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The Shoe Salesman


This story is a sequel to The scream of nighingales.


People don't understand about selling shoes. They think it must be a boring job. It's not. There's a real satisfaction in helping people find the right shoes. Feet are very individual. Everybody is different; their feet are different and their needs are different. Shoe stores are a wonderful place to work; they smell of leather.

I like being a shoe salesman.

You asked about my days as a poet.

People always ask about that. They think that being a poet is glamorous and that being a shoe salesman is prosaic. Really, it's the other way around. However, since you asked ...

It's hard to look back and explain what I was doing in those days and why I was doing it. I suppose it all started in high school. It's painful to talk about. People talk about nerds and bookworms, young people who, having failed in their socialization, replace people with books and intellect.

It wasn't like that. I had all sorts of wild emotions. I felt with an intensity that I simply don't have now. There was a girl that I was in love with, desperately in love with. I never told her that I was in love with her. I never approached her. Looking back, my love didn't have much to do with real love, the love that men and women have for each other. It's not surprising. Being an adolescent is hard; it is one of the mercies of life that we forget how hard it is.

I read a lot. I read quite surprising things, great works written for minds much more mature than mine. I walked a lot, long walks listening to the wind, touching the world, sensing it. I was intoxicated with words, with beauty, with poetry, with thoughts and emotions that I didn't understand.

I wrote. I had a teacher, Mr. Roberts, who encouraged me. He was good. He taught me a lot about the technical side of literature, poetic forms, figures of speech, things that they don't cover in high school English classes. He taught me to how to really read. I'm not boring you, am I? No? Good.

I could have been a good little boy and gone on to college and have become an English major. I didn't. I discovered the city. I discovered coffee houses and poetry readings. I discovered people who were poets, who lived for writing poetry. I fell into the life.

I dropped out of high school in my senior year, moved into a pad with six other guys, poets all. My folks weren't too happy but they let me do it. They couldn't stop me. I thought it was a wonderful life. We smoked dope, a lot of dope. We wrote poetry. We read poetry. We bummed the streets. We were part of the street scene.

I was there for two years. I went down hill pretty fast. When you are with it time doesn't matter too much. Things that straight people take for granted slide away. I didn't bathe regularly. Hell, I didn't eat regularly. It didn't matter to me. I thought I was creating beauty. I thought I was living in beauty.

Maybe I was. I don't remember much of what I wrote. I didn't save any of it. There was a lot of raw emotion in it, the searing of life, that sort of thing. I didn't even think about publishing my work. None of us did. We didn't care about publishing; it was too establishment. But we did want audiences. We did want people to hear us.

I used to walk the streets, giving poems away. I just wanted people to read what I had written. I don't suppose they did, the people that I pushed my poems onto.

It all blurs together now. I suppose I smoked too much dope. There was one time, though, that sticks in my mind. I had written a poem about Keats and his nightingales and how the world really was. I don't remember how it went now but I was really proud of it. I was looking for someone to give it to, someone who would understand it.

There was this old geezer. Maybe he wasn't that old but he seemed old to me. You could tell he was a literary type. There was something odd about him. He wasn't straight but he wasn't street. I tagged him up and he took it. He gave me a fiver. I was stupid in those days; I wasn't looking for money. I took it though; I hadn't eaten for two days.

I don't know now if what I was writing was any good. It doesn't matter. All of that is in the past. But I remember thinking that he would know. I had some street smarts. I could tell. If it was good he would know and he would steal it, claim it for his own. And that was good enough for me.

I lasted two, maybe three years. I lost weight. I was sick a few times. None of us had any money. I got a job in a fast food joint flipping burgers. I was so far down it looked good. I had to clean up my act. They insisted.

For the first time in years I was talking to normal people, being part of a regular social group. It was bottom tier but they were real people. Some of them were with it, some weren't. It made it easier to fit in. I went to parties, real ordinary young people parties. There was a woman, two of them actually. They liked to screw. All of a sudden I started having a sex life.

I found that I didn't want to live in a pad anymore. I moved in with Jenny for a while. I just went uphill from there. After Jenny and I split I got a place of my own. I needed a better job; I got a break and got a job selling shoes.

I was at a couple of different stores before I started to work for Mr. Weizenbaum. He's been really wonderful; he's been like a father to me. I've been there for a dozen years; last year I became a junior partner in the store. I'm married now; we have a boy. My parents were disappointed that I never went to college but they're glad to see that I've made something of myself. They're proud of their grandchild.

I really like selling shoes. I love the smell of leather. And people are nice. They fuss a lot but they respond when they can see that you really want to help them. As I tell Livia, I was born to be a shoe salesman.

Oh, the poetry. I didn't stop writing poetry right away. I just kept writing less and less. I suppose I wrote my last poem when Jenny and I split up. It's good. I like it this way. There is more romance in a pair of shoes than there ever was in all the poetry ever written. Sometimes, though, I have odd thoughts.

Say, have you ever hear a nightingale scream?


The sequel to this story is Jenny's Tail.


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This page was last updated June 5, 1998.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Harter