I pick up a quick job I don’t need, as much for curiosity as money: an email from my improv school announces 5K runners are needed for a promotional stunt. After paying a large Mastercard bill (loaded with periodontal surgery, cat surgery, and a month’s rent and plane fare to New York), my subconscious could use the salve of a couple hundred bucks.
A marketing firm runs the modest show, the first week of which is a flurry of emails about suit measurements. A list of required attire includes running shoes, a no-brainer but complicated by my not owning any. No longer given to fits of adolescent pique (much), I email that I usually run barefoot–will this be a problem? An immediate response worries about liability, a sure sign there’s no point in discussion. I must buy some running shoes.
Goodwill I consider but shy away from: pots, dishes and assorted this-or-that can be washed like shoes can’t. A local discount shoe chain I patronized, as much for its utter lack of all conceivable thrills as anything, has been gone since 2008 and I haven’t bought shoes since. I figure the Ross by the Safeway would have shoes, or the one downtown. I check the one downtown before class one night but without enough time to look at anything, so stop at the other store on the way to meet the marketing people.
And do they. Ross doesn’t strive for the same level of gulag aesthetic as the departed Shoe Pavilion, but it’s close enough: tile floors, fluorescent half-light, plain signage likely made in bulk at some Mexican print shop, and bare chrome racks that screech out of my bored childhood when bare wire hangers are scraped over them. I have about fifteen minutes: not a lot but enough. I will find a pair I tolerate right away or not.
Fortunately the stacks are not messy and I have had the presence of mind to bring socks. Some time wasted to be startled in 11 not fitting and finding the pair of 12s above. Despite the very different appearance both are plasticized leather, sewn with plastic thread to plastic soles and plastic padding. They smell like new shoes, which is like new carpet or a new car. I would probably prefer the brown ones, being more in line with the general Seattle look, but they don’t fit at all. The white ones feel reasonable: there’s room for everything, the small amount of binding and rubbing unavoidable. They are not too gauche without being plain, for while fashion doesn’t count much for me it is important attire not be actively repellent.
My choosing has taken ten minutes all told, including interruptions by disheveled or extremely casual men and women walking in front of me. A latina with a black-and-white striped shirt slides past in thin flipflops, pushing a cart with an expression of profound fatigue. Excuse me, she says with polite quiet. An older Asian man who looks more shellshocked than exhausted passes dressed in baggy chinos and layers of Seattle-colored button-up shirts. They fit the place, but I assume they are here with less choice than me.
Choice is what this exercise is all about. I choose to come here to buy items society in essence gives me no choice in possessing. From their dress and demeanor there are a few people like me here: I see two women, white in tidy shorts and bright tops with long blonde hair and good skin, their eyes sharp in the way of someone who embraces their own agency. Their socioeconomic status doesn’t match the neighborhood or the store, but they choose to be here, for whatever reason. The heavy latina woman and the shellshocked Asian man, I assume with all the perils of assuming, have the choice of Ross, Wal-Mart or Goodwill.
Neither the bright blonde women or the shuffling masses have a choice about what they can buy. From Ross and Wal-Mart to Nordstrom and Macy’s, all the items come from hot, poor countries made by little slave-in-all-but-name hands. Once I read a Harper’s Index item stating a Indonesian contractor would earn enough company store scrip to buy a pair of the shoes he or she made in 40,000 years. The tag says they retail for $80. I would guess they cost maybe $7 to make, put in a container, and ship to Seattle, if that. I pay $30.
Supposedly other choices are available to me. I can spend significant time Googling for sustainable this and just that, but experience has shown I’ll find few things with exorbitant prices. Feeling good–or smug, depending on your politics–is expensive. Is my single choice worthwhile against the great globalized tide?
And some tide. It offers lots of choices, but all are meaningless. Try it: go buy toothpaste. American stores have an entire row as tall as I am, all the boxes stacked: gel, paste, tartar control, super whitening. Jeezus, I just want some toothpaste. The shoes I’m about to buy are a supreme example of the fashion object created wholesale from a conflation of need and want. Now attention is coming full circle as people realize these shoes cause foot problems. In the end, the hyped and overpriced athletic shoe is a reflection on the process of progress just making things complicated instead of better. Famine relief ultimately makes hunger worse; the miracle of DDT turns out to be not so much a miracle. The chief cause of problems is solutions, said the great Sevareid.
The big apparel-shoe companies realize all they really have to sell are images and impressions–symbols and abstractions. Armies of college-educated professionals are employed not to create items possessing the vaunted innovation, but instead to devise how to get people to want a new thing only infinitesimally different from what they already have. The great engine runs at breakneck speed to create things that are ultimately the same and with little value. All the shoe brands that are essentially the same, the amount of design and engineering in a shoe trivial to what evolution has already provided. Planes and trains and containers consume mountains of plastic, animal hides (which we forget that’s what leather is) and petroleum to produce items meant to be as long-lasting as toilet paper. All of us go along, even the highthinking reluctants like myself, unable to separate entirely from the great life-sustaining machine we have created. This machine, which impressed Marx as a “machine for demolishing limits”, demolishes more every day. An ecologist writing in the New York Times laments it’s too late for the coral reefs, and that all will be gone worldwide in fifty years or so. This is so not because I drove to a store and bought a pair of shoes that are essentially solidified petroleum products, but because millions of people have, over and over.
This is what I think about when buying shoes.
Ross service proves we are getting what we are paying for. It takes me, and all the other poor people stuck in the one checkout line (pictured above is the one line for returns and other more complicated transactions), as long to pay as it did to select the shoes. I have plenty of time these days, but at this moment I’m supposed to be heading to a marketing meeting. I wonder how much time these other people have.
The store, the shoes, the whole great thing of buying and selling and want and need, is a dilemma. We all need things and things have to be bought–we don’t live on self-sufficient farms any more, and unlike some wistful types I don’t think going back is desirable or viable. We want to do the right thing, or people say they do. But the machine makes things easy. We want to please and be seen as belonging, normal, right. The machine tells us we will be if we go along. It’s far, far bigger than us. In the end, we want the good life and freedom from shame. Nobody wants to look shabby. You can know the machine isn’t really any good, but you don’t want an argument you can’t win.