Once there was a man with no shoes. I noticed him abruptly one night as I navigated my body away from a pathetic stray’s aura of fleas to safety, squeezed between my mother’s arm and her side. I nearly tripped on his feet, large and smeared with dirty grease, with no plastic sandals resting reassuring by. I looked at his face for a quarter-second and again from the side as I pushed through the lively sidewalk, and then he vanished.
He was slumped against a street post, eyes closed. He had a few measly threads of hair, and his skin deeply bore the customary flogging of age, pollution and heat. A wife beater hung down his ribs, and the bones in his limbs seemed to have consumed every ounce of muscle he presumably had possessed. These observations I took in without thought, but was horrified by his lack of footwear. It was to me the epitome of want.
Shoes were not a source of fashion for me, but filthy streets made their necessity unquestioned. Being in the world of heat and financial support, the variety of shoes narrowed for a girl. I had one pair of each of the following: everyday sandals, sneakers, party-shoes, and sometimes galoshes. The sandals were not often the plastic thongs that were the surpassing currency of footwear, for my flat-footed mother cared for her flat-footed progeny and was continually on the hunt for “more ankle support.” However, the suede niceties of Western sandal wear fell far short in the tropics. Even if they were put away during the rainy season and miraculously avoided every unexpected wet deluge, the wearer’s sweat alone would soon warp them into retirement. Not to mention the orange stripes they tattooed on their owner.
Mom had recently taken us to get new shoes because ours were both grown and worn out; perhaps this was the errand from which we were returning, for shoes were certainly on my mind. In contrast, the old man’s fate was strikingly cruel, to be sleeping out in the open with bare feet and no hope for respite in the morning.
This tired grandpa has clung to my memories with a grip that would have far exceeded his physical strength. A few years later I was ashamed that I did not immediately think of his other signs of destitution, namely his emaciation and homelessness—how silly to fixate on feet. I am not sure why this brought me shame. At any rate, he remains my foremost image of poverty.