How the Shoes Got on The Other Feet

Having always earned modest salaries, I had grown extremely careful about expenses. Time and again, I had proved that if one looked hard and long enough, one could come up with a perfectly serviceable pair of shoes for $20. To pay much more than that was simply frivolous.

I would have made a good Puritan.

My thrift had never failed to meet my son Alyosha's needs. Upon his arrival from a Russian orphanage some four years ago, he wore a size 13-1/2. Within two months he was a 1 (in the arcana of children's shoe sizes), three months later a 1-1/2, a year later a 3.

Through all this growth, I knew exactly where to shop and when to shop there. I preferred bankrupt stores that had not yet closed, or salvage operations that bought out the stock of stores that had gone under. The result was that it was not all that difficult to find a pair of decent sneakers for $6 or $7.

For a long time, my son didn't know the difference between a no-name brand and a Nike. In the orphanage it was enough to simply have shoes. Any shoes. I recall the day I flew to Moscow to pick him up. There he was, in torn, ill-fitting clothing, clad in a threadbare poplin winter coat. The orphanage had instructed me to bring clothes for him, as what he was wearing was part of the children's common wardrobe.

And so I arrived with decent hand-me-downs from my little nephew. Under the watchful eye of one of his caretakers, I dressed Alyosha in jeans, hooded sweatshirt, and crisp white socks. Then I asked the woman where his shoes were.

"What do you mean?" she asked, her eyes widening. "Didn't you bring any?"

I explained that I didn't think I had to, not knowing his shoe size.

The woman informed me, with a hint of exasperation, that Alyosha's orphanage shoes had already been given to a new arrival.

We both stared at my son's stocking feet for a moment, the pressure of this woman's concern palpable. Suddenly, she spun about, left the room, and returned a few moments later with a pair of torn sneakers that were too small for Alyosha, but manageable. I squeezed them onto his feet and picked him up in my arms.

As we left the building and headed down the walkway, I heard a wailing from behind. Turning about, still with Alyosha in my arms, I saw a little boy of about 5 standing in the doorway, crying his eyes out. He was barefoot.

I later learned that the shoes my son was wearing had been taken from this younger child. (Once back in Moscow, I immediately sent them back with a pack of candy stuffed inside.)

I think it was my son's experience of poverty that made it so easy to care for him during his first couple of years in the States. He never asked for anything, because in Russia there was not all that much to be had. But with increasing age (Alyosha's now 12) came increasing sophistication, brought on, in part, by the weight of peer pressure.

OUR philosophies finally clashed a couple of months ago when soccer season opened. my son's cleats from last year were too small. I was really proud of the bargain I had gotten on those cleats: name-brand for only $14.95. I was reluctant to believe that they no longer fit, even when Alyosha forced them on and showed me the evidence of his cramped toes.

Ah, well, if there was one pair out there for under $15, there must be another. And so we set out along our traditional route, plying the shelves of discount and surplus stores. It wasn't so easy this time. Alyosha was now a size 7-1/2, one of the big boys. I couldn't believe the prices: $50, $70, $100 and beyond for shoes that all looked alike to me.

My son's eyes, however, harbored a look of wonder. He knew brand names and styles, and was able to explain to me the difference between baseball and soccer cleats.

After several hours of looking, we came upon a pair for $29.95, marked down from $59.95. They had white stripes on the sides and a pattern of raised swirls behind the toes. Alyosha caressed them and turned his hopeful eyes to me.

"Thirty bucks!" I exclaimed, loud enough to turn heads. I was thinking of my $14.95 bargain of the previous year.

"Dad, it's not that expensive," my son reasoned. I stood there, shoe in hand, rubbing my chin to a buff shine.

The line between parsimony and healthy thrift is thin indeed, and I was hovering precipitously between the two. I shifted my gaze from the shoe to my son, who had launched his puppy-dog eyes at me.

"I really want these, Dad," he pleaded.

I offered a nod of understanding but not acquiescence.

"Alyosha," I said, quietly and clearly, "there are children in the world who don't have any shoes at all."

I was unprepared for his response. Leaning in close, my son whispered, "Dad, I know. I was one of those kids."

Totally unmanned by the power of his recollection, I could do no less than march straight to the cashier, convinced that I was a man who had found a bargain in both child and shoe.

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