Friday, May 18, 2007

bas couture

A college friend of mine used to say "there is no irony in real life." Wrong! I just had a pair of Birkenstock sandals resoled by an Italian cobbler. It cost thirty dollars. He gave them back to me in a clear plastic bag. I figure that there's got to be enough incongruities here for at least one essay.

First I should explain a little about my history with Birkenstocks. According to Wikipedia they were first sold in the U.S. of A. in 1966 and quickly became to the counter-culture and liberalism what Manolo Blahnik is to the ladies of "Sex in the City".

Somewhat boastfully the Federal Republic of German's Cultural Institute tells us "'Many visitors to Woodstock wore our sandals,' states the manufacturer Birkenstock. This orthopaedic shoe, or 'Birkenstock sandal', experienced an astronomical rise in popularity thanks to hippies and proponents of the alternative lifestyle. It finally became a fashion item with the '68 protest generation who declared this dedicated health shoe to be a prime example of 'anti-fashion', a perfect accessory with which to express their socially critical opinions."

Even though I graduated from college right the middle of the sixties, and agreed from a distance with most of those "socially critical opinions" (or at least the non-chemically enhanced ones) I knew nothing about the appropriate footwear to foster those beliefs. Instead I did the best that I could with sneakers and loafers - occasionally radicalizing my appearance by going sockless. I also missed Woodstock, Mars being seven months pregnant, and me having just begun work at the local insurance company from which I retired thirty-six years later. Actually I probably wouldn't have gone anyway.

I did however discover "Birks" in one of the hotbeds of sixties radicalism, San Francisco, albeit while on vacation with Mars and our son in 1983. We were in a store that I remember as more fancy-schmantzy than hippy-dippy when I saw them and, to my surprise, impulsively tried on and purchased a pair. The clerk emphasized the orthopedic and comfort qualities of the sandal rather than the social cache that went along with them - an indication of either my apparent conservative demeanor or, more likely, a sea change in the world of pedi-culture. They were comfortable immediately. And I wore them basically nonstop for the rest of our trip. And likewise since then, summer, fall, winter and spring, except for situations that required dress shoes, athletic shoes, or mukluks - without learning of their lineage for several years.

I read somewhere that rather than replace a worn-out pair all I had to do was remove the old sole myself and "simply" glue on a new one. This story of self-redemption appealed to me and was in keeping with the sandal's history of which I was then aware. I even bought a pair of soles to use for the event, although I can't remember where.

When the time came to perform the act I decided that (a) I had no idea how to remove the old shoe bottom and (b) even less of a concept of how to attach a new one. I went to several cobblers in the area, shoes in one hand and soles in the other, seeking absolution from my soulful situation. But each patent leather Pharisee cast me out, disdainfully saying they did not work on "those shoes."

Ultimately I did find a shoemaker who repaired and also sold them - along with other brands of "Earth Shoe" like products. He even wore Birkenstocks. I did business with him for many years and then one day, as happens frequently with the older trades, he was just no longer there. Although I realized that there were several mail order repair services I went back to discarding and replacing. Without the aromatic haze of leather and shoe polish in the air it just didn't seem right to outsource the repair job.

Then recently I heard of another relatively local cobbler who would repair Birkenstocks. Like my former fixer he was Italian with enough family pictures on the wall and cordovan stains on his hands to indicate the many years he had been at his trade. He also sold shoes - faux Ferragamo and lots of the gray or white walking shoes that frequently adorn senior women's shuffling feet.

"Can you put new soles on these?" I asked.

"Yeah." He growled begrudgingly, with no eye contact. "Tuesday if I gotta order 'um. Saturday if I gottum." He walked away and returned almost immediatly.

"Saturday. Thirty five dollars."

I wasn't able to pick them up until Wednesday. When I gave him the ticket he started rummaging through his pile of completed work.

"They're Birkenstocks." I said.

"Oh yeah. Them." He found the shoes. "Give me thirty dollars. Go spend the rest on gas."

They were wrapped almost hermetically in a thick, sturdy plastic. I am wearing them as I write this and they look to me like they've been shined, so I'm thinking that the polyethylene was intended to protect the polish.

That is why these countercultural movements never fully succeed. In the end they have to depend upon some small part of the mainstream societal infrastructure to take care of them. And these traditionalists only know how to do their job the way they have always done it. Until one day when they are just not there any longer.