“Can I help anyone?”
Embarked as I was in the transition from man-who-felt-awkward-about-who-he-was to man-who-felt-comfortable-in-his-own-skin, this question embodied another milestone on my extraordinary journey. It was a question that came up often as I found my comfort zone in a pair of size 12 heels. And the people who asked it were the salesmen and saleswomen at my favorite shoe store.
It was true that I liked wearing women’s shoes. I was learning to embrace that fact about myself to myself. It was also true that I lived in a world where being a man in women’s shoes was about as rare as a stylish pair of booties in anything above a 10. If I was going to live out that desire and spend my days in the shoes I wanted to wear, I’d need some assistance.
It seems fitting that as I walked from my office building to my analyst’s office in downtown Chicago each week, I had to pass by a couple of women’s shoe stores that specialized in tall sizes. For those of you not in the know, the term “tall sizes” is a euphemism much like “fuller figured” or “pre-owned.” Rather than state the obvious, it avoids any indelicacy by diverting attention. Simply put, a “tall size” shoe is designed for a big foot. And considering that men’s feet tend to be bigger than women’s, they were code words that conveyed just the message I wanted to hear.
Of course, knowing there were large size shoes to be had and actually having them were two different things. If I’m not mistaken, the shop I passed on Wabash had the utilitarian name of Tall Shoes (or something similar). It was an unremarkable ground floor retail space tucked away on a downtown side street, and it was nothing more than a glorified storeroom. The shoes were displayed on bland white countertops or stacked on boxes on the floor. But through the huge storefront windows I often caught glimpses of a tall boot or an ankle bootie in a color or design that caught my eye as I tried to nonchalantly stroll past. Let me tell you, maintaining that nonchalance was hard. I was still coming to terms with a desire that had been a deeply buried secret for my entire life up to that point. Even though I would have admitted at the time that it was a crazy way to view the world, I was convinced that showing too much interest in a women’s shoe store on a public street would come back to haunt me in some terrible way. I think I must have walked past on at least two or three different occasions trying to size up the styles they had on display without breaking my stride. I was also able to take stock of their staff within in order to muster up the courage to go inside and browse. I learned that there were a couple different women that worked there, but I also discovered there was a young guy about my age. I could picture asking one of the women for help, yet the idea of admitting to someone of my own gender that I wanted to try on a pair of women’s mid-heeled calf boots or a funky pair of grannies was something I couldn’t wrap my head around. What did I honestly expect he would do? Laugh? Refuse? Point his finger and ridicule me? Report me to The Council of Men Who Keep Other Men in Line? Call the police? On one occasion I recall gathering my courage to actually walk up to that store and go inside, but then I was dismayed to reach the Tall Shoes display window and see that the male employee was the only one in the shop, and worse, he was standing right up by the windows staring out. I would have no hope of stepping inside unnoticed! So I kept right on walking and circled the block for another pass making sure enough time went by so that it would appear that I had run some errand elsewhere. I wish I could report that I boldly put my hand on that front door on my return trip and went inside. Instead I did nothing more than glance past that salesman, still staring out the window, and tried to see if I could covertly spot anything I’d like to wear.
It sounds a bit silly in retrospect, but this is the way we grow. Our demons loom large and keep us in place. But as we find ways to challenge them and cut them down to size, we clear the space we need to be ourselves. At that time, it made sense to wait for the right salesperson and the right opportunity so I could begin to explore that forbidden territory. In the actual event, when I finally pushed through the Tall Shoes door and looked around inside, I ended up buying a pair of Zodiac lace up granny boots that I wore until they literally fell apart. And then on a repeat visit I left with a cuffed calf boot in black that I similarly wore until they wore out. For those purchases, I dealt with the saleswomen whom I found to be quite friendly. What’s more, they didn’t seem at all in danger of freaking out when I asked to try on a pair of shoes. I even found myself in the store on one occasion when the male sales clerk was on duty, and the menacing shadow he cast in my imagination easily evaporated.
In addition to Tall Shoes, I also had discovered a shop (whose name I’ve forgotten) that specialized in hard to fit feet. Which meant they carried women’s shoes in sizes 4 and 5 as well as 11, 12, and 13. They were originally tucked away on the upper floors of the 36-story Pittsfield Building in Chicago’s Loop which made casual browsing completely impossible. Customers only came through their doors with the intent to do business. Although I knew from their listing in the Yellow Pages that they carried footwear that should fit me, there was no way I was going to be able to be “just looking.” This shop had a reputation built on catering to those with special foot needs. Consequently, their downtown store had all the appeal of an orthopedic brace. (Imagine my dismay, too, when I found out my 70 year old aunt made the trip from the Illinois hinterlands to shop there in order to find size 8s for her extremely narrow feet. It was not looking very promising that this retailer would be carrying anything I wanted to wear.) Unexpectedly on one of my weekly walks to see my therapist, I noticed they had opened a Michigan Avenue storefront. No doubt it was an attempt to enter the retail mainstream. After all, if their current customers were my aunt’s age, they weren’t likely to be customers for a whole lot longer. The shop itself was in an unfortunate location situated a half story higher than the sidewalk and only accessible by stair. Didn’t they realize that they should be encouraging walk-ins from curious passersby (as I hoped to appear to be)? Casual browsing was still not encouraged, and though it was clear I wouldn’t be able to present myself as a man who had wandered up the stairs and into this women’s shop “by mistake,” I did finally buck up and pay them a visit. And eventually walked out with a purchase that felt suitably adventurous: a white leather version of the ankle high cropped cowboy boot style that was so popular at the time.
But these shopping adventures were nothing compared to what I next experienced at Season’s Best, a wonderful, independently owned women’s shoe store in the heart of The Magnificent Mile. I’d walked by it countless times when my errands took me north on Michigan Avenue rather than south. The store was designed to draw you in as you peered past the displays and merchandise filling the windows. I caught glimpses of curved banquettes and end tables piled with shoes. There were thick curtains framing the plate glass and lattices from floor to ceiling to break the space into different areas, and from these lattices hung purses and clutches on hooks and tops and knitwear on hangers. The interior was full of earthy tones and wooden accents and the warm, inviting glow of track lighting. It looked like a place I wanted to shop. All the more so because of a sign I regularly noticed beckoning from their window: Sizes to 12.
From what I could see through their storefront windows, Season’s Best carried some very cool shoes. I just needed to get up the nerve to separate myself from the steady, sluggish flow of pedestrians and step inside.
One day, I finally did.
“Can I help anyone?”
You can be sure I assured the staff I was just looking. I inspected their stock carefully and weighed the various styles against what I thought I could pull off in public. Here was a fashionable ankle bootie with a snipped toe, snake embossed leather up the middle, and a slightly underslung chunky heel. Here was an olive suede ankle bootie with matching piping across the instep and a back zip. Here was a light tan ankle bootie with an adjustable slingback strap.
“Can I help anyone?”
I was in heaven. This store was chock full of shoes I wanted to own. Sitting right there in front of me. Where I pick them up and inspect them at leisure. I could pair this one with my 36” inseam dress pants. I could wear this one my ribbed stirrup pants. And this one would work well with that grey knit suit I’d just gotten.
“Can I help anyone?”
I learned from repeated visits that the clerks at Season’s Best asked this question constantly. The store was located on one of the busiest streets in Chicago, and the foot traffic was constant. People were regularly milling in and out of the shop, half-hoping for something that might strike their fancy. That routine question asked aloud to know one in particular was how the staff welcomed customers and made their assistance available.
“Can I help anyone?”
I can’t tell you what finally inspired me to speak up, but I’m glad I did. “Yes, you can! I’d like to see this shoe in a 12.”
It was a heady time. I was moving into uncharted regions. I was taking a stand on what I knew to be true and acting on the desires that inspired me. Along the way, I was also learning one very valuable lesson. My experience with all the retailers I dealt with was basically the same though I have to single out Season’s Best as the shop that truly went out of their way to make me feel welcome and put me at ease. I got to know the owner. And his wife who oversaw the clothing and handbags. And both of his sons, one of whom was being groomed to take over the business. And at least five of the different salespeople who worked the floor, including a young African-American fellow I met once for lunch, a British woman whom I loved to have help me because I adored listening to her accent, and another woman who became my regular salesperson when the British woman resigned to have a baby. This second woman once came with her husband to one of my Halloween parties. They all got to know me well. Not surprisingly considering that I spent well over $1000.00 there over the years that I shopped there. It got to the point that whenever I walked into the store, all the employees would greet me and would call out for my regular clerk to let her know I was back. Where once I thought being a man in women’s shoes would put me at odds with the world, now I was being celebrated for it. I learned there were other male customers that shopped there, and not just drag queens and crossdressers. I was given the space to open up and be myself. And there was no judgment or disapproval at all. Yes, it was a business, and I was one of its customers. So naturally they would be disposed to be friendly. My money has been green enough for every retailer I’ve ever met. But the lesson I really learned was that it was okay to be me. My desire to wear this pair of shoes or that was met with respect. And though it may not have been their cup of tea, the salespeople I dealt with recognized that it was mine. They met me where I was and didn’t run screaming from the room. Looking back I can chuckle and say, “Well, of course, they didn’t.” But at the time, it was a revelation no less profound than being asked, “Why not?”
“Can I help anyone?”
Why, yes, I do believe you have!
By the way, if you're wondering why clogs seem harder to find these days, it may simply be because retailers (I'm talking to you, ASOS) have stopped calling them clogs. Leather heeled sandals, anyone?
[On the feet here as I blog (and these are just the shoes that were on our feet today): Madison Harding Bateman wood-soled bootie, UGG Australia Cosima Tall clog boots, purple nubuck Bikers! from the Lindsey Line from Sven Clogs, and John Fluevog Rainbow Boots. And we haven't even gotten around to posing in all of the half a dozen new styles that have been delivered in the past week. Amends will be made.)