Marie has waited here in vain over half an hour for the guy who said he would coordinate the lighting for the show. I hear a clacking sound at the door, so I leap up to open it. Before I reach it, however, Russ steps in, a set of keys in his hand. I smile and say hi. I look him in the eye as I say this, but what I’m really thinking about are his shoes.
My grandfather used to say that you could know a man by looking at his shoes. Like Sherlock Holmes would, you can note their size, make, cleanliness, etc. You can say someone is poor if his shoes are overly worn. You could say he’s sloppy if they’ve been tied too quickly.
Russ owns a pair of well-kept Merrel sneakers, the kind with no laces. Either his feet are small, or these shoes make them look that way. In either case, the shoes appear expensive, comfortable, and very clean. There’s something else about the shoes, though. They seem unattached to the ground, like he could climb steps of his imagination as easily as real ones. He whisks his way over to the piano, setting his music in front of him as he sits down.
People used to do a similar thing with people’s faces. They’d look at a person, and, just by examining the angles and shapes, draw conclusions about that person. Johan Casper Lavater was one of those people. He would compare people’s facial features to particular animals and ascribe attributes of those animals to those people. He called this physiognomy, and with a name like that, it must be science.
Bored, I push one of my collapsable brushes up into my beard. The cloud of bristles condenses, eventually gripping my beard. Carefully, I let go of the brush. It dangles from my chin, hanging on because of the friction between its bristles and mine. This pleases me, but soon I realize that success has left me with nothing to do with my hands. I swing my head until the brush falls off my face and into my hand again.
When I ask people what sort of animal I look like, I get many different answers. The two most common ones are “goat” and “llama.” I feel more like a goat. According to the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the year of the sheep, and that’s pretty close. Also, my namesake’s last name was Shumway, which in French means “mountain goat.” I like climbing rocks, I eat a lot of things, and I have a small beard. All these facts point to goat.
This is really only a step up from a game I played all the time as a kid. We simply termed it “Animals.” I always chose to be a wolverine. That’s not true, though, that’s just the way my younger self wanted me to remember it. I also played as bears, foxes, wolves, dogs, and various predatory birds. If I played Animals now, I would be a squirrel.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Russ’s shoes is the fact that they seem to fit him perfectly, the way the bottoms snuggle his arches. These shoes tell me so much about him. This is only the second time I’ve seen him, but it’s the second time he’s worn these shoes, too, and I noticed them before. He is a careful man, even meticulous. His presence is never obtrusive. In fact, sometimes he goes completely unnoticed, and he likes that about himself. He may not have all he wants out of life yet, but things aren’t bad.
There’s a difference in saying I would like to pretend to be a squirrel, and someone telling me that I look like a squirrel, and therefore act like one. When someone else places it on me, it becomes negative. I’ve lost control of my own definition, and now other people can manipulate it and use it for God knows what.
It’s a common occurrence for me to exchange meaningless insults with my friends. “You’re stupid!” precedes, “Your face is stupid!” and so on. Physiognomy, framed as science, takes “Your face is stupid!” and makes it a “fact.” It allowed large groups of white men to assert their racism through the socially acceptable avenue of science. Because this very specific demographic decided the desirable set of facial features, it happened to be their own. All different facial features were signs of stupidity. In this way, they devalorized everyone but themselves. All because they could seize control of the definitions of others.
That’s what Lavater did with physiognomy. That’s what Sherlock Holmes and my grandfather did with their observations and deductive reasoning. It’s what I’m doing right now, catching occasional glances of Russ’s shoes under the piano. I’ve taken Russ’s definition out of his hands and into my own. Who am I to say that he enjoys going unnoticed. What do his shoes have to do with who he is?
Looking at my own feet, I think: “What would my Grandfather know about me from my shoes?” I wear a pair of Air Jordans; at least that’s what people tell me. I found them in a box of free stuff some student set outside his door. My Grandfather wouldn’t know that, though. He would assume that I bought these shoes for myself. The worn heels, the cracked toes from so much bending, he would read these as things I had done by myself. When I wear these shoes, I’ve stolen the identity of that student who left them in the box. My Grandfather wouldn’t be reading me, he would be reading someone else.
For a while now, I’ve wanted the opportunity to tell someone, “If you want to walk a mile in my shoes, you’d best walk barefoot.” As you can imagine, that doesn’t come up in conversation often. At the soonest opportunity in spring, you will find me walking barefoot wherever I can. If my Grandfather really wants to know me, he should look at my feet. They’re inside a pair of shoes now, but already in March I’ve started building the calluses on my heels. The warm weather has allowed me to range all over Aurora barefoot, carrying my shoes with me if I know I’ll need them later.
Even as a baby, I despised all forms of footwear. My parents needed to continually supervise me if they wanted me to keep my socks on. Accompanying this fierce hatred for socks and shoes was an even fiercer desire to run. Before my legs could support me, my feet were telling me to go places.
I never knew my Grandfather, but I hope that he knew me. He died before I started wearing shoes reliably, but maybe he looked at my feet. Maybe he looked at them and thought: here’s my Grandson. He loves to run, and he loves the feel of dirt under his feet. He loves freedom of movement, and he loves me, though he may not understand that yet.
Emily and Mary have arrived, but I don’t look at their shoes. Instead, I smile and hold up my brushes expectantly, but we’re starting with songs that I don’t even play in, so I head to a chair and listen. A couple inches from my foot lies a fake, pink, flower petal, its base wrinkled like an alluvial fan.
Thinking about it rationally, I probably didn’t love my Grandfather. Can babies love anybody? I love him now though, and that can’t be rational. I never knew him, but I still want him to know me, and know that I love him. That’s something he couldn’t read from my shoes, because they’re not even mine.
I leave the petal where it is. I’m not sure how it got there, but I don’t think it’s there for me. Perhaps it’s only for a janitor to come by and throw in a trash bag, but it’s not for me. I clap at the end of the first song. I can tell Marie is nervous and needs some encouragement. After practice, she’s not sure whether to wear heels or flats for the performance, and I tell her that no one will be looking at her feet.