07 June 2009


I am traveling west to east across the country to the place I still think of as home, and the time spent in airports facilitates the transition. Even before I am beyond the borders of Orange County, differences are apparent. I am reminded of the magnificent mix of peoples in America, not only in the obvious facial structure and skin color but the nuances that define our many geographical cultures. Different accents, different body types, different ways of dressing [picture the college girl with pink cheeks matched by pink sweatshirt, pink purse and pink rubber sandals, surely not a California girl.] But of all the clues to our inner landscape, shoes, albeit captive to trends and fashions, gives much of our identity away.

When I was a girl in the fifties, traveling to Manhattan on the subway with my mother and aunt and cousins, on our way to the cultural activity of the week-end, whatever was free and most interesting to my culture-obsessed mother, we played a game they devised to keep the children occupied during the long ride. We had to guess the occupation or pastime of the people around us based solely on their shoes. This was simpler then as there were only so many shoes and these restricted primarily to season or stature.

White of course was never worn after Labor Day, unless you were a nurse, so that was a dead giveaway. Laced rubber-soled shoes were a work shoe, reserved largely for those who spent time on their feet, meaning service or medical professionals, or retailers. Wingtips, a dressier leather shoe men wore to impress, likely meant a lawyer or businessman. Soft-soled shoes for men were rarely in evidence then and perhaps the dominion of physicians. Women had even fewer choices, largely some variation of a pump or, in summer, sandals, and these generally heeled for a dressier occasion. Sneakers were worn only by children or a serious athlete. Boots were the providence of construction workers, women having given up the Victorian lace-up before I was born. High heels were rarely seen on the subway, other than in the evening hours on the way home from a night on the town. Of course, we never knew if we had guessed correctly and thus enjoyed the private satisfaction of the clever who are never tested.

Today in the airport there are sneakers of all types and worn by all ages and rarely referred to as sneakers. The laced up formal shoe remains reserved for business types. Flip flops are iconic among southern Californians and I smile in recognition. It is summer, thus many versions of sandals, although few “hippie” types anymore like Birkenstocks, I imagine those are more in evidence in northern California still. Sandals now are rubberized or plasticized or Pradaized. People tend to travel in comfort these days, so serious shoes like Jimmy Choo’s are nowhere to be found, not on a summer Saturday in the OC, nor even in Dallas where I switch planes and see yet another round of shoes, more sneakers, more plain sandals, a few fashion icons here and there. Target and Wal-Mart shoppers are distinct from Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s, the quality of the shoe, and, frankly, the quality of the clothes, a give-away, and yes, while not a fashionista myself, I know the good goods when I see them. However, the playing field has been leveled since I was a girl, in all ways, and the man in shorts and flip flops sitting next to me on the plane pulls out his Wall Street Journal and might be worth millions.

All I know for sure is that we are a melange of travelers, a complicated mosaic of life stories, which are less obvious than they might once have been. I, by the way, am wearing a low-heeled slide, my toes peeking out from the half-moon slit, and only because it was easier to pack my favorites flats then wear them, even though I wear an ancient pair of yoga pants and a linen shirt that anyone in the know will recognize immediately as J. Jill. This makes me a prototypical middle class middle aged female of indeterminate geography because I shop at a national chain. Thus, I am in some way indecipherable beyond my clothes, as most of us are in the end. Who might someone imagine me to be? Will they hypothesize that I am a bi-coastal woman who grew up poor and isn’t anymore, but lives a simple life and looks forward to a bit of time back in New York City where I will ride the subway and invariably find my eyes glancing downwards, wondering about the path each pair of shoes has taken, and what prints have been left behind.

Photo compliments of the Andy Warhol collection.