Sole Searching

I can’t remember the last time I bought a pair of shoes in a stand-alone shoe store. I’ve bought an occasion pair in a department store, but it has been a long time since I sat in the stuffed chairs and was waited on by an eager clerk, shoe horn stuck in his waistband ready to draw like a western six shooter, at the first sign of a stubborn shoe.

Growing up a new pair of shoes meant a trip to the Browns Shoe Fit Co. on the corner of 16th and Stone street, across from Falters Men’s Store. Walking in to the store the essence of leather and musty carpet greeted you.

In the summer months the over-the-door air-conditioner dripped on you but rewarded you with a place to shop in cool comfort. There was a sign glued to the door with an image of a polar bear inviting you in with, “come inside, we are air-conditioned.”

The entrance to the store was at the end of a funnel formed by two large display windows angling out to the street. The windows and entrance were protected by a marquee that extended on out over the sidewalk. The display windows were dressed keeping the sexes politely apart. On one side was the best of the men’s and boy’s shoes on the other side were the women’s and girls’ selection.

The displays played a key role for window shopping on evening walks.

There were only a few other places to buy shoes in town, but the displays in Browns made it look like they were fighting for every foot that passed their way. J.C. Penney had a shoe department as did a few of the women’s clothing stores along with Falters and if you were in need of good boots, Falls City Farm Store had those.

The door in to the store was a single door, none of the fancier up-to-code two door options you find today. Behind the main door was a screen door that in the cooler days, those between extreme heat and nail biting cold, acted as the only barrier between shopping and the then busy downtown activity. Late August, when the school shoe ritual would start, the screen door was a tease reminding you that inside was nine months of ugly, dreaded school work and outside was freedom, fishing and root-beer floats.

Mom was the official shoe shopper and it was her lead that every sales person worthy of a golden shoe horn needed to respect. There were rules which needed to be followed. Number one, there was a budget. Well, that eliminated all of the window shoes for us. The shoes had to last for more than a year (even if the child wearing them needed to curl their toes by years end), so this means style is now out and function in. This requirement also meant they had to have leather soles and hard rubber heels that could be repaired or stretched to last maybe another couple of months. And…the final looming requirement in my situation anyway was, “do you have anything in a B width?” Mom would whisper this to the clerk as if it was a social disease that her youngest son had feet shaped more like narrow ski’s than normal flipper based feet the rest of society was blessed with.

Then to add even more embarrassment, “Maybe you ought to measure him.” As if she thought my foot magically swelled to a normal D width over a summer of flip flops and tennis shoes.

The clerk, following her suggestion would stick my foot on this strange device move a few things back and forth as if he was preparing to measure twice and cut once, then announce the new foot size to the entire store as if he made a world altering  discovery.

“Yep that is a B width for sure. I’ll check and see what we have.”

Some kids had acne or an Alfalfa cowlick in the middle of their forehead, I got the 2×2 feet.

The clerk would disappear behind the magic wall of shoe storage land and emerge moments later with, if I was lucky, two boxes of shoes. Most of the time my selection was limited to one pair of plain oxfords that came along with a whispered apology, “that is all we have that will fit a foot like that.”

Then the try on.

As if tracing a ballet move on the floor, using one foot, the clerk, would slide the miniature slipper slide shaped stool up to the chair. It was one of the few times when a kid could actually feel like he was being waited on by one of the older guys in town. You felt like saying come on move it along and don’t make it too tight this time. But, kid wisdom also told you that you would most likely run into this character somewhere away from the protection of mom or dad.

As dad often reminded us, “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”

Once both shoes were on it was time to take the “the walk.” Mom would give the command, “walk to the end of the display case.”

“Lift your pant leg so I can see if they are slipping.”

So now I am walking through a crowded store looking half like a pony finding their new legs and a little girl lifting her new dress avoiding puddles.

Next the thumb test. Moms all across the nations must have some direct correlation between their thumbs width and the growth speed of their children’s feet.  Some geneticist is missing their shot at the Nobel Prize by not testing this theory. Even if the well-meaning clerk tried to use his or her thumb, that did not mean anything compared to the mother test. After all, the clerk is not genetically linked to the newly shod.

When the sale was complete the clerk would always ask, “Do you want to wear them home or put your old shoes back on.” It was like magic. My voice sounded just like Mom’s. “No, we will wear the old ones.” You never wanted to wear the new ones out of the store because you still needed to break them in on the carpet at home. Besides, the sale was still not official until Dad gave the second thumb test at home.

I never thought to measure the width of Mom’s thumb compared to Dad’s. Wouldn’t that be a weird finding to discover that mates selected at random ended up with the same thumb widths.

A shoe rack was not something you found in many homes when I was growing up. The pigeon-hole storage containers for shoes often depicted in modern closets was not necessary. Nobody had that many shoes! My shoes, two pair, fit neatly in the closet next to Tom’s two pair with plenty of room to spare. My boots and tennis shoes never made it to the second floor. Their place was the basement next to the shoeshine kit.

Every Saturday the shine kit made its way up to the kitchen for the polishing ritual. Shoes were polished with Parade Dress black to a gloss that stood up to inspection by Master Sergeant Mom. (You thought I was going to say Dad didn’t you.) I hated this ritual. I managed to procrastinate it long enough that it was often a last minute chore prior to going to bed.

It is just the opposite today. I enjoy the forced slow-down that comes with polishing a pair of shoes. The smearing of the paste polish, the old rag that is infused with all the colors of the shoes in the house and the horse hair brush brought from home that brings out the final luster. Sometimes I can feel Dad’s hand on the brush as I buff the parade dress polish to the shine it deserves.

Polishing was just one part of shoe ownership, the other responsibility was shoe repair. Walk up and down any small town and you could find several shoe repair shops. Matter of fact, shoe repair is in the Casey blood. One of the original businesses in downtown Falls City was a shoe repair shop owned by Great Grandfather Casey.

Before socks started showing through the soles and the heels reduced our height marks on the wall, we were dispatched to Lorenzo’s repair shop for soles and heels.

A trip to Lorenzo’s was an adventure in itself. The shop occupied a squeezed space between Gambles hardware and a car dealership. There was probably a time when the space was a walkway between the two businesses and someone got the idea to put a ceiling, and a door on it.

Lorenzo's Repair Shop

Lorenzo’s Repair Shop

Or, maybe the space was made just for Lorenzo.

In stature he was not a big man but in reputation and influence he was. More than once I watched him, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, dressed in pressed jeans restrained with a western belt that I imagined he tooled himself, a buckle that would make any rodeo cowboy jealous, western shirt and bolo tie all brought together with a shoe polish stained apron, looking up and tapping his finger on the chest of a much larger man, while making his point on a local political issue or the best load to use when pheasant hunting.

On entering the little corridor a bell would ring over the door signaling Lorenzo there was a customer in the shop but for the most part it was a useless fixture. Even though the shop was small it was one of the favorite hangouts second only to the Hotel Barber shop directly across the street. As a kid you often had to squeeze past well matured stomachs and a clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke to make it to the counter to deliver moms repair instructions.

“Soles and heels please.”

Waiting for Lorenzo was never a chore. The narrow walls were covered with a parade of guns, western belts with tooled stories stretching all the way to the epic buckles the size of a farmer’s hand. I enjoyed eavesdropping on the stories flying back and forth. The smell of Kiwi polish still takes me back to the dark little shop. When I was a few years older it was Lorenzo who sold me my first shotgun pulled off the wall of that shop.

Eventually Lorenzo closed the repair business and opened a gun shop next to the Journal on Harlan Street. It was still a local hangout for fishing tales and hunting escapades but it didn’t have the charm of the cubby-hole shop.

When I turned sixteen I secured an after school job at the local J.C. Penney store. I swept the floors with an aisle wide broom, made sure all of the waste containers were emptied, and the fingerprints removed from the front doors. It was a great job and the manager, Mr. Comfort seemed to take me under his wing and gave me additional duties in the store.

One night as we were closing up he pulled me aside and gave me a portable 45 record player and manual. It was a complete course in how to be a J.C. Penney shoe salesman. By the time I completed the course I was ready to tackle any foot that came through the door, the mantra of the program running in my head, “Every person that comes through the door is a potential shoe customer.”

The mysteries of the Brannock Device were revealed and I could now measure the smallest baby foot to the talcum powdered caked feet squeezed into pumps. My shoe horn was issued and I had a pass to the deep dark hallways of the behind the scenes shoe racks. Before long I was the professional who could swing a fitting stool in place, pop open a new shoe box and draw a shoe horn from my belt all before the customer was seated.

I was now on the other side of the chair when mothers tested the growing room and kids argued for the impractical while cost dictated the practical. I watched with a now trained eye as countless customers took “the walk” testing their new shoes for slippage. My role even necessitated a few trips just down the block to Lorenzo’s for heel pads and an occasional bunion stretch. This time the visits were different. I went to the front of the line. I was now part of the shoe industry and we were now, “sole mates.”

Today when I need a pair of shoes I sit down at the computer and pull up countless websites claiming to have the styles and sizes to fit everyone’s needs.

I see a pair of loafers that look like they would be a good addition to the collection. Filling out the order form and sending in the request, a magical cyber salesman hunts the racks of shoes and comes back with,

“Sorry, this is all we have to fit a foot like yours.”

A thumbs width to grow, kiwi shoe polish, and broken shoe laces were all just part of growing up.


Picture courtesy of Google Earth 2015



A Chewy Gooey Christmas

Silver and gold candy balls the size of BB’s bounced across the table top. My sister Teresa and I scrambled under the table to round up the balls which was like trying to herd a trail of ants to one opening. Mom hated it when she stepped on the one that got away, making that crushed sugar sound on her perfectly waxed floor.

Rounded up, we didn’t worry that they were once on the floor. They still found their places as the knockers of bell shaped cookies or on the end of Santa’s hat on his namesake shapes and stand-ins for ornaments on green sugar coated Christmas trees.

Wire cooling racks sat on top of wax paper protecting the kitchen table. Red and green sugar grains covered the table along with a few more run-away candy balls.

It is the annual Christmas cookie decorating day, which, will soon be followed by the popcorn ball making night. Dad is the captain of the cookies, Mom, the popcorn balls. Two traditions, if I had a time machine I would enjoy reliving again.

I don’t know when the tradition started. When Teresa and I were old enough to help out, it was already an established event. Tom and Mary had their time in the production line, but they were eventually replaced by younger labor but only after passing off certain decorating skills and responsibilities.

Dad would start the Christmas cookie process well before the house showed any signs of the holiday. There was no last minute scramble to complete the baking by this Master Sergeant. I suspect he had it plotted out with the skill of a military tactician and the execution of the plan was carried out with the experience of a seasoned commander.

Nights before the baking marathon you could find dad, a white flour infused apron covering his usual pale blue short-sleeve shirt, khaki slacks (we never saw dad in blue jeans until later years) and dark brown house slippers, sitting at the kitchen table. A bowl in his lap, the apron spilling over each leg, with practice precision, cutting dates into small pieces all in preparation for his date pinwheel cookies. As the pile of cut dates grew in his lap so did the pile of date pits and discarded pieces climb on the table.

The next night, Dad would mix the dough, spread it out on a cutting board that had an old ribbed undershirt stretched tight over it and held on each end with two thick U.S. Postal Department issue rubber bands. Once the dough was rolled out, he painted the cut dates on the dough and then rolled it all together spiraling the date mixture through the rolled dough.

When baked the pinwheels were never round. He shaped them to form a half circle, flat on the bottom. My suspicion is some Casey sibling, prior to Teresa and I, must have tried turning them into real pinwheels, and thus, the new shape.

During the baking days, the house smelled like a bakery on a Saturday morning when they are making the treats for Sunday patrons. No one could be in a bad mood with that fragrance in the air. Chocolate chip, anise seed, oatmeal, sugar cookies and one of my favorite, orange slice cookies rounded out the dozens and dozens of cookies baked.

Living in a house of creative people meant that cookie decorating took on extreme importance. Candy cane shaped cookies received artistically sprinkled red stripes and Santa’s hat always had enough red sugar to mark where the white fur started. It was also a race to see who could claim the most cookies decorated before they went to the oven. Dad would cut the cookies from his dough using cookie cutters seasoned from years of use. A regular rhythm of press, lift, and one jerk deposited a flour tinged shape just waiting for the production crew to tackle.

When we closed up the house after Dad’s passing, ( read Behind Closed Doors, posted 11/3/14) Teresa and I saved the cookie cutters from potential auction house separation. Someday, some Casey will press and use them again.

When most of the cookies were baked, they were put away for Christmas Eve. Dad had an old tin box with a red lid and cream colored bottom that housed our supply of cookies. The tin kept any roaming mice or other sweat-toothed creatures from nibbling our creations. The box was stored in the basement under the steps until Christmas Eve. (read The World Down Under, posted 12/3/14) This same tin box I use today to store the nativity set from home. The crèche was one of the first things the folks purchased as a married couple at Woolworth Store on Stone Street.

I mentioned most of the cookies found their way to the hideaway, but, not all of them.

Dad was known, throughout town as a master cookie baker. Neighbors, his fellow postal employees, priest and nuns, and the few aunts and uncles in town, all shared in the Christmas cookie excess. Many trips were made in “Black Beauty” balancing plates of wax paper wrapped plates of cookies, each with a store bought bow taped to the top. If the recipients weren’t home, no problem, they knew who the cookies were from.

On Christmas Eve, when others might be feasting on the seven fish or making preparations for Midnight Mass, the Casey’s were sipping on oyster stew or chicken noodle soup and eating celery strips and carrots. When we ate enough of the listed menu to qualify as a meal, the Christmas cookies made their first of many trips from the basement to the cookie tray in the kitchen.

Once again the kitchen was alive with red and green sugar trailing from the cookie box to the tray and then to the table. Those little gold and silver balls more than once popped from Santa’s hat and rolled across the table and hit the floor where they always wanted to be in the first place.

The cookies were not Dad’s only creations. Every year he worked at perfecting peanut brittle, and his constant project, the Martha Washington fruitcake. One winter night I was tasked with taking out the garbage to the burning barrel at the end of the yard. Instead of putting on my winter coat I grabbed dad’s heavy canvas work jacket. Halfway back from the barrel I discovered a flat bottle of rum in the pocket. I thought “Oh my God, my dad is secret drinker, we heard about this kind in school health class.” It wasn’t until I confessed to Mom what I found that I was relieved to find out, the rum was what Dad took to the basement and poured through the cheese cloth, soaking the Martha Washington cake. I knew then why they never offered me a piece.

Closer to Christmas it was popcorn ball time. If you have never had a homemade popcorn ball, thick with kernels, held together with gooey Karo syrup, then, I am sure your dentist is thanking you. But if you have, then you know how good the combination of sugar and corn can be. You know the fun of working each piece free that is stuck to the roof of your mouth and between your back teeth. It is a treat that keeps on long after the last bite. They are the best snack to shove in your coat pocket when you are heading to snowy woods squirrel hunting or just something to nibble on while sledding down Eighteenth Street from the Paulson old place at the top down to Jim Rider’s house on the corner. If they were crushed in a mid-hill sled crash no big deal, you could just turn your pocket inside out and pick the pieces apart and still enjoy.

Popcorn ball making was as much a Christmas tradition as cookie decorating. On the designated evening, Mom would pop enough corn to fill two granite roaster. I can’t say I ever remember the roaster being used for anything other than to hold the popcorn on this night. Next coffee cups lined with Crisco, one for each of us, were scattered around the table. Once this was done, Mom started brewing the binding of syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla and food coloring. When this was ready, she drizzled one roaster with green syrup the other with red. Then, the race was on. Mom pushing us to go fast before the syrup cement hardened.  With greased hands we dove into the roaster scooping up handfuls of popped corn and pressed the glob into the greased cups. Your hands would get little shocks of burn from the hot syrup as you pressed and formed almost perfect balls.

Greased hands and hot syrup, it is a wonder that anyone in the Casey family has readable finger prints.

As you completed your sculpture it was placed on one of the wire cooling racks that earlier held a variety of cookies. With the production complete, pale red and green balls decorated the table. When the popcorn balls cooled, they found a hiding place in the basement somewhere between the cookies and Martha Washington until they too, climbed the steep stairs from the basement on Christmas Eve.

Years later, when all of us except Tom scattered to different states the “cookie man” and Mom employed the postal service to deliver our quota of cookies. Teresa, Mary and I, could always count on a box, expertly cushioned with popcorn, (not the Styrofoam kind, the real thing) filled with an abundance of cookies, popcorn balls, and fudge. The cookies arrived with such regularity the mailmen on this end knew when to expect them and treated them with the reverence and respect they deserved, never just leaving them on our door step or tossing them from the truck.

We have gone a couple years now without any “cookie man” Christmas cookies and even longer without popcorn balls sticking to our teeth. Maybe this will need to be the year we fill the old tin box and make a few trips to the dentist to dig out misguided kernels.

If we do, it will be a nice trip back to…all part of growing up.