Sunday, November 28, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 231: Biomythography - Note 8, Physical Affections

A Biomythography - Note 8
by Secret Hippie

How I Discovered Affection

We were raised in houses with no hugging. It wasn't just my family. Others did it, too, a widespread group of us in our time and place invested in a stoic or puritan sort of tradition.

Past infancy, we received no contact except for moral correction. Episodes of discipline usually consisted of a slap or a spank to discourage toddlers from playing with wall sockets or ripping up books. Some parents in the neighborhood were physically tougher than others. Some were tight-lipped and bestowed no praise.

Once, when I was about five years old, I locked myself in a closet and cried for a while, about half an hour. My mother came looking for me but I couldn't stop crying. A few days earlier, I had been spanked for crying without a reason. I was crying without a reason at that moment, so that may have been why I didn't want to come out even though I heard her calling.

She found me anyway, eventually.

"What's wrong?" she asked. Then, patiently, she waited a few minutes for my body to calm down so I could talk.

When I finally answered, I was aware that I had my mothers attention. What with her job, her second child, husband, and extended family, having her full focus was an unusual thing. I didn’t want to tell her that I was crying because life is pointless and I hated myself. Instead, I deflected her line of questioning.

“Mom, how come no one ever says they love me? How come you don’t say it to dad? How come he doesn’t say it to you?" The questions poured forth while she gave me a stern look. "Other kids' parents say it.”

Her expression softened.

“I don’t like those words," she said after a moment in thought. "I don’t trust them. People say them but they don’t really mean them. Don’t expect me to say that I love you. I do, but I'm not going to say it. You'll know because I'll show it.”

She talked to me like I was almost an adult. She put a hand on my shoulder as I considered her words. To me, the idea of showing love being better than saying it was a new concept.

"Show me how?"

“Well, you have to look. That's how you know love is real. Not because of what someone says. Watch how they act. That’s how you know. If someone loves you, they'll look at you a certain way. They'll do nice things for you. You'll know."

Two years later, she ran into a student at her school who was lonely, a foreigner without many friends in Maryland. His name was Vit Babushka. She asked if she could bring him over to play with me.

"He's got a funny name," I thought aloud.

"His family is from Czechoslovakia." She and my father exchanged looks. They launched into a brief discussion about war and politics. Czechoslovakia had been invaded by the Russians. Vit's father, a scientist, had participated in an academic movement in Belgrade. When the Soviet troops arrived, he had been forced to flee.

The details were beyond my understanding at the time but Vit's family had left their home and made it to the United States, eventually, with help from the American government. Fortunately, America had a fairly high demand for physics professors, especially ones breaking ground in lightwave experiments. Vit's father was able to land a job as a professor at the University of Maryland.

For me, though, my focus was on the new kid. I had entertained a few of them before, thanks to my parents, but not one who didn't speak English. Apparently, he didn't know many words or he was shy, maybe both.

"Does he like baseball? Tennis?" Any kind of game was fun. In a lot of them, you didn't need to speak.

"I don't think he knows much about baseball, yet." My mother had known I would ask because I tried to organize pick-up baseball games every afternoon. She shook her head. "You'll have to ask him what he likes to play."

One day that week, she brought Vit home after school. He was a tall boy, my age but thinner. He moved slower than I did but with grace in his body. His hair was lighter than mine. His teeth, when he smiled, showed a mix of sizes due to how his childish incisors and canines were falling out to get replaced by permanent ones.

"The ball is very hard," he said when he first caught a baseball that I tossed to him underhand. I could tell he didn't like it. "It did not look so hard before."

Amazingly, he was a boy who didn't know how to play baseball. My parents had warned me. Still, it knocked me back a little, mentally. Absolutely everyone played baseball. For a while, I tried to teach him how to throw and how to swing. I hit him grounders. One popped up from a pebble and caught him in the shoulder. He grunted.

"Do you know football?" he asked. When I pointed to the football I'd brought, he shook his head. "Not like that. Round. You kick it?"

"A kickball? Red?"

"White, I think. Or white with black spots?"

"Soccer. That's soccer." We went and dug a soccer ball out of my basement but we struggled to keep it inflated. I had never really played soccer. Given the state of the cheap ball I owned, we both lost enthusiasm.

"I have three tennis rackets," I volunteered, although one belonged to my younger brother.

"You know tennis?" Vit asked. All around the world, tennis was the hottest sport. Rod Laver had brought glamour and fame to it. Although his career had started to fade, Arthur Ashe and a host of international stars were rising on the scene. They were generating interest across the globe. Likewise, Margaret Court was still the greatest of her era but Rosie Casals, Billie Jean King, and others were challenging her reign.

"I had lessons," I answered. At the recreation center, I had gotten at least one lesson in everything. "Sometimes I hit against that wall in the park."

"This sport, I want to learn."

We fetched the rackets, the only can of balls, and headed back to the park. We spent a long time on tennis, hitting balls against a wall. Vit got decent pretty quickly. Even so, we got tired of it, set our rackets down, and played on the playground and in the creek. We found ourselves just talking for a while.

After a couple of hours, I heard my mother calling. We grabbed the stuff and headed home.

"Does he have to go?" It hadn't taken long for me to know that Vit was pretty great. I liked him a lot. "Can't he stay tonight?"

"No. His parents want to see him." She gave me a wry smile. Later, after she put him in her car, she asked me, "Do you like him enough to play with him again?"

"Sure. I'd play with him any day." I meant every day, actually. Vit's quiet, accented way of talking let his wit shine. I knew that he was smart and funny. "When can we see him next?"

“I don’t know. But since you two had so much fun, I’ll find a way. I’ll work something out.“

It wasn't long before we had another play date, then another. One day, my mother announced that this time, I was going to travel to Vit's house.

"You don't mind, do you?"

"He says he wants to play chess." I shrugged. "But he has other games, too."

When I arrived at the house, Vit rushed through the door and onto the front walk to greet me. He gave me a hug, which seemed weird, but after all he was foreign and didn't know better. He thanked my mother politely, which made her smile, and waved as she drove off.

"Now, you meet everybody," Vit said. He walked me up to his front door. "We have a tradition. First, I hug you at the door. Then next."

The door opened. My eyes went wide in surprise. What had been revealed was a line of people. Vit's father, who had opened the door, turned away immediately and headed to the back of the line.

Vit turned in the doorway and clasped me by the shoulders again. This time, I didn't return the gesture. I was too stunned. All of this friendly touching seemed overwhelming. Anyway, he seemed to put an angel in the next spot.

"This is my sister," he said. He bowed slightly.

"Oh, he looks adorable," she murmured. But I barely heard her. She was tall, almost like an adult. She crouched down to me. Her accent was heavy and her voice was so soft that I didn't completely understand her words. None of that mattered. She could have cursed at me softly in her slavic tongue and I would have heard a heavenly host singing a chorus behind her. When she hugged me it was like floating in a sea of blonde hair, honey, and flowers. Then she stood and said something in another language and followed it with, "Welcome."

She stepped to the side. Her mother stepped up. To my shock, she hugged me, too. It was getting to be too much. She smelled different. Her dress was rougher, a little cheaper. She laughed as I squirmed. Then I relaxed.

Again, she said something in another language. She stood and said, "I am glad to meet you. You are welcome."

When she stepped aside, Vit's father shuffled forward. He seemed like a giant of a man but he had lost the honor of seniority during a whispered argument with his mother, apparently. The older woman had pushed him forward.

"Vit says you are a smart boy and nice," he told me. His accent was thick but his words were clear. It seemed apparent that he spoke English every day at work, unlike his wife or his mother.

"T-Thank you," I stuttered, not knowing what else to say. I looked to Vit for help. He tried to encourage me with a nod and a smile.

"We must seem very strange to you," Vit's father continued. He bent and gave me a quick hug, as if he knew how awkward this all seemed. He was right in that I couldn’t ever remember being held like this, not by another boy or girl, not by a grownup, nobody. At that point, I hadn’t hugged a dog. The big man smelled like foreign cologne. Fortunately, he backed up. "It is our tradition to welcome you." He spoke a few words in another language and said, in English, "You are welcome."

Finally, Vit's grandmother stepped forward.

"She doesn't speak English," Vit blurted. His sister, mother, and father all uttered English and slavic phrases in agreement.

"It is fine," said Vit's father. "Just step forward and let her welcome you."

Her hair was so grey that really it was white. Her expression seemed solemn except for her eyes, which twinkled with a sort of humor that reminded me immediately of Vit and his sister. Those eyes took an amused view of the world.

When she lowered herself for the embrace, her dress felt rough but her body, soft. I was getting adjusted to this weird amount of touching. The closest thing I'd had before was when the cats slept on me or when my brother had a nightmare and got into my bed along with the cats. This was different and better. Vit's grandmother smelled of spices, butter, and fresh bread, too, as if she had been baking. She had. I didn't know it but I was about to sit down to one of the best meals of my life.

The white-haired woman said a few slavic words, released me, spoke with Vit's father, grabbed me again, shook me, squeezed me and laughed, and finally let me go and stood up.

In a thick accent, after a prompt from Vir's father, she said, "Welcome."

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 230: Biomythography - Note 7, Irish

A Biomythography - Note 7
by Secret Hippie

Growing Up Irish (Black is Beautiful)

As a child in College Park, other kids called me black. That seems strange now. They called each other weird names, too, and they did it at times when emotions were high in the midst of a game. They weren't talking about the color of my skin. That was never the thing. I'd be playing kickball or cowboys and indians or walking in a gully with other kids and someone would say it. They meant it as an insult but, because they didn't understand it, the term had vague meanings even for them. It always seemed to come from kids repeating the bad words they got from their parents.

One of my friends suggested, "I think it's like when you're a bad guy. You have to wear a black hat."

"Like in cowboy shows?"

"Yeah." In the movies, the rustlers wore black clothes, black hats, or rode black horses. That's how you knew they were bad.

There was an older child who knew a little more. After he said it, he explained, "I mean your soul is black. It's ugly."

This felt similar to when I had the term 'pinko' explained. That was another phrase that didn't really have to do with skin color, at least for me. As confusing as 'pinko' and 'black' seemed, though, only one of those terms was also caught up in describing a group of people by appearance. And for them, it referred to skin color with the additional baggage of wearing a black hat in a western gunfight.

For most of the years as I was growing up, the polite American term in matters of race was 'colored' and the corresponding derogatory term was 'black.' My awareness of the situation started dim and it grew brighter only gradually. Often enough, the stories about our American situation didn't seem to make sense. My mom said that Harriet Tubman was a hero and I devoured the books on her. (There weren't many but the stories were great.) Other folks thought she was a hero, too, so how could there be any argument or stigma attached to her because of her skin? To supplement my reading with experiences, my parents went out of their way to make sure we left our neighborhood at times and had non-white or foreign friends. Some of those friends, like me, seemed oblivious to any historical reasons to not be neighborly. We were just kids together.

In any case, amazingly, almost miraculously, in America our Black is Beautiful movement came along and changed the language. Even now, it seems like an astounding cultural feat. By the time I was nine, the slur of blackness had become something respectable, often something good, and moreover, the change lent a bit of freedom to everybody's talking and thinking. We could finally hear 'black' more as a reference to a color from a palette and not a value judgement.

Although I was, of course, mostly oblivious to the cultural events of the nation, I can see that the adults at the time were acutely aware of their local ethnicities. In fact, they were almost delusional about them. They differentiated between Scottish and English, Mulatto and Colored, Spanish and Italian, Dutch and German, Jewish and Christian, Armenian and Serbian, and more, as if they carried around maps of Europe in their heads. This is how I grew up Irish even though that doesn't make any sense. Adults acted as if we all still belonged to those distant Eurasian tribes that wandered the plains and mountains somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean. If you were French, even though you were actually American, you were supposed to hate the Germans, even though they were actually American. Sometimes this stuff led to fistfights which are, in retrospect, a little hilarious.

"Those damned Armenians," I heard an adult say, once. I asked him to repeat it. I'd never heard of that group before. Some of them had protested about genocide in front of an embassy, apparently, which put them in the same category as 'those damned hippies' to the adults.

Likewise, my neighborhood adults told me:
  • Irish were black
  • Irish were low white
  • Poles were dumb
  • Poles were low white
  • Hispanics were white, except some of them
  • Italians were colored
  • Jews were colored
  • Mixed marriage was a sin
  • Irish were guilty of marrying Italians, which was precisely the sort of mixed-marriage everyone should be concerned about
"What about the Lovings?" a woman added once as a group of adults stood smoking and chatting on the street.

"Ah, that stuff don't matter," her husband retorted. "He won the right. That's not the same as other people joining in."

"We'll never see that, not in our lifetimes," a different woman cackled. They were talking about Mildred and Richard Loving, who won the right to be married despite the laws against it in our neighboring state, Virginia.

Later, I remembered their name and found out who they were. Their case made me feel like America was making progress and that civil rights success, for everyone, was inevitable. It wasn't. In some ways, it had barely begun then. But it did give me hope in fifth grade, when I got up the nerve to tell my crush what she knew anyway, which was how I felt about her.

She came up next to me as I was drinking at a water fountain outside our reading class. She smelled good. Already I knew that she was as bright as the sun through a magnifying glass. She was too beautiful to describe. I felt hypnotized by the way she moved and spoke. It made my stomach feel light just to be close to her.

"You know, I love you," I blurted out.

"You mean that you like me." She leaned back.

"Okay, I really, really like you." I felt myself shaking. "A lot."

"I, uh, really, really like you, too." She grimaced. A moment later, she blushed. "I love you."

It took me a moment to process it. I stepped back and held the water fountain for her. She politely took a drink.

"Can we hold hands?" I asked.

"Um, I'm Jewish."

"Right." I had no idea what that had to do with anything but it was something that I understood in my limited way. She had mentioned it before. She took a minute, then, to tell me more about it and, after a while, she reminded me that I shouldn't call her a Jew. It wasn't polite.


"I know that you don't know what it means. But try."

"Okay." She was right about me not knowing the context for any of this. The conversation seemed to be leaning in the direction of holding hands, though, and that was plenty for me.

A few days later, after we had held hands in a fluttering way, once or twice, she marched up to me with her textbooks in her arms like a shield. After a confused stammer, she said,

"Now you can call me a Jew."


"I talked with my dad about you. He said that we're taking back the word Jew. It's okay now." In a sing-song voice, as if she'd memorized the phrase, she added, "If the Afro-Americans can say Black is Beautiful, then Jews can say that a Jew is beautiful, too."

And they did. And she was.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 229: Biomythography - Note 6, My Color

A Biomythography - Note 6
by Secret Hippie

How I Found My Color

In the back of my mother's blue Ford Falcon, I rode to visit her elementary school. The day was bright and warm, a Saturday near the end of summer. My mother had to prepare for her next week of work. I was six years old.

"Do you want to come in?" she asked as she stepped out of the car.

"What are you going to do?"

"Prepare lessons." I knew what that meant. It wasn't anything interesting.

"Can I stay and read?" I asked.

"Haven’t you already read those comic books?" she said.


"Well, if you get bored, come in and find me."

She walked away and, for a long time, I sat reading and rereading a pair of ten cent Dell comic books starring Peanuts characters. In years later, I read them to pieces. But when I was six, they were almost new. One had a forest green cover with Charlie Brown and Snoopy looking at a book. The other had a blue cover with the same two looking at a box camera.

After I finished both books, I set them down in my lap and stared out the window. My eyes took in the green shadows and the light through the trees. For a while, I daydreamed about having a dog like Snoopy. Then I picked up the magazines and started reading again. Around page five, I heard a tapping on my window.

I turned and saw the top of a child’s head.

The kid's fingers looked thin to me. They made an awkward fist and rapped another time with two knuckles on the window.

“What do you want?” I unrolled the window to hear the answer.

“Do you want to play?”


After I got out, we shook hands and introduced ourselves. I learned that he was “Charles but everybody calls me Charlie. I’m thinking Chuck is better but my sister won’t let me.” Charles or Charlie or Chuck was five, so about a year younger than me, plus he was a haircut shorter and skinnier.

“What were you doing in there? Sleeping?" He had apparently kept watch on the car after my mother got out.

“Reading comics."

“You have comics?" He bounced on his toes. "Can I see?"

I got out the comics, gave him one, and we sat down on the pavement to read side-by-side. After about five minutes of turning the pages, he told me, “I can’t read.”


“Can you read this one to me? I like Peanuts. Because his name is Charlie. But it is really Charles. Like me.”

So I read him one comic and then part of another until he got bored. Then we threw pebbles at the trees for a while. We talked and realized that we both knew freeze tag. So we played that. But freeze tag isn’t much fun with only two players. The game waned along with our interest until we both sighed and stopped. We kicked dirt and wondered what to do next.

“Are you colored?" he asked.

“Sure.” It was the end of summer. All of the adults in my life had been commenting about how dark brown I had become.

“Really? Because you have yellow hair. I never met anyone who was colored but had yellow hair.” Then Charlie backed up a step and rolled his eyes. “Except for my aunt. She has yellow hair. But I know that it’s a wig."

“Do you have a color?”

“Sure, I’m colored. I know that I am kind of light but everyone tells me, I’m colored. If you are not colored, you are white. Does anyone tell you that you’re colored?"


“Then maybe you’re white.”

No one had ever said that. It seemed preposterous.

“Maybe?“ I said, trying to be agreeable. The idea was stupid, though, and it seemed worse as I mentally compared myself to the colors in my school paint sets.

“But I never met no white person who was darker than me.“ Charlie took my arm and put it next to his. We looked at our skin. To me, our arms looked a lot the same but he was thinner. He had the skinniest fingers. That's what I found myself staring at. He said, “See, you are darker than me."

“Oh, yeah.” I noticed what he meant. My skin was a lot browner than his.

“Look, even the hairs on your arm are yellow. Are you colored or not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe you are mulatto."

“What’s that?"

“That’s when your mama is colored and your daddy is white or the other way around. Is your mama colored?”

“I don’t know. Her hair is dark but her skin is lighter than mine.”

“So maybe she is white. But maybe she is colored and just light like me. How about your daddy? Is he white or colored?"

I had a prickling, almost uncomfortable realization. My father's skin was so white that other men made fun of him. Even I had sort of done it when I commented on how pale he was in the middle of summer. His skin shone a little at night, so he was always the first person I spotted if I got lost while we were camping. His face was visible by the light of the stars when there was no moon. During the day, I could see the blue veins beneath his skin.

“My father,“ I realized. “is white. He really is white."

“Okay,” said Charlie. He was not the slightest bit fazed by what for me, had been a huge revelation. “Then probably your mama is colored. Did your mama go into the school? We could ask her.”

We wandered around the school for a little while until we found the front doors. Charlie wasn't in first grade yet so he didn't know where things were and I didn't remember anything about the building from the year before. When he saw the doors, Charlie put his arm on me to hold me steady.

“We can’t go in," he hissed.

“Why not?”

“Those three, the big girls? They’re mean.”

On the steps of the entrance to the school, we saw girls playing jacks. They looked tall and tough, third graders at least, maybe fourth. I had graduated from first grade, though. I tried to move forward but Charlie kept his grip.

“Don’t do it,” he whispered.

As if to back up his point, one of the girls elbowed another girl during the game of jacks. That was cheating. And the other girl, just as big, hopped up, grabbed the bouncing ball and threw it hard at the girl who had cheated.

The cheater said something that I didn’t understand.

“Oh, so you’re going to kick my ass, huh? Here.” The stronger girl gave an evil smile. “I’ll make it easy."

She turned and presented her behind to the other two girls.

“Go ahead. You kick it and I will pound you into the steps right here. Go ahead. Free kick.”

The cheater mumbled something and backed down the steps.

That is the moment I chose to walk forward. Charlie tried to drag me away by my arm for a second or two more but then he got so scared, he couldn’t stand it. He let go of me and dashed behind a tree.

“Hi,” I said.

“What do you want?" snapped the girl.

“My mother teaches here. I have to go in.”

“Oh you do?”

“We have to find out!” Charlie shouted from behind the tree. “His daddy is white. But he don’t know about his momma.”

“Charlie is that you?” she called. "Your sister said you ain't supposed to come here."

“We gotta find out if he’s mulatto. Don’t he look mulatto?” The boy burst out of hiding, he was so excited. But he remained fearful of the bigger kids. He took position beside me and, a moment later, crept two steps back to take position behind my left shoulder.

The big girl leaned to one side and gazed at me doubtfully.

“Your momma’s a teacher?” She folded her arms. “What’s her name?”

“Mrs. Gallagher.”

The faces of the three girls lit up. They beamed at me. Over the span of a few seconds, they all relaxed. The effect looked sort of dopey on them.

“Mrs. Gallagher is your momma?” one of them said, almost breathlessly.

“Uh huh.”

The strongest one fluttered her eyelids.

“She is so nice. She is so smart. And so pretty.” She wheeled to the other girls. They backed off. Then she gave Charlie some side-eye. “And she is white. She ain’t no colored lady. She might be the nicest teacher in the whole school. But she’s white.”

“Aw.” That little voice came from behind me. It was Charlie.

“Don’t you know that you’re white?” the girl demanded. She focused on me.

Helpless, I shrugged.

“What if I was going to slug you?”

“That’s what big kids do.” I shrugged again. “Go ahead, I guess. I still gotta go in.”

“I ain’t gonna slug you." She laughed. "You go and say hi to your momma. She is so, so nice.”

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 228: Biomythography - Note 5, Shoe Fitting

A Biomythography - Note 5
by Secret Hippie

Thom McCann

My mother put her arms through the sleeves of her brown jacket. She was wearing navy blue slacks that gave the impression, from a distance, of being blue jeans, and she patted the pockets of them. She nodded to me, ready to leave.

"I told you last night, Bob," she said to my father. "We need to go and get fitted for another pair of special shoes."

"Oh, Ann, they're so expensive." He was right.

"The doctor said he should have them." With this, she glanced at me. The special shoes were mine.

I didn't want to have weird shoes. My mother called them 'special' to make them seem more acceptable. By the time I was eight, though, I'd caught on. The other kids in our neighborhood got to run around in Keds. My mother forced me to wear leather dress shoes from Thom McCann. They made it harder to stomp through the creek, play baseball, kickball, maulball, bike, and roller skate, but I did all of those things regardless. Sometimes she made me swap my custom shoes for cheap sneakers so that the special ones could be saved some wear and tear and so they would dry out before school.

"How can he wear down the heels so fast?" my father asked. He picked up my leather shoes from the carpet next to the front door. He glanced from me, in my JC Penny sneakers, to the custom-made soles in his hand. I had broken off part of a heel this time.

"He's a child." For my mother, that was explanation enough. "Anyway, the doctor said."

There wasn't much argument with the pronouncements of a doctor. My mother hussled me toward the car and I grabbed a comic for the drive. By the time we got to the shoe store, I had finished it twice. I'd totally forgotten about hating shoes. I looked forward to getting something, anything new.

The Thom McCann sign shone brightly on us, written in a neo-cursive script. There was something elegant about it. Inside the store, we met a smell that was partly leather and partly dust, probably from the stacks of shoe boxes piled high in the back, each with moderately-priced leather shoes, desiccants, and crepe paper inserts.

"Welcome, Missus Gallagher!" called one of the salesmen with a huge smile. He strode forward and spun toward me. "And young Master Gallagher, of course."

He led us down the aisles of shoes set out on display. Some of the best looking models rested on endcaps, like art pieces, high enough to attract the attention of customers. Many of those were ladies' boots but I saw fancy men's office shoes, too, some in two-tone leather.

"Thank you for calling ahead," said the salesman. "I'm already set for the fitting."


"One of his legs is a little shorter than the other, do I remember right?" He led us to three adult chairs and a child's seat. He waved me toward the smallest one. In front of my spot, there sat a metal slide-rule type of device for foot measurement and, beyond it, a portable x-ray machine. "We fit the shoes with a high right sole to even out his stride."

My toes wiggled. I kicked off my shoes and stared at the x-ray machine. It took the best pictures. In them, I could see all the bones in my feet.

"Has he grown?" asked the salesman.

"Oh yes, he was nearly at the end of this pair anyway."

"Fine, fine." He laughed as I hopped back out of my chair to stand in front of the x-ray camera. "We'll take an exact measurement, then. I see you're eager to get going, Master Gallagher!"

He had never taken precautions before. This time, he told my mother to stand back. That was something he didn't care to do himself, though, as he positioned my feet. He smelled like my father's Old Spice cologne. Next to me, he crouched and took a set of four pictures. He removed his hand from my ankle at the last possible instant.

The front door jangled. I heard another man huff, angrily. Apparently, the manager had walked in.

"I want to see you, John," he told the salesman.

"Sure, Mitchell." He nodded to my mother. "I'll just be a moment."

John the salesman was gone for a while. We heard the rise and fall of voices in the back room, that miniature warehouse stacked with shoe boxes, machines, and paper. My mother told me to go to the car for something to read. Then I sat and kicked my heels for a while in an adult chair as I re-read about Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, and Superman. There are only so many times you can look through the same comic, though, so I was impatient for my foot-bone photographs and my shoes.

"Thanks for your patience, folks!" the salesman exclaimed on his return. He bowed his head and put the x-ray prints of my feet into my mother's hand.

"Is there a problem?" my mother asked.

"Well, my manager told me I won't be able to take x-ray photos next time." He sounded a bit offended. The chain store had changed its policy. It was going to interfere with his favorite sales technique. "Apparently, we're getting rid of the camera. I guess that explains why it took me so long to find it in the back."

"Why is that?" my mother asked.

"No idea, really."

"You're getting rid of it?" I had been reaching for the photographs in my mother's hand but now there was an even better prospect. "Can I take it home?"

The salesman blinked. He looked down at me with a serious expression. He was considering it. The manager strode up next to him, eyes wide. He waved his arms.

"Just the shoes, John," he hissed.

"Sure. Do you mind if I put the heel back on the kid's old pair?" The salesman looked at his manager, then at my mother.

"Can you do that yourself?" my mother asked.

"Sure. I'm good at it. We have some extra heel slabs cut to the right size."

"I didn't realize you knew how," said the manager. He took a deep breath. He seemed to be calming down.

"Five minutes," said the salesman.

That's how, thanks to the intervention of a shoe store manager in the fall of 1971, I missed my chance to take home my own x-ray machine. I got to walk out with an extra pair of shoes, however, even though they were only my old ones re-fitted to the right height.

Thinking back on it, I've noticed some historical revisionism about the era of 'radiation is good.' That was a bigger, longer cultural movement than people seem to know. In online sources, you can read about radium watches stopping production in the 1930s but you can also buy vintage military radium watches from World War II, so that stoppage date can't be true. Even I, in the 1970s, owned a lesser-radiation watch that was apparently painted with some allowable, less-radioactive radium. In my rock collection, I got to keep a sample of uranium and that was no big deal.

Until 1971, whenever I bought shoes, I got x-rays done of my feet. It didn't happen only in Thom McCann but in Sears and other stores, every single one of them that sold shoes, until this final stop, and all as a sales gimmick.