Sole Craft as Soulcraft

by Eric J. Weiner

Shoes could save your life. —Edith Grossman, survivor of the Auschwitz death camp

These boots are made for walking/And that’s just what they’ll do/One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you —Nancy Sinatra

As I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and when I stir my foot, their shapes and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression — impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I — a breathing portion of my very self —Knut Hamsun

Quarantined, sheltered, holed-up, bunkered, hiding, homebound, trapped–whatever you want to call it–I am, probably (hopefully) like you, socially isolated from everyone but my family, trying to do my part in “flattening the curve” on a virus that seems intent on overwhelming a system ill-equipped to deal with such a thing. Like the prisoner who resorts to counting the pockmarks on the cement wall of his cell to pass the time, I have used some of my new, spare time to take an account of my collection of shoes and boots. But unlike Derrida or Heidegger in regards to Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting of boots, I have absolutely no desire to be profound or provocative. I simply and admittedly have a bit of a shoe and boot “problem” that I would like to discuss; not sneakers or trainers—never caught the bug—but handcrafted leather footwear that typically go from very expensive to “holy crap that’s a lot of money for boots!” My wife doesn’t understand it. “Another pair of boots?” she sneers as I unapologetically remove my latest purchase from its sturdy cardboard case; a stunning pair of Horween shell cordovan lace wing-tip boots, color number 8, with Goodyear welts, lug soles and copper rivets, handmade in the USA by one of the oldest family-owned shoe/boot-makers in the country. They ain’t cheap but they’re not “holy crap” expensive either. They are beautiful and rough, sophisticated and classic, yet in no way arrogant or pretentious and will be around, if properly cared for, long after I am dead. Seems like a deal to me.

It’s both true and a fact that a good boot or shoe can make a man just as quickly as a poorly manufactured one can break him. Slip a hand-crafted Chromexcel leather boot on a man choking in the grip of life’s callous hand, lace it snug around his foot and ankle, and he just might stand up even taller than God made him and, like a slave breaking his chains of bondage, throw that hand off as if it was nothing more than a bit of schmutz on his collar. I completely understand why soldiers and cowboys wanted to die with their boots on–dignity in death, meaning in life; take my last breath, just don’t take my damn boots!

Ask any woman, feminist or not, and she will tell you that she takes notice, almost immediately, of a man’s choice of footwear. This is not a fact but is absolutely true. If she says otherwise, she is lying. These shoe and boot-gazing women are not superficial, materialistic or prurient. On the contrary, they are women of real power and taste who know deep down in their loins what these semiotic signs mean in our brave new world. A dear friend once confided in me that she dated a man that wore those little rubber anatomically correct shoes with the molded toes you see being worn in the gym, cafe, or Trader Joe’s. She was certainly brave to admit this but I was horrified. “I hope you didn’t sleep with him,” I blurted out with my usual tact. She and I are still friends, but, frankly, had she not answered in the negative, it could have gone either way.

Like a fine automatic watch, the energy of a handmade boot or shoe gets its power from the combination of form and function; it is sole class as soulcraft (thank you Matthew Crawford for the exceptional book Shop Class as Soulcraft!). You want to hold it, touch it, smell it, rub the leather with the pad of your thumb, feel the stitching, and the density or smoothness of its rubber or leather sole. And then you put them on and you know immediately the craftsmen who made this boot did so carefully, mindfully, with such attention to the essential relationship between form and function, that these boots will survive whatever life throws down. Against the prevailing culture of fast fashion and disposability, these craftsmen work in the tradition of conservation, apprenticeship, and indigenous knowledge; they craft shoes and boots that embody in their form and function a radical notion of hope. They signal a full-throated rejection of cynicism by announcing a future not yet known, but for which we must struggle and fight. In these formidable structures of leather, cloth, metal, lace, and rubber, there is a kind of poetry, one that asks us, as does Audre Lorde, to “envision what has not yet been and to work with every fibre of who we are to make the reality and pursuit of those visions irresistible.”

My cordovan monk-strap chestnut chukka boots with brass buckles, I purchased several years-ago from Sherman Brothers Shoes in Philadelphia, a second-generation family-owned business that made its name in the latter half of the 20th century selling high-end classic men’s shoes in hard to find sizes. Back in the day, professional football players were a common site in the store, squeezing their huge frames into regular size chairs which made them seem even more massive than they really were while the basketball players ducked under the Sansom Street doorway designed with lesser men in mind to try on Church’s latest spectators in size 15DDD. This particular pair of monk-straps is a limited-edition version, made specifically for Sherman Brothers. How could I resist? There is a quiet practicality to these handsome chukkas and a level of confidence and comfort that make them an easy choice for a quick trip to Woodside, Queens to see my mother-in-law, get some arroz con pollo from the “chicken lady,” and sit watching CNN’s talking heads drone on about American idiocracy and Trump’s dumbfuckery in her overstuffed three-bedroom apartment; the 7-train’s window-rattling roar comes close enough to her living room window to startle Cha Cha, her incontinent Chihuahua from her nap, but doesn’t get noticed by Cecilia who finds comfort and security in the cacophonic jam of the borough.

Worth mentioning are a pair of rough-hewn silver patina leather shoes named “The Keith” after the one and only Keith Richards by its British shoemaker (these shoes are always ready for the occasional night in NYC of degraded debauchery); many made-in-England, Doc Martin combat boots in multiple heights, all in black; a pair of British-made spectators with monk strap and creeper soles for those rare days that demand such a thing; a pair of made-in-England Doc Martin oxfords dyed oxblood red with white laces; Italian cordovan mahogany lace boots with subtle script engraved into the soft leather; an American-crafted pair of brogue lace boots branded on the sole, hand-burnished at the toe cap, purchased from Barney’s when it still had its famous warehouse sale in an actual warehouse (perfect for anytime but especially when meeting with very arrogant people who think they are better than you); an Italian lace boot bought in Italy with leather tassels on the tips of the laces and tanned in a color that only goes, for some inexplicable reason, with a very specific shade of black; two pairs of modern Italian-made shoes made with Spazzolato leather, both with slightly stacked soles, one in black, the other in deep burgundy trimmed at the sole with gray rubber (these are especially satisfying to wear after a proper shine and polish and give me another inch which is never a bad thing); python lace shoes that are as lean as they are mean (nothing better to wear to the roulette table or occasional hand of blackjack); a pair of suede ankle boots with patent-leather wing-tips, also nasty; an everyday pair of black Chelsea boots soled at least three times and counting and so comfortable they have traveled to multiple countries and music festivals; another pair of sleek black smooth Chelsea boots, less comfortable, that love to listen to Winton Marsalis or trip over to the Carlyle Café for a dry rye Manhattan, up; a pair of western-inspired ankle boots that propped up an old Harley as I ripped open the throttle in an underground garage in San Paulo, Brazil fifteen years ago, the cracked carbs spewing stale gas over the calfskin black leather as we drunkenly howled at every pop and growl of the exhaust (they survived the ordeal and wear the fading oil and gas stains with pride); a black high-shine cordovan lace shoe with white piping, the foot bed stitched in a diamond pattern of silk and wool which I wore two years ago to my mother’s funeral; the black boots with an upper of striped wool and silk and working leather buttons that run up the outside edge of the split “tongue,” the only choice for a show in the basement of the Bowery Electric; “walking man” rough-out suede boots that look like something Stephen King’s character Randall Flagg might choose to wear as he tries to lay waste to a deserving yet pitiable slice of humanity.

And lastly, at least for now, my black steel-toed “engineer” boots with oil resistant soles which have traveled with me across the United States on a motorcycle twice; through torrential rain, sleet and snow, oil-slicked toll booth lanes, perfectly crisp mornings of dew and sunlight, and the occasional unpaved logging road, they are always up for a ride or short walk to the local pub, pool hall, or tattoo parlor. I got stuck wearing these boots on a hike up a very steep mountain in Banff and they were miserable companions. But put them on the road and these scarred and faded boots demand a quiet respect; an acknowledgment that the world sometimes requires hard black leather that can defend against the ravages of weather, time and ignorance; steel toes that both protect and/or deliver pain if and when required; and heels that perfectly lock into the foot peg on my 1983 R80, air-cooled BMW as it scrapes against asphalt, careening along a curvy stretch of Colorado road at sunrise, sparks shooting out from beneath my sole.

But a funny thing happens when shoes and boots are forcibly removed from a person–alive or dead–and then strewn into a high, towering mishmash of leather, rubber, twine and metal. If you’ve been to The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC you will probably remember a display of shoes and boots just like this. Of all of the tens of thousands of artifacts that the museum collected and curated, this is the one that I remember most vividly. That heap of decoupled and entangled shoes—dress shoes, high heels, children’s school shoes, work boots, loafers, oxfords, wing-tips, bedroom slippers, brogues—does more than rip apart their aesthetic energy from their utilitarian function; they are now part of an unmarked mass grave of history; memories of their former lives barely audible against the muffled din of anguish and violence. Shoes piled in a heap, pairs separated like so many displaced and murdered families, are almost beyond comprehension; the familiar has become strange, dissonance reigns, tears fall often and easily.

Yet if you listen carefully–bear witness–you can also feel the traces of life that still emanate from these most human of signs; laughing, dancing, strolling, strutting, gliding, dancing, digging, twirling, stomping, kicking, jiving, running, hopping, skipping, walking, driving, riding, trekking, hiking, climbing. What is remarkable is that these inanimate strips of leather and cloth, shaped into various forms of fashionable utility, survived the fires, bullets and gas because they were valued more than the humans who wore them. If not in life, then in death–from plague to genocide–our shoes and boots remind us of our shared humanity as well as our betrayal of it.