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Offbeat – 24 January 2014

Melting tar taught me that you can keep your bare feet off the road, most of the time, as long as your strides are long and you can bounce like a gazelle.

I walk a lot, in the neighbourhood. It has something to do with the rhythm of shoes on the pavement counter-pointed with the easy beat of breathing and, depending on the hill, the syncopation of my heart. It’s a ‘jazz’ kind of thing: three elements synching up, and I just slip away into reveries, sometimes productive and other times just plain fun.
Walking in town is something different. I see other sides of things. The low-budget fried chicken franchise might be brightly hued and minor-league, ‘wannabe’ preppy on the television ads, but it’s real life, sweaty  and jostling for the chicken in a box come ‘time-to-clock-off’. The mobile airtime hawkers on one buck margins, the guys pitching genuine ‘Made in China’ knock-offs and the beggars’ silent accusations are the supersize-me fries with a budget packet of chemical ketchup that come with this greasy box of reality to go.
Get real. Discover life on the streets. Walk, watch and wonder. You may learn something new. Don’t worry about the people who look at you like some street-dwelling scum who hasn’t yet earned the respectability of 60 monthly payments on an ageing car. That’s the suburban groove: narrow-minded, bounded by electric fences, disaffected dogs and ‘lock-up-and-go walls, blinkered by the rigid one-way, blank-eyed TV stare.
Left foot then right foot. Repeat until the world changes or some shop or watering hole calls you in for an alternative therapy. That’s all there is to it. Except the shoes.
I’m ambivalent about shoes. They’re good on or off. I grew up with my shoes that way: my feet were a learning curve and an intuitive interface with the world around me.
My feet loved the feel of soil and tar, and shoeless freedom, but there was learning and my barefoot skills developed. The rusty nail taught me to watch where I put my bare feet. So did angry soldier ants and any number of vicious thorns, long or short, solid or paper thin.
Melting tar taught me that you can keep your bare feet off the road, most of the time, as long as your strides are long and you can bounce like a gazelle. Why not switch to the pavement? That was the kingdom of the thorns. Still, the feet hardened, and it wasn’t just the layer of melted tar.
On the other hand, long, long days running to friends and running around the neighbourhood taught me that shoes can help you keep moving longer. Too long without them and my feet would flattened out and develop a dull ache. And then I couldn’t keep up with the pack.
Good and bad. That’s my experience of shoes.
Things have changed since then. It seems as if the balance is swinging to shoes. Mud and dirt are not good for kids anymore. Scraped toes and thorns are no longer legitimate learning curves. Scorpions are not something to be avoided or watched from a distance if shoes make you safe and you can step on them.
But at the same time, walking is something that is done as an organised sport if you live in suburbia, not a way to get somewhere. So shoes become ways to cover your feet, not tools in which to walk, unless you head off to a speciality store for special walking shoes and can cope with the wince when the slip is handed to you.
And shoes become ways to decorate your feet, sculpted objects, often too flimsy to last more than a month or six on the pavement, but enough to justify a year’s gradual payments.
I don’t buy smart shoes anymore. My pair of walking shoes has lasted me long enough now to know the wisdom of the money invested. I have a pair of slip slops for wearing around the house. And I have slippers for winter. The scorpion under the rock takes his chances with my bare feet and my eyes.
But shoes don’t define me. The conceits I wear are the memory that if all the shoe shops in the world suddenly vanished in a leather-scented apocalypse, I could survive. And the other conceit is my walk, without a car or a care, be it on the wrong end of the main street or the roads through the suburbs.
I feel half sorry for people who don’t know these pleasures.


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