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(A) PEACH (OF A) COBBLER (or "A Trilogy with Sole

DECEMBER, 9, 1999

Summer 1998, Arizona: Francisca and I are en route from New Mexico to California. My cousin Stacey invites us to go swimming in a big backyard pool at some mansion. She knows the house sitter.

I kick off my new sandals poolside and place them beside the wall. We swim. I get out, dry off, and go to put on my sandals. Only one sandal is there. The plot thickens.

One of the two whippets belonging to the owners of the house had chewed the heel strap off my right sandal. Part of the missing strap was found and part remained missing. Poor Stacey: "Oh, I'm so sorry, Mark. Oh, I'm so sorry!"

"Relax, Stacey - it wasn't your fault. Besides, there's always a K-Mart around."

That's what I said. But deep down, I was more upset than I let on. The sandals were nice-looking, new, and of good quality. Even if I HAD bought them on sale.

The whippets were too fast for me to catch and drown in the pool, and besides, they weren't talking as to which one of them might be the perpetrator. So I resigned myself to a K-Mart sandal fate. And Stacey was still upset: "Oh, Mark, I'm so sorry! Look: wait until we get home; I may be able to replace them."

Upon arriving back at the house, Stacey dragged a large bag from a closet. Inside were five or seven pairs of look-just-fine shoes that she dumped onto the floor. "We have a friend with more money than he knows what to do with" she explained, "and he buys nice shoes, wears them a few times, then gives them to us. The only problem is that none of the four men in this family can wear them. What size to you wear?"

Well, call me Bigfoot. It turned out that it was my lucky/unlucky day, and I selected two pairs of Converse sports shoes and a pair of black TEVA heavy-duty hiking sandals. The sandals alone had been so expensive that I never even entertained the thought of buying a pair when they first appeared on the market. Now all the Target and K-Marts and drugstores stock rip-off copies, slightly modified and of cheaper materials.

Francisca and I drove west across the Sonoran Desert early the next morning with three more pairs of footwear - plus my whippet-ravaged sandals. In my family we never threw anything away if there was a remote chance that it could be used one day.

New Delhi, November 1999: The ruined sandals are lying in a crate. I take them to a little man who repairs shoes and bags at a market where I shop. The market is a beehive of activity, and although it consists of a dilapidated series of sad-looking buildings and narrow, congested alleys, it houses almost every kind of shop imaginable - with the possible exception of Victoria's Secret. You may have to hunt. You may have to ask. But chances are you can find what you need there - or at least someone's brother or cousin will get one for you while you wait.

The little shoe-repair man is of undeterminable age. It's not for sure even he knows how old he is. Maybe around forty, although he is small, brown, and wizened from the years of sitting on a foot-high corner curb by the license-plate-painting shop. He sits with his bare feet tucked up, all the tools of his trade are arranged within easy reach. Pigment powder, polish, a brush for every color, thread, snippers, gougers, an awl and a leather punch/needle, a bag of assorted shoelaces, rubber for half-soles, a whetstone, and other simple but undoubtedly effective implements I've never seen before lay around him.

It doesn't help to explain your problem; he knows no English. But he sees the problem and the solution, and gently takes both sandals from my hands. "Do you have Velcro?" I nervously ask, pointing to the fastener tabs on the surviving heel strap. He does a typical Indian sidewise nod that signifies assent and no problem.

No problem. However, the skeptic in me forces me to stay and watch. And I am amazed. With simple tools and materials (plus the Velcro he sends an urchin off to procure) he accomplishes a miracle. The damaged sandal is as good as new. What does he charge? Twenty cents, including labor, materials, and a shine. I give him fifty, being the last of the big-time spenders on a spree, and walk away in sandals I hadn't worn since The Year of the Whippet.

December: Back at the same market, this time to take some seventeen-year-old black-and-white photos in to be framed: Marcus as a three-summers runner in a T-shirt and bare buns to catch up with his older cousin in the July countryside in Norway.

A shoeshine "boy" of about eighteen asks me if he can shine my shoes. Since it's the first time I've worn anything other than sandals in the daytime since arriving in India, I tell him "Sure. I'll be in the frame shop next door. Bring 'em to me when you're finished." And I sit down in my sockfeet and tell the frame lady how I want the pictures done.

Two minutes later the shoe-shiner appears at the door holding my right shoe. He lifts it up and I see the heel tab ripped along 70% of the seam and pulled away from the shoe. "Look, Sir, look! Your shoe needs repair! I can take it and get it fixed for you!"

Had I just stepped off the boat, I would've said okay. But I knew these guys had a whole bag of tricks. Like throwing shit on your shoes as you walk past, then calling your attention to it and offering to "clean your shoes." And I knew my shoes had been in perfect condition because I had polished them myself not long before and had not worn them since. The guy had sliced the thread in the seam and yanked the heel tab away from the shoe, and I was on a slow burn.

"Yes" I seethed, "I will get them repaired, but not by you!" I stalked off to the little man who had repaired my sandals. And there he sat in his normal position at his usual curb. I nodded and smiled and held the ripped seam up for him to inspect. And again there was the sideways nod of consent. As he went to work on the repair, I related to the English-speaking license-plate painter what had happened. He shook his head as if to say "another casualty of the shoeshine trade." It seems that this shoeshine boy was known to be less than honest, especially with non-locals (read "tourists and whites"). And when the straightforward repair was accomplished, I stormed back to confront Mr. Cheat who had ruined my (non-K-Mart) shoes.

"Why did you want to repair my shoe? Look - there's nothing wrong with my shoe! See, it's not ripped!" I continued, my voice getting louder and louder. I told him he was a liar and a cheat, pointed my finger, my hand, and my arm at him and really leaned into it. I concluded with "I'm never coming to you again, and I am going to tell everyone I know what you did. And THEY will never come to you, either!" I could see adjacent shopkeepers and customers staring, and I laid it on at the end: "You are a VERY BAD BOY!!!" If he hadn't understood my basic English, he surely understood my tone and gesticulations. I walked away in a self-righteous huff, thinking "overcharging is one thing and caveat emptor, but ripping my shoes apart is going too far."

Last year my friend Jamie gave me a pair of very nice ECCO shoes. One had split an inch along the inside and the leather had come apart from the sole, such that you could poke a fingertip through. But it wasn't visible, and if there was no rain or snow, there was no problem. Besides, we wear the same size shoe, and I knew they'd fit. He had just bought a new pair, so I said thanks and took them, true to my family heritage.

A few days ago I thought about the little cobbler on the curb, and took those shoes to him. "Look" I said, "I doubt if you can repair this hole at this difficult spot, but..." Before I could finish the sentence that he didn't understand anyway, he had taken the shoes from me and gone to work.

He looped one end of a length of thread around the big toe of his left foot, extended his leg, drew the thread tight, and began unraveling. I had other errands to do so I took off, doubting the repair would be successful this time around.

When I returned an hour later he wasn't yet finished. He sat with a metal tumbler of milky tea beside him, the steam rising among the surrounding plastic bags, bits of rubber and leather and spools of thread. He had elegantly fashioned an inside patch and sewn it into place, invisible. He had cut out and applied half-soles in place of the ones that were worn away at the tips, he had strengthened the stitching at a stress point, and he was now putting the final touches on a deep burgundy-brown polish.

No smile, no greeting from him. Only a look of calm pride in what both he and I realized was a job well done. I made sure I took my time inspecting the work he had done so he would know I appreciated his efforts. Before he could ask for any payment, I stuck $3 in his hand, a bit surreptitiously. It was more than a day's wages for him, and I didn't want any nearby "friends" to be pestering him for loans or handouts.

He looked down at the 100-rupee bill I had given him, and for the first time I saw the slightest of smiles appear on his face. I was happy because of the job he had done and because he was happy. He was happy because of the job he had done and because I was happy. But then perhaps I'm reading more into it than is the actual case.

One thing's for sure: I'm getting every shoe and bag and backpack that needs repair and I'm going to take one a week to him until they run out. As for the shoeshine "boy" who ruined my shoes instead of repairing them, he looked down at the pavement after he saw me approaching yesterday, and refused to meet my eyes as I strode past in the shoes he knew only too well.

I wish I could've made it clear to him how happy I am with his competitor a block away. Who? You know, the little guy with his legs drawn up, a thread looped around his big toe, drinking tea on the corner at the curb.

-Mark Mattison
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