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Friday, July 23, 2010

I Was A Sincere Child, or Are Those Your SHOES That I Smell?

Sheesh, I hate to point this out – as if it needs pointing out! – but Holy Hannah, it’s Friday again!

Today is a particularly exciting Friday, not simply because it’s the end of a rather grueling work week but because it’s the day before my annual Summer Party. Today’s iPod-shuffled playlist – locally and quite erroneously accepted by me and several other free-thinkers as being indicative of what the weekend has in store for us – awaits.

What do you mean, who else believes that my iPod tells the future?

That kind of information, my friend, will cost you a beer. No. Two – wait, three beers.

Three beers.

So! You ready to have your fortune told?

Say Blow by Blow Backwards by Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns
Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia) by Us3
Ditch by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Psycho Killer by Talking Heads
Wild International by One Day as a Lion
Super Sex by Morphine
Oh No by Gogol Bordello

And there you have it! Another successful party!

Ah. It’s so pleasant in my head.

We have time for one story, and then I’m off to make taco dip.

The 70s was a time of budding ecological awareness, and prior to seventh grade Social Studies and its filmstrip-watching, current-event-clipping ways, I had fully embraced consumerism and the concept of More Equals Better. I had, of course, been aware of pollution prior to the class, but not so much from an environmental point of view as much as an economical one.

The creation of the paper towel, for instance, was due, according to my mother, to the combined efforts of the makers of Brawny and the Devil. Any time a commercial for a paper towel came on the television, my mother practically wet herself with glee.

“Look at that! Ya lazy bums!” she’d shout at the TV. “Paper towel my butt! Grab a rag for cryin’ out loud and stop throwing your money away!”

A good deal of seventh grade Social Studies was spent watching filmstrips. They were primarily about the various ways in which we were polluting our planet. On the pulled-down screen at the front of the room, sky-scraping barges of garbage paced the waters between one city’s port and another’s on our East Coast as local governments argued over which one would take it in.

That same year there was a TV commercial that affected me deeply. A traditionally garbed Native American man, a tear running down his weathered cheek, gazed over the dump that had once been sacred land and then into the camera.

I was gripped with righteous pubescent outrage. “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop it.” Damn right they can, I thought: and there and then I decided I would no longer participate in the desecration of my planet.

I started by plastering ecology stickers to my bedroom dresser.

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” my mother said, chipping a “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” sticker off my underwear drawer with a butter knife. “Remind me. How does defacing my furniture help again?”

She didn’t understand. She didn’t know that we were running out of natural resources, that in no time at all we’d be out of clean water and forced to wash ourselves with old rags and spit.

To save paper, the prodigious notes I wrote and passed during classes were now written on the backs of old assignments and envelopes pulled from the garbage.

To save water, I threw my clothes into the hamper only if they were stained; and if I managed to keep food off my lap, I found I could wear a pair of pants for a week at a time.

This was the year my friend Teresa and I traded home-made gifts for Christmas. My gift to her was a Cover Girl pressed powder compact. Considering that I found it on the side of the road, it was in great shape. I pounded the ring of old, greasy powder out of it, boiled it clean, and refilled it with Vaseline. Voila. Home-made lip gloss. Teresa knitted me a scarf she made by unraveling a sweater she found in the park. Between Teresa and I, we were a walking testimonial to the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.

That spring, an examination of my belongings led me to the conclusion that a person has no real need for more than one pair of shoes. Imagine my shock when I realized that I had four pairs. What kind of example was I setting? I put three pairs out of four in a bag and marked it for the Salvation Army, where I was sure some poor child would appreciate my smelly, mud-spattered earth shoes, tennis shoes and clogs.

“Now you’re giving up shoes?” my mother asked.

“I’m not giving them up,” I said, smugly. “I’m sharing the wealth.”

I kept my remaining pair of shoes through sentiment. They were incredibly comfortable and had been my primary shoe for two years. They showed it. They were water-stained. They were discolored. They were identifiable by smell. In English class, my friend Jim had stared at my brown leather lace-up shoes the first day of second quarter. After several minutes of staring, he said, “I think it’s great you went all the way to Russia for your shoes”. That was the funniest thing I had heard in a long time and I nurtured my secret crush on Jim by replaying the event in my head over and over.

I clandestinely named my shoes “Comrades”.

One day, however, the right shoe’s toe had come unglued from the sole and was catching on the ground, causing me to trip.

“I think you should give up ecology,” my mother would say whenever she saw this, “It’s affecting your balance.”

By the end of August, I had definitely developed some minimalist tendencies.

“You want to buy what now for the school year?” my mother asked me.

“One pair of jeans, three green shirts, and four pairs of underwear.”


“One pair of jeans, three green shirts, and four pairs of underwear.”

“No socks?”

“And socks.”

“That’s the wardrobe you want to start 8th grade in?“


“ ‘Cause I think I can talk your father as high as four pairs of pants,” she mused. “Maybe a couple more shirts?”

“No,” I said. “I’m good.”

“What about shoes?”

I held one foot up off the ground to show her that I already had shoes.

“Hmmm,” she said. “Those are going to put you on crutches one of these days.”

“They’re fine,” I insisted. “Don’t buy any more stuff. Have you heard about the landfills? The landfills are – did you know that they’re using whole islands out by New York City to dump all these other cities’ garbage on?”

“Gotcha,” she said. “No new shoes for Pearl.”

And then one day my comfortable shoes were comfortable no more. This was a problem. Money for clothes only came up once a year, and that was during a four-to five-hour window on a Saturday toward the end of August. That time was long gone.

That's when it hit me – I would buy my own shoes! The world would learn from my example. My vision of a pared-down world would knock them sideways with its clarity: one pair of feet, one pair of shoes. No more frivolous flip flops or slippers or clogs, wasting the Earth’s precious resources. Here was a chance to show everyone how it was done.

A fantasy both childish and eco-friendly played out in my head. “I don’t know why we ever doubted you,” my parents would say. This would be followed by a heated conversation between them in which my father would point out to my mother that he had always believed in me. He would then chastise her for not having encouraged this side of my development. Then she would look indignant and tell him that they didn’t need to talk about this right now, Paul, and who had driven whom to the recycling center last week with a forty-pound bale of bundled newspapers?

I smiled in anticipation.

Seized with visions of an all-purpose shoe and the thought of my parents fighting for my affection, I dug through my underwear drawer for my wallet. As the result of more babysitting than I liked to think about plus the coins I regularly pilfered from the change jar of the guy down the street who paid me 25 cents an hour to watch his three kids, I had thirty-eight dollars.

I caught a ride to the mall with my father, who had plans to buy a new album.

“You ever heard of Frankie Yankovic, Pearl?”

I sighed. “Dad, they’re not going to have a polka album at Schmidt’s.”

“Why not? He’s a helluvan accordion player."

“Dad, I can go myself. Can we just meet in an hour at the clock?”

He looked hurt. “Well, if you don’t want to look at albums with me…”


My father ambled off in the direction of the record store.

I headed to the shoe store, dizzy with excitement. Shoes of my own choosing. Sturdy, practical, penny-pinching shoes. I would set the tone of the future of conservation through my wise choice in footwear.

“Can I help you?” It was a teen-aged boy in a smock. The name tag said his name was Dave.

“I need some shoes,” I said.

“What kind of shoes?”

“Brown,” I said. “I want a pair of brown, practical shoes. Shoes that will last.” I paused. “I have $38.00.”

He took me over to the girls’ shoes.

Ridiculous! Straps and buckles! Heels! None of these were shoes that sprang to mind when one thought of practical shoes.

“No,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “Plain brown shoes. With laces.”

He shrugged and led me to the men’s shoes.

And there they were: plain brown shoes, with laces.

“That’s it!” I exclaimed. “Those are my shoes!”

“In the men’s?”


He shrugged again. Clearly there was no accounting for taste.

In minutes he had found the men’s version of a size for me. I put them on. They might have been a little too big and a little too wide, but they didn’t come any plainer or any browner than these. I stood and looked at my feet, pulling up the legs of my brown corduroys to admire my shoes.

“Hey.” It was Dave. I turned from admiring my shoes to face him. He was holding my old shoes with the ends of his fingers, much as one might hold two dirty diapers. He was fighting back a smile. “Hey. Are these yours?”


“Can I, like, take these in the back for a second?”

I stared at him. On the one hand, the request struck me as odd. On the other hand, it’s a teenage boy asking me for a favor. “Sure,” I said.

I was stuffing the paper back into the toes of my new shoes when I heard, from the back room, the sound of a small bell and a low hum, followed by raucous laughter. There might have been hooting, too, but there was definitely humming followed by laughter.

I was leaning over the counter, trying to see what was going on back there when Dave returned. Two more smiling teenaged boys in smocks hung back, one to each side of the door to the back room. They looked at me expectantly.

I turned to Dave.

“Hey,” he said, snickering slightly. The two in the doorway snickered as well and did a markedly poorer job of stifling it than Dave did. “Um, you wanna make a deal?”

I looked at him and cocked my head to one side.

“I’ll give you my discount,” he said, smiling, “if you’ll let us keep your old shoes.”

Was he kidding me? A chance to show the world that one practical pair of shoes was enough for anyone and save money at the same time? Did he know who he was talking to? Sold!

The two in the doorway disappeared and the bell rang again. There was humming followed by laughter.

“Yeah!” Dave said. I stepped into my new shoes as he rang the sale up. With the discount, the total came to $22.00.

A thought occurred to me. “What are you going to do with my old shoes?” I asked. I was envisioning a Shoes for the Poor box in the back.

He grinned. Looking quickly from one side of the store to the other, he leaned forward.

“We have a temple in the stockroom,” he whispered, “where we make offerings to the Shoe God.”

There were two snorts of laughter from the back room, and then a voice loud enough to hear: “And these are the grodiest shoes we’ve seen in MONTHS!” a voice said, laughing. “A worthy offering!” snickered the other.

There was the sound of a bell, a low hum, and then both voices: “All hail the Shoe God, who makes all stinks possible!”

That night, lying in bed, I thought about my shoes. And as I lay in the dark, working it out in my head, I realized that, despite the stockroom cathedral to footwear and my subsequent embarrassment, my plan had worked better than I had hoped for. Better than my one, perfect pair of utilitarian shoes, better than the fact that I was now poised to lead by example in my quest for frugality, better even than the 15% discount, I realized that my old shoes had traveled far further than their manufacturer had intended. From the factory to the store to the floor of my closet to the makeshift alter at the Thom McCann’s, the Comrades had achieved a spot in recycling Nirvana. And ultimately, wasn’t that the reason to Give a Hoot?

The leather-faced Native American man in my head smiled, and I fell asleep as slowly and deliberately as possible, dreaming of litter-free parks, blue water, and people who recycle used paper towels.


MJenks said...

This...is a magnificent story.

And the Indian shedding a tear motif? One of pop-culture's most lasting, poignant images.

Pearl said...

Thanks, MJenks. That guy is still with me.

imtsmom said...

Too, too funny!! All of that was such a huge part of us in that era. You give it a great spin!

Pearl said...

Thanks, T's Mom. :-)

Kal said...

That has to be my favorite stories of yours. I half imagined it ending with you howling at the night moon as you killed somebody's cow and made your own shoes. Then you were found out when they saw that the cow had patterns for Buster Browns cut out of it's hide. I lost a beat up pair of runners when I drew them for an art competition. When I won at the school level the shoes had to travel with the drawing to the provincial competition. I never won and never got my model shoes back. It still hurts me to this day. I should have at least took a picture of them.

Greenfingers said...

More magic from the magic jukebox contained within Pearls sparkling head!

On the subject of footwear (and for no real reason!) I have only worn sandals once in my life...and they made my feet look stupid!
Never again..

Irisheyes said...

Bravo Pearl!! What a visionary you where and still are. I too had a worn out pair of brown shoes that were my favorites. They were called G.A.S.S (Great American Shoe Store) shoes from Kinneys. BTW, my parents would have gladly traded me in to have a child like you. I'm not kidding...ask them.:)

Sweet Cheeks said...

What a fantastic post!

The butter knife is the greatest utensil/weapon/tool/screwdriver/goo- remover/toast butterer ever invented.

The Vegetable Assassin said...

I knew the story would be good because anyone who likes Gogol Bordello can't really spin a bad yarn. :) Hey in your photo over there you're even wearing purple!

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

I began to write that this was one of your best ever, and then decided that in fact it's THE best. So far. (Which is not to cast aspersions on your previous fine work.)

Douglas said...

I want to know where Helluv (or is it Helluve?) is. Apparently, it's a country that produces either the best accordionists or the best accordions, or maybe both. It must be rife with polkas... Not that I am especially enamored of polkas but one never knows where his taste in music might lead him.

Fred Miller said...

We are somewhat kindred spirits. I have some nearly transparent New Balance that are perfect for martial arts practice because the have no traction anymore. Tessa took me to Payless and I chose those new "no mark" soles because they have no traction. Great for pivoting on roundhouse and side kicks.

Bossy Betty said...

I like it in your head too though it gets a little crowded sometimes....

Your shoes did travel indeed!

Simply Suthern said...

I sacrificed a good pair of underwear once but it wernt for anything quite as honorable as the shoe gods.

Madame DeFarge said...

This is one of your finest. I chortled at your youthful idealism, your practical approach to ecology and held my nose in anticipation of much foot pong. You were a brave eco-warrior indeed.

Jon in France said...

A lovely tale...but who the heck is Hannah and why is she holy????

Tempo said...

What a weird kid! Sorry Pearl but at the same age I was hoping (in vein) for every new thing that came along. Being a boy I had the maximum allowance of shoes...two plus flip flops. (yeah, we call them thongs...have a good laugh then)

Philip said...

I really enjoyed that Pearl. I don't know how you could bear to let comrades go. It's like losing a family member when your best shoes finally give up the ghost. I've got a pair under the bed I can't quite bear to throw even though they are quite unwearable now. I wear all my clothes to death. If it ain't fraying it ain't wore in yet. Keep up the good work.

Silliyak said...

I think I remember that year. That was the year that there was a leather glut and tanners had to send tons of leather to the dumps and my father lost his job in a shoe factory. (I would have said my father the cobbler, committed suicide, but you're not that old)

Erin said...

I hope you are working on a memoir! I would buy it.