I went to a department store the other night to buy shoes. Buying shoes is a challenge for me because I’m always tempted to ask about the “last.” I have never really understood what a “last” is, but my mother told me a long time ago to be careful about it. “If you want them to fit right,” she said, “make sure they were made with the proper last.”
I had this in mind the other night when the young salesman—okay, “associate”—brought out the open-toed sling-backs I had asked for, set them on the chair beside me and turned to walk away.
“Excuse me,” I called to him, “would you be able to tell me if these have the proper last?”
He came back, picked up one of the shoes and eyed it like a gem-cutter examining a rare diamond. “I’m pretty sure this…is…leather. It should last.” He turned the shoe over in his hand then rubbed his chin. “Let me check with my manager.”
A few minutes later, the associate returned with another dark-suited gentleman, this one wearing a manager name tag.
“I understand you have a question about this shoe,” the manager said.
“Both shoes, actually.” I felt the need to be specific. “I was wondering about the last.”
He held the shoe up in front of me and took a deep breath as if preparing to deliver a Papal decree. “This shoe is…leather,” he said, moving the shoe an inch closer to my face. “It will definitely last.”
I had the greatest urge to yell out, “Ah ha…so you admit it…it is a shoe!”
But I didn’t, of course. It really wasn’t his fault. He had simply taken me for an idiot.
It is at times like this that I remember Mr. Glickman—I feel bad that I never knew his first name, but we didn’t know that sort of thing back then. Mr. Glickman knew not only what a “last” was, but a “rise” and a “vamp,” as well. He was one of those proud career shoe salesmen in long-ago Brooklyn, when selling shoes was a respectable profession, not merely a department store transfer—“Harris, this is your last day in Auto Parts. We’re moving you to Shoes.”
There were at least seven shoe stores along that certain stretch of avenue where Glickman worked. The half dozen men employed in each of those stores were over the age of fifty, all of them dressed in three-piece suits. The leading three-piece suit sported a white carnation in the lapel; no name tag.
Glickman’s store, like the others, had at least a hundred pairs of shoes in the window, each with a six-digit style number. You could walk in, give Glickman five of these style numbers, and off the top of his head, he’d tell you the colors, sizes, and widths. He’d shake his head when you hit a number he knew was not right for you. “Wouldn’t be the proper last.”
It was pretty clear that the associate who assisted me the other evening would only be able to handle one customer at a time and likely one shoe at a time, especially if he were busy putting an emoticon on a text message. But he could always rely on the man with the manager name tag to bring out the other shoe. We’ve come to know this as teamwork.
Glickman could handle anything. He knew things, and not just by the number, but by his gut. He did not smile. Glickman would not dream of smiling and risk giving even the slightest impression of overstepping the intimacy of touching your feet. He was, after all, in close communion with your bunions, corns and calluses, your fallen arch, your hammertoe, that one funny thick toenail.
Glickman pressed your shoeless foot down against the steel measuring device called the Brannock (yes, that thing actually has a name). He cupped your heel in his hand. He squeezed, actually squeezed your instep. He knew how you walked and why. He made decisions about your feet, your posture, your life. “You keep walking like that, Young Lady, and you’ll develop a curved spine. You do want to marry a nice young man someday, don’t you?” He shook his head knowingly. Knowingly. Glickman knew you on a deeper level. That’s what brought you back.
Okay, so times change and we must change with them, with tolerance I hope. There are more shoes now and more stores and websites to carry them than any shoe salesman half a century ago could ever have possibly imagined. What’s more, the young shoe associate is probably working his way through college and operating on three hours sleep. Things are different now and mostly that’s okay. Even so, it’s been sixty-five years since I got my first pair of red Mary Jane’s, and I sometimes still miss the Glickman’s of the world.