Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Stuff I love: Red Wing boots

     Six inches of snow fell on Chicago Sunday, a record for Dec. 4. Much of it was still around Monday, slushy and wet, and I decided to break out my Red Wing Boots for the first time this season.     
     The boots helped. Not so much navigating downtown, which was fairly clear. But with the psychological boost a good pair of footwear can bring. Monday was also the day that the nascent Trump administration announced it is naming Dr. Ben Carson, he of the mumbled, almost gnostic idiocies, as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. Another grim milestone in the reckless administration of a reckless man loading up on idiots for our collective tumble over the cliff. 
     Or not. We've been in ominous times before and somehow struggled through, intact. The boots harkened back to another worrisome year, 2009, when the economy had cratered and the new president, a novice senator who talked a good game but had not yet proven himself, had yet to bring it back. I was expecting the paper to close at any moment, and the time seemed right for a sturdy pair of boots. I wrote about it, in a column that, in retrospect seems surprisingly candid, almost fragile. Anyway, now, at a similarly bleak — aw heck, at a whole lot bleaker — moment in our national saga, seems an apt time to revisit it. Back then my column was divided into sections, and I've left those section markers in, including the concluding joke. I figure, we could all use a joke about now.


     "Why don't you wear jeans?" my wife suggested, as I stood puzzling in front of the open closet. "You're a writer, you can wear jeans. You look good in jeans."
     It was a few hours before I had to appear on a panel at the Printers Row Event Formerly Known As a Book Fair (I just can't call it a Lit Fest).
     Even I wasn't going to wear a business suit to an outdoor fair on a Saturday morning in June, but was thinking maybe khakis, a sports coat.
     But why not blue jeans? The world's falling apart anyway. And if my wife says it's OK, it's OK. I stood there pondering, which she must have taken as paralysis.
     "Why don't you wear your Red Wing boots?" she added, soothingly. "Then you'll be ready for anything."
     That shocked me. It's one thing, I thought, slowly reaching for the high black jump boots, to nurture an irrational private notion. It's something else entirely when your significant other catches your odd occult beliefs from you, and begins repeating them back as if they made sense.


     A person should not let his actions be dictated by song lyrics.
     I know that. Songs are not speaking to you, directly. They are written by people you don't know, under vastly different circumstances from your own. They are made up, and not guides to behavior. I know that.
     And yet.
     Once, decades ago, I was driving alone down a deserted stretch of southwestern highway, when I saw a sign announcing Winslow, Ariz. -- I impulsively took the exit and soon found myself in the center of a small town where I parked and stood, briefly, on a lonely street corner. No girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowed down to take a look at me, as happens in the Eagles song.
     But had one wanted to, I was right there.
     And then. A few months ago, I drove to Rogan's Shoes in Buffalo Grove because the Web site for Red Wing Shoes says Rogan is a Red Wing dealer. I had decided to buy a pair of Red Wing boots because . . . God, this is embarrassing . . . because in the Tom Waits song "Ruby's Arms," he says, "All I need is my Red Wing boots, and my leather jacket."
     I had just bought a leather jacket — brown, simple, no buckles, something Woody Guthrie might wear — so the boots seemed the next logical step. Then I would have all I need. And with the coming economic apocalypse, one never knows when one might be, oh, part of a line of refugees walking west. A good pair of steel-toed boots might come in handy.
     Red Wing boots are made on the banks of the Red Wing River in Red Wing, Minn. Or so I assumed, figuring that would explain the $180-a-pair price tag, twice as much as boots made by slaves in China.
     At that price, it couldn't be an impulse buy. Not for me. I tried the boots on, wandered the store for 20 minutes. Then went home for a week and thought about it, then came back a second time, with my wife for moral support. She has none of the psycho-buying-stuff hang-ups that I do.
     "They fit? Buy 'em," she shrugged. So I did, thinking that between the boots, the leather jacket, and the bracing narrative of the Tom Waits song, now I was indeed ready for anything. Let the economy totter.
     It was in the parking lot, heading for the car, box of boots in hand, that I ran "Ruby's Arms" through my mind one more time for reassurance. "All I need is my railroad boots," he plainly sings, "and my leather jacket."
     "Railroad boots" -- not "Red Wing boots." What was I thinking? I stopped cold. I almost whipped around and hurried back into the store to return the boots. But what would I say? "These aren't the boots in the song"? Besides, I have a rule that I don't do that kind of thing anymore — I make decisions and stick with them, lest my life devolve into a nightmare of action, regret and retraction.
     Tell me this lyrics idiocy isn't a unique failing of my own. Please. There must be other people who do things because of songs. Who happen to be in Memphis and beeline — as I did — to Charles Vergo's alley restaurant, The Rendezvous, simply because John Hiatt sings: "At least we can get a decent meal, down at the Rendezvous" in "Memphis in the Meantime."
     Who finds satisfaction the way I did in realizing that Tom Waits does mention the boots in a different song, "Mr. Siegel" ("I shot the morning in the back, with my Red Wings on. . .")
     Frankly, I write the entire episode off to stress over the economy. I can't control what's happening in America. My pair of boots was made in the good old U.S. of A., though Red Wing informs me that about half of their footwear is now made in China. Nothing to be done about that. But you can make sure you have good boots. Maybe that'll help.


      The little boy put on his own shoes for the first time and ran to show his mother.
     "Sweetie," she cooed. "That's wonderful. But you've got your shoes on the wrong feet."
     He looked down in confusion and horror, then up at his mother.
     "But mommy," he said, his lower lip starting to tremble. "These are the only feet I've got!"
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 8, 2009


  1. I have a pair of Timberlands that I like just as much. Nice to know I can wade through deep snow if I have to (even though I rarely do).

  2. Gnostic Idiocy.

    Perfect. That is how the Trump administration will be considered in my head until the bitter end of his administration, or the apocalypse, whichever comes first.

  3. Neil, I laughed so hard at your bit about standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona, in case a girl in a flatbed Ford wanted to slow down to take a look at you! I laughed even harder when you wanted to return your boots! Brilliant stuff.

  4. In Rubys arms doesn't Waits sing 'all I need is my railway boots' ?


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