Sunday, March 31, 2024

Flashback 2006: New-shoe purchase laced with ambivalence

     Cary Millstein, shoe salesman extraordinaire, was buried Friday. At his funeral, the rabbi mentioned that I had written a column about him in 2006, and one of the mourners later asked me if she could read it. The column isn't online. But I told her I would dig it up and post it here. The column is long, over 1100 words, filling a page back then, and evokes a lost downtown world, of going to work in suits and ties and wingtip English shoes. 
     I always say that these columns utterly vanish in the howling wordstorm, affecting nothing, without any significance whatsoever. That is partly true, but partly a protective pose, shielding myself from the knowledge that, sometimes, they can be a very big deal, the sort of thing mentioned at somebody's funeral 18 years after they run. "He was so good at being, not just an owner, manager, salesman, he had such contact with people that Neil Steinberg wrote a column about him," the rabbi said at Cary's graveside. I find that very touching, very humbling, and am grateful to do work that is significant not only to myself, but occasionally to others too.  

     As a rule I don't buy shoes. As a rule, I don't buy anything, but merely work away, earning money to pay for the mortgage and the car, the kids and the wife, the grocer's bill and the electric bill, the 401(k) and the insurance, the guy who cleans the gutters and the lady who cleans the house, summer camp for one boy and golf lessons for the other. We rent a viola and a tuba and see to it that two cats get better medical care than 95 percent of the people in Africa. It adds up.
     But an errand took me down Wabash Avenue, past the Palmer House, where the old Church's shoe store was located, where, back when my wife was working, I would buy fine English, bench-made shoes that actually fit my triple-wide duck feet.
     Always the same type of shoe: Oxford wingtips. Heavy and black and shiny, with a thick slab of leather for a sole and an upper of tooled holes.
     Yes, the wingtip is the defining shoe of the uncool. Tom Wolfe calls them "FBI shoes" in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, an outstanding feature of the comatose, marshmallow-headed, work-a-daddy world, the "non-musical shiny-black-shoe multitudes" casting Ken Kesey and his LSD-addled merry pranksters a glance of bovine curiosity as they flash by, jeering, in their rainbow-hued bus.
     When Richard Nixon — poor, doomed, tragic Nixon, a character out of Sophocles — made his stab at popularity, and invited the press to watch him frolic on the beach, as carefree as a Kennedy, it was his black Oxford wingtips that the horrified newsmen focused on as Nixon marched grimly up and down the wet sand.
     I don't care. I like wingtips. They're comfortable. They go with a suit. They are not trendy.
     So I found myself pausing on Wabash, where Church's once was, looking through the window of what is now Cary's Footwear.
     I needed shoes — there are only so many times you can have soles replaced before the uppers start to go. I almost kept walking, out of residual loyalty to Church's — but the new place also sells English shoes, and they are having a sale. I went inside.
     "Hi Neil," said the clerk — and owner — Cary Millstein. Incredibly, he remembered me. "You're still wearing the brogues?"
     "Yes," I said, sheepishly.
     A brogue is another word for a wingtip — the word was first used to describe shoes the Irish wore, and later was applied to their lilting manner of speech.
     "Eight and a half, triple E, right?" he said, ducking into the back. Amazing. I hadn't bought a pair of shoes there in five years. You won't see that happen at a Payless.
     I tried on the shoes and marched around the tiny store — 650 square feet — to see if they fit. Millstein had already worked there for 20 years, he said, when Prada absorbed Church's and he saw his chance and bought the place. That was four years ago. Business is good. "The tourist trade is vital," he said. As if to prove his point, some visitors from Madrid came in and bought shoes, while I pondered, like Saul in his tent, whether to make a purchase.
     Eventually, I bought the shoes — $249, plus tax. It made me feel like Imelda Marcos.
     The transaction was actually much more complex than I've outlined, involving reflection, analysis, sweat and a phone conversation with my wife. But I've boiled it down to its essentials for public consumption. I left there envying the man who can just walk into a store and buy a pair of shoes and not think so goddamn much about it.


     Anxious guys shouldn't go on television. For one, they put makeup on you, and try as I might to smear it off afterward, it lingers throughout the day, and I feel like Quentin Crisp. I can't help but suspect, washing my hands in the men's room, that the guy next to me is glancing over and thinking, "Hmmm, I wonder if Steinberg's personal life is more, ah, complex than he lets on."
     That said, I will nevertheless be among Antonio Mora's guests on "Eye on Chicago" this Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on CBS Channel 2.
     That's another reason to be nervous: CBS. What if I run into Diann Burns, the TV news diva being pilloried in the press for her unwise lawsuit over crown molding? What if we're in an elevator together?
     In fact, isn't she Mora's co-anchor? What if the whole thing is a trap, and I go to shake Mora's hand, and he grabs it and twists, spinning me around and putting me in a full nelson, and then Burns comes raging out from her hiding place, eyes aflame, a straight razor in her hand . . .
     See, as I said. Anxious guys shouldn't do television.


     As usual, I left out the joyful part. At the end of a long workday, gathering up my stuff to drag home, there it was: the bag with the shoes. My heart swelled, and I thought: new shoes!
     That evening, I showed my new shoes off to my wife.
     "They're a classic form, like an Oreo cookie," I said. "And smell them — the new leather and the polish."
     "Just this once . . ." she said, taking a tentative whiff.
     "And look at the shoe box," I said to her. "It's a great shade of green — and thick cardboard. That's a quality shoe box, and I can keep all sorts of stuff in it."
     Obviously, I had lost my mind.
     But heck, the shoes will be battered and worn and scuffed and ready for the trash heap, just like their owner, soon enough, and the news being what it is, I think it's good to be happy about whatever you can find to be happy about, even something as trivial as new shoes.


     State Fair time is almost upon us, and this gem, from Mike Horstman, seems in the right spirit:
     A man and his wife are visiting the bull-breeding exhibit at the State Fair. At the first pen is a sign reading, 'This bull mated 50 times last year."
     The wife pokes her husband in the ribs and says, "Fifty times last year!"
     They walk a little farther and see another pen with a sign that says, "This bull mated 100 times last year."
     The wife socks her husband in the arm and says. "About twice a week! You could learn a lot from him.''
     They walk farther and a third pen has a sign saying "This bull mated 365 times last year.''
     The wife says, "Once a day! You could really learn some . . ."
     The husband cut her off with: "Why don't you go up and ask him if it was all with the same cow."


     Of course, no wife in the history of the world ever teased her husband about not having enough sex.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 28, 2006 


  1. Eight and a half, triple E?
    I never did purchase a pair of those English shoes, though I had always wanted to. I've always worn wing-tipped shoes as well, and I would look at the ad in the paper for these shoes with great envy.
    This being Easter, I'll get out the Bates, a perfectly fine shoe, but not the quality of yours. You did the right thing going back into the store.

  2. I also have triple E feet. Until I was 45 I thought feet were supposed to hurt. Then one day I tried on a standard pair of Birkenstocks. My feet didn't hurt. A revelation. You can be thrifty regarding many things in life but shoes aren't one of them. It's a shame I had to be 45 to figure that out.

  3. I had a pair of nearly new wing tips I referred to as my funeral shoes. As that was the only times I'd wear them . Scored them from a dead persons wife along with several fine suits. Lasted 30 years 10-1/2s. Then one day they shrunk . Now I wear a 12. Who knew your feet grew at 50. My eldest son wore those shoes in high school. To his cello recitals, model UN, and special events, along with several funerals. He would polish them. They still look brand new . Now he's a size 13-1/2. After engineering school he bought his own pair.

  4. I think investment in the comfort of our feet is important. Glad you got them. My husband and I had to dress up last week. He pulled out the wing tips. They’re classic.

  5. POST POST JOKE COMMENTARY: And no husband in his right mind (and who valued his sexual distinguishing characteristics) would refer no matter how obliquely to his wife as a "cow."

  6. I had forgotten how much longer your column was back in the day! Enjoyed the joke and enjoyed your commentary at the end!

  7. Everyone's heard of flat feet, right? Well, mine are FLAT. I have no arches at all! kept me out of the Army, but I had foot pain as a kid. In high school, My parents had shoes custom-built for me, made by an old German shoemaker on N. Lincoln Ave. Pretty damn pricey for 1963...a hundred bucks a pair. But they did the trick.

    As an adult, I wore standard off-the-rack shoes for years. And I wore loafers to white-collar jobs. Hated dress shoes. Didn't even bother with them. They never fit right or felt right, because I had to wear extra-wide ones--11-E...and then 12-E. Flat, wide feet. Like a duck's. A doctor told me I'd have made a great swimmer, along the lines of Michael Phelps. Nope. Not me. Too lazy.

    In the 80s and 90s, I started wearing New Balance running shoes. Exclusively. That's pretty much all I ever wear now, even in the winter. Yeah, my feet still hurt. But you get used to it. That's why foot massagers were invented. They're also known as wives (JOKE...JOKE).

    1. Try Brooks athletic shoes. It can help with those problems.

  8. Since my most recent pair of orthopedic shoes with fitting expenses was about $900 I hope to keep wearing them for at least the next 10 years. Talk about thinking before buying. And my poor wife…she still hasn’t quite got over it.

  9. I recently donated my Allen-Edmonds Imperial Wingtips. They earned their scrapes on sidewalks, stairs and dance floors for some 30 years, in too many cities to remember. Never let me down. I took a shine to them probably only a few times a year. They still had some life in them, so they went to a man who shops for shoes at the Salvation Army store. I replaced them with another pair of Allen-Edmonds black and brown Cordovan plain toes. I'm told they make me look preppy. The wingtips, friends told me, made me look important. I'm good with preppy. I hope the wingtips make their new owner feel important.

    1. My husband wears Allen Edmonds-for dress-he has them resoled and they last for years. Always worth the $$$

  10. He was my neighbor for a few years. Kindhearted guy, so sad to hear of his passing. What a lovely recollection you posted.

  11. I used to love shopping for shoes. No wingtips for me, being female. It was needle-nosed three inch spikes for me. Wore them every day for years. Amazingly, high heels were part of the dress code for women at the bank where I worked (no such code for men). Ruined my feet. Now, retired, it's sneakers, slippers, or Crocs.

  12. A long-term effect of the pandemic was that I outgrew my shoes. Only discovered when I had to finally wear dress shoes again. boo.
    That aside, I really like that Neil's column was memorable to the rabbi and Cary's family. A great reminder that you never know the impact you have on others.

  13. "'[He] had such contact with people that Neil Steinberg wrote a column about him,' the rabbi said at Cary's graveside. I find that very touching, very humbling, and am grateful to do work that is significant not only to myself, but occasionally to others too."

    You should, and it is, and I can say that with some authority, because you wrote half a column about me, somewhere around 20 years ago now (when your full-page column would cover two or more disparate topics), and I have never forgotten it, even though the column itself seems to have fallen into that gray area of decades back, when everyone was on the Internet but not everyone was saving their work.

    In a previous column back then, you had written something mildly critical of snowblowing for some reason, and I had sent you an email with a polite objection, saying that I actually enjoyed it, to the point of clearing sidewalks all the way down to the school bus stop. Being able to respond to newspaper columns via email direct to the columnist was still a New Thing, so I just about fell out of my chair when checking voicemail later that morning and hearing a message from you in your hurry-up, hyphenated style of speech: "Hi-this-is-Neil-Steinberg-from-the-Chicago-Sun-Times-and-I-was-wondering-if-I-could-speak-with-you-about-your-email-regarding-snowblowing..."

    We had a nice chat on the phone (it was interesting to hear the background of you pounding the keyboard with notes and quotes whenever I said something either clever or substantial), and I kept the clipping of your resulting column about me for many years, until the newsprint disintegrated, but to this day, the Snowblower Story lives on in our family and in our neighborhood.

    1. Of course! I remember that . You had some kind of communal block snowblowing network. It was a refreshing departure from the usual stories of neighbors shooting each other over a parking space. I was excited to put it in the paper.

  14. In a man's wardrobe, shoes are the only item that can hurt you. Buy quality that lasts and you can save your feet, and if you maintain them properly you can even save money. Don't wear the same pair every day, use cedar shoe trees and rotate. Get a proper fitting, not just the length from heel to toe. The ball of your foot is the widest part and should be in the widest part of the shoe. That's what that little piece with a curved metal piece on the measuring device is for, to measure your ball length. A little extra toe room won't hurt, but if the widest part of your foot leads to your toes touching the toe of the shoe, get them custom made. I believe Allen Edmonds still does factory refurbishment, as Johnston and Murphy did before shutting down their Nashville factory, and it is worth the price. Like the rest of our bodies, feet tend to spread out as we age, get remeasured occasionally.

  15. Re the post joke commentary: no, but some drag you into divorce for that reason, as mine did to me, and my mother did to my dad.


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