January 17, 2014
My mother stood at the kitchen counter unlumping the mashed potatoes. I leaned nearby waiting to lick out the pan. She said, “Warren, you can do anything with your life that you choose to. You have the brains. You can be anybody and do anything you want. Just remember that.” I didn’t want to listen but I wanted that mashed potato bowl.
This was the usual lecture that I got around report card time when my brother brought home straight A’s. “I’m not comparing the two of you,” she would say comparing the two of us, “you are both different people. But, if he can do it so can you. The difference between a B and an A is just a little effort. It’s not that you don’t have the ability, but you don’t show the effort.”
“Yes mom,” I said dutifully.
“Anything is possible if you work hard and get good grades. Your brother wants to study science. There’s a lot of prestige in being a scientist. There’s also probably a lot of money in science.”
“Mom,” I said. “I don’t want to be a scientist.”
“You have plenty of time to decide. Just get the grades.”
“Mom, I know what I want to be when I grow up.”
“I want to be a shoe salesman.”
Mom didn’t miss a mash but glared at me. “Get serious,” she said.
“Mom, I am serious.”
“Well then, don’t be stupid.”
“Stupid? What do you mean by stupid? What’s stupid about being a shoe salesman?”
Mr. Kleinman was our shoe salesman and the nicest man in the world. Even mom would say that after we went shopping for our school shoes. He would take the time to measure our feet, ask about baseball, tell us jokes and flip us a Snickers bar from the box he kept behind the register. He was the neatest guy and my brother and I looked forward to our yearly shoe trip to see him.
“You have no ambition,” Mom finally says, and I tell her that my ambition is to be a shoe salesman and the best darn one around, after Mr. Kleinman that is, and maybe even as good as him one day.
My brother Larry tells her that he wants to be an astro-physicist specializing in molecular anti-matter and my mother looks proud and gives him cookies before dinner. All A’s, Larry is ten, still wets the bed, doesn’t have to study, and tortures the cat.
I have a B+ average, a paper route, watch the seven o’clock news, eat with utensils and my mother calls me stupid because I want to be a shoe salesman.
She doesn’t realize how good the smell of new leather is. And to be able to savor it every day instead of just once a year on school shoe day would make me the luckiest guy in the world. I wonder if Mr. Kleinman became a shoe salesman because of his love of the smell of leather. I can’t wait until I can hold a person’s foot in one hand and gently guide it into a shoe with the aid of a shoe horn. Then I will twirl the shoe horn around my finger twice and pop it in my back pocket. That will be my trademark – a double twirl.
In the bathroom mirror I practice my lectures on the use of shoe trees. Not only do I polish my shoes every day but I have several different speeches, all geared to selling, on the benefits of each kind of shoe polish. My favorite shoe polish is Kiwi Oxblood which many people confuse with Kiwi Cordovan. Oxblood has a slightly rosier tint to it, a little livelier, and they can actually be interchanged without hurting the leather. We only have the adjustable shoe trees right now, but when I’m older I plan to have a set of wooden ones for each pair of shoes in my wardrobe.
I watched Mr. Kleinman last week from the window outside his store. He motioned me in, as he so often does, and then he got busy trying to sell a very pretty lady a pair of shoes. He must have scattered more than a dozen boxes of shoes all around and finally she picks up a pair of black pumps and Mr. Kleinman holds her foot and she tries to push it into the shoe. Even with the shoehorn it’s not going anywhere and Mr. Kleinman turns to me and says, “Warren, go in the store room and get me a pair of these in size seven Willie.” He winks when the lady turns her head to see who he is talking to.
In no time at all I find the style but there is no seven wide, just seven normal so I bring him a pair of seven and a half Willies and hand him the box so the size is away from the lady. She tries them on and they glide right on her foot. She puts the other one on and walks around the store and says to Mr. Kleinman, “size seven, what did I tell you? I’ll take them.” He winks at me again and I start picking up the other shoes and reboxing them. While he’s ringing up the sale I put the shoes back in the storeroom.
The lady leaves and Mr. Kleinman flips me a half dollar and a third wink and says, “You’re a natural, Warren.”
I wink back and run out of the shoe store and down to the Crystal Palace Pinball Arcade where I get a Pepsi and a handful of nickels and plan to spend the afternoon trying to win free games. It was on my second game when Mr. Dobieski caught me with the legs of the pinball machine resting on my toes and tossed me out of the Palace. “That’s a one week suspension!” he yelled. “Next time it’ll be permanent.” I still had thirty cents left so I went to the Strand Theater and for two bits I saw two Hopalong Cassidy’s, a newsreel, three days’ worth of previews and two spooky pictures that gave me nightmares for a week. On my way home I spent my last nickel on a yellow box of Chiclets and chewed them all at the same time.
I wandered into the house around six-thirty just as my mother felt the need to take a swing at someone. “I’ll teach you to stay out all night,” she said as she slapped me across the side of my head. I didn’t argue with her cause I didn’t want to get hit again, so I started for my room to get away. “Just a minute, young man. I spent my time cooking and you can damn well sit down and eat, but it’s cold, and I’m not warming it up. Just who do you think you are?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said. I started to eat and she said, “Don’t we wash our hands anymore before eating? I’ve got half a mind to send you to bed with no supper.” I wish she’d make up her half mind. I really didn’t care whether I ate or not – I just wanted to go upstairs and polish my wing tips, they were scuffed from the pin ball machine legs resting on them.
“May I go and wash my hands?” I asked standing and pushing the chair from the table.
“Why ask me? You seem to do just as you please anyway,” my mother said.
I figured that it didn’t matter to her so I sat down and picked up the cold chicken with my hands and my mother got up and stood over me shaking with rage. “You never learn, do you? Go to bed this instant,” she commanded. “And don’t let me catch you polishing your shoes or you’ll really get what for.”
Every so often Mom would take a worse attitude than usual and I was always catching it. It wasn’t my fault that Dad left town with the colored cleaning lady and everybody knew it. It also wasn’t my fault that I was the spitting image of him. Mom always says that I walk his walk, whistle his whistle, laugh his laugh, and snicker just like him. I wasn’t copying him, I hadn’t seen him since I was three so how could I be blamed? I did everything I could to be good, but Mom looked at me and saw Dad, and when she saw Dad she saw fire and when she saw fire I usually got my butt kicked.
I just got under the covers when I heard Mom yell, “Warren! Get down here and go to the store for me!”
“I’m in bed Mom,” I yell back. “Send Larry.”
“Are you coming down or am I coming up?”
“Right there Mom,” I said, dressing as fast as I could.
When I got downstairs Mom handed me a note folded in half and said, “I’ve got a terrible headache. Give this note to the man at the corner store and he’ll give you headache pads. Hurry back and don’t play pinballs.” I took the money and ran down to the store hoping to have time to get in one game of pinball, but there was someone playing and another guy with his nickel on the machine waiting his turn. I watched for a couple of minutes and then walked over to the counter and reached in my pocket for the note to give to Ralph. It wasn’t there. Frantically I searched every pocket twice.
“What are you looking for?” asked Ralph, and I told him that my mother had given me a note and I lost it. “What did it say?” he asked and I told him I didn’t read it but that she had a headache and wanted a box of headache pads. I’d gotten them before with notes from home. “Headache pads? What the hell are headache pads?” he asked and I pointed to the Kotex boxes on the top shelf behind him and he asked me if I was for real. “Warren, you’re nine years old. You should know what these things are for. Right guys?” he said to the pinball crew. They walked over as Ralph told them my story and then laughed as he explained to me what headache pads really were.
Angry and embarrassed I took my time walking home, kicking a can all the way. When I finally walked in Mom opened her mouth to yell at me and I thought about throwing the bag at her and running up to my room or running away but decided that the last thing in the world I needed was another beating. So I handed her the Kotex and her change and turned to go back to bed.
“Warren, go eat your meal. I heated it up,” Mom said softly. “I’ll be in to join you in a minute.”