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Response to theHandpuppet (Reply #7)

Wed May 28, 2014, 06:06 PM

8. A matter of shoes

Odd timing, that. Right after I posted about the barefoot taboo I had responded to the thread about "A Connecticut Yankee in Appalachia" with a link to an old Life Magazine article that featured an impoverished family from Portsmouth. It had been years since I read that article but perusing it afresh, I was reminded once again how the issue of shoes became one of such importance and identification with class.

"I like winters more than summers, because you can shovel snow in the winter," says Mike Copas. "And I'm the best snow shoveler in town." Mike hides his money under his mattress so little Jamie won't find it. "But I don't like to," he says. "Mice get under it. I hate them things. They get in your food. Poop in it. I 'bout puke when that happens. They got in one of my old shoes once and had babies in it." Chuck makes $8.64 a week on his newspaper route, but quickly points out that "thirty cents of that is for insurance. In case I break a leg or die. It'll pay half my funeral costs." Last year Chuck won a $100 gift certificate from the Daily Times for signing up the most new subscriptions. He shared his prize with his sister Jenifer. They used all the money to buy clothes. On a recent can-collecting mission, Carrie earned enough to buy a pair of purple jellies at the Dollar Store. "Guess how much they cost?" she asks Jake. "Three ninety-nine."

"Jellies" were rather hideous, colorful and cheap shoes with the consistency of... um... what folks jokingly call "booger glue". At the time they were particularly popular among little girls.

During recess, although she is athletic and loves to skip rope and ride the swings, Carrie stands by herself against the schoolhouse wall while her classmates play. "The rich children won't let Carrie play with them because she's poor," says her mother, Dorothy, who dropped out of school after eighth grade. "Not real dirt-poor, but poor. They just make fun of her. I don't know why. Jeff and Mike, they're having problems too. The other kids have better shoes on and all this. And they make fun of 'em."

Shoes... no shoes... better shoes... it's certainly not a subject foreign to anyone but to the poor (and especially to any hillbilly poor) it holds a special significance. The irony is that Portsmouth used to be a center for American shoe manufacturing, an industry that went the way of the steel mills, the railroad, the industries that made bricks and furniture and scores of other goods. When my beloved grandmother, who was herself quite poor, passed away, there was little in the way of worldly goods by which to remember her. The old leather-bound bible with its handwritten record of births and deaths and yellowed newspaper clippings tucked into the margins, is now mine. An old composition doll in a homemade wedding dress, carried by the little girl who was my grandmother when she came over on the boat from Germany, found a home with my elder sister, who didn't mind that a missing hand had been replaced with one cut from cardboard. But the last treasure that symbolizes more than any other our funny and sad ways is now in the loving possession of my eldest sister: a pair of shoes. The tiny, buttoned, high-top shoes of nearly a century ago, the leather still supple from her ceaseless care. The shoes that told everyone that she, too, was a person of dignity and worth. Such a small thing, isn't it.

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