Stepping out

There is a theory that people feel threatened and vulnerable if they are caught without shoes on.

I subscribe to this theory. I may be confessing to a serious fault in my character, which otherwise is quite flawless, but I know that without shoes on I feel threatened. People with shoes on can step on the toes of people who don't have shoes on.

The harrowing experience related herewith gives a certain documentation to the Shoeless Vulnerability Theory. It all started on the day the great New York newspaper strike came to an end. The strike had gone on for weeks and I decided to take some papers in to my colleagues at the office.

The best way to do this was to take the Red Line subway into Park Street, where the out-of-town newspapers would be on sale. From there I could take a Reservoir-Beacon train, get off at Auditorium, and have only a short walk to work.

The Boston subway system, at rush hours, resembles a stampede of fetid buffalo. Once at Park Street, I flowed onto the platform with the outgoing tide like a piece of gray-haired flotsam.

From this point on, things began to unravel.

While passing through the doorway of the car, someone stepped on the back of one shoe and it came off. Trying to keep panic out of my voice, I said to the woman pushing me, ''My shoe came off.''

She said, ''Don't talk to me. Go to a shoe store.'' I then tried to join the rip of oncoming people, but the train door bumped its way shut before I got to it.

My indecision: Was my shoe kicked somewhere onto the platform? Had it been kicked down onto the tracks? Or was it still inside the car? I decided on the final possibility and just managed to squeeze through the last open door in the car to the rear.

I limped between cars to my original place and found the herd still jammed tightly together. It was not until several stops later that things thinned out sufficiently for me to sit down and peek under the seats across the way.

That began a new problem. All the women wearing skirts became aware of my interest in what might be classed as a knee-high zone and as if by prearranged signal began indignantly tugging at dresses.

Thus the situation became stalemated. I tucked my sock-foot behind my shoe-foot and tried to look nonchalant. At Ashmont, the end of the line, everyone got off and I searched the car. A lot of interesting items but no shoes. Immediately I made my hop-scotch ascent to street level in order to phone my wife.

Things that seem so simple in the planning are often complicated in the doing. At quarter to eight in the morning, nothing was open. I limped from store to store, finding no access to a telephone. People passing on the street became fascinated. Remarks were made. One said, ''Why don't you buy cheaper shoes. Then you could get two at once.''

When I finally reached my wife, I said, ''Hello, dear, please stay calm while I explain . . . I am out in Ashmont without any shoes. . . .'' (Small screams of incomprehension.)

''Where are you?'' In a voice I could cope with.

''In Ashmont,'' I said with forced calm. ''I haven't any shoes.''

''What about the rest of your clothes!''

I explained the simple need for only shoes. I was almost completely dressed, and pointed out that though I had one shoe on, bringing only a single shoe of a different design wasn't practical.

''Why are you out in Ashmont with only one shoe?''

''I was mugged,'' I shouted, ''by a man with two left feet!''

Telling her where to meet me, I went back on the street where I met three giggling girls looking for me. ''Are you the man (tee-hee) who lost a shoe?'' With many more tee-hees they said the conductor had found a shoe, but I'd have to hurry, the train was leaving.

I rushed to the subway, jumping along like someone in a sack race, and eventually found the trainman.

''Did you find a shoe?'' I asked. ''It's mine.''

He became cautiously official. ''Can you describe it?''

''It's my shoe,'' I shouted. ''You can see it matches the one I have on.''

''Well, not quite. This shoe has mustard on it.''

I then rushed back to the phone booth to tell my wife, never mind coming. But she had left, of course. When she arrived and saw me standing with both shoes on I realized my mistake. Obviously I should have thrown one shoe away.

During my years of marriage I have had to try to explain many things. None equaled this drive to the office, wearing black-and-mustard shoes on my feet and holding plain brown shoes on my lap. I got to the office late, only to find explaining things there even more difficult.

There have been endless repercussions from this event. As a cartoonist, my reputation for normality was never very great; now it seemed to disappear. For weeks I suffered derogatory remarks. Visitors would be directed to my office with the statement: ''He may be wearing only one shoe. Pretend not to notice.'' My mail was always abundant, but now it blossomed with additional letters addressed to ''Footloose'' or ''Unshoddy Le Pelley.''

I felt vulnerable that day on the subway and for several months thereafter. Rumor has had it that I now carry an extra pair of shoes wherever I go. Of course this is not true. I feel reasonably sure something like this can happen only once.

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