The Complexity of Simplicity

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:44

    For some reason?more a collection of relentlessly stupid ones?many of the simplest human activities in this modern world of ours are things I find almost unbearably difficult to do. Not for any clear reason?it has nothing, for instance, to do with any physical infirmity?they're just things I have a hard time with.

    Like making phone calls. I have a helluva time making phone calls, especially to strangers. Not the best position for a supposed "journalist" to find himself in. I sit by the phone, staring at the receiver, lighting cigarette after cigarette, searching for any opportunity, any distraction, any excuse at all to postpone the inevitable for a few minutes more.

    When the phone call is finally over with, of course, I realize that it was no big deal, that it was easy as pie, that I had nothing to worry about. But no matter how firmly I keep that knowledge in mind, the next time another phone call is required of me, I start lighting the cigarettes again.

    Much of that, come to think of it, probably arises from the fact that I dislike talking to most people as much as I do.

    Buying shoelaces is another tough one. Bad news. I can never find them in drug stores (where, if I could find them, it would be very easy?just carry them up to the counter with the shampoo and deodorant and the new toothbrush), and I dread stepping foot into shoe stores and shoe repair places, where they'd no doubt be readily available. Just as with the phone calls, I know that if I step through the doors, I'll be out again in two minutes or less, having accomplished what I set out to do with no problem at all. But again, as with the phone calls, that knowledge doesn't help.

    When I was working at the Guggenheim, I was required, along with my regulation blazer and tie, to wear "fancy" shoes. I put "fancy" in quotes because, before too long, they weren't too fancy-looking at all. The long walks to the train every morning, the long train rides up to the 86th St. stop and the trips home again at night took care of that pretty quickly. Plus, standing on post for 10 hours a day gave the shoes a healthy beating.

    Six-thirty one Sunday morning I noticed that something strange was going on underfoot. A slight dragging and a "scchlpping" sound suddenly accompanied each step. I looked down to see that my soles had separated, and I was dragging a long flap of shoe-shaped leather behind me.

    Remembering, for some reason, a story my first editor once told me, I stopped into a bodega I passed every morning, bought a pack of gum (Juicy Fruit, as I remember), slipped two sticks into my mouth and began chomping. Once the gum had reached the proper consistency, I popped it back out of my mouth, and affixed it to the top of the leather flap and pressed it against the bottom of the shoe, effectively gluing the sole back together. Then I repeated the process a couple of times to secure the bond.

    This worked surprisingly well, and for the next two weeks I was able to forget about my shoe problems. Except when it rained. When it rained, the gum lost all its adhesive capabilities. After the shoes dried out again, however, the gum regained them and everything was peachy.

    I couldn't very well afford to buy a new pair of fancy shoes, and these were the only "fancy shoes" I owned, so I knew I'd have to get them fixed somehow. That was fine?there was a shoe repair place close by. I just had to arrange to have it done while I had a couple days in a row off work, which was something that didn't happen very often.

    If and when that time did arrive, I began to worry that my little jerry-building (or in this case, Juicy Fruit-building), when discovered by the shoe repairman, might be the cause of some embarrassment. But maybe not. Maybe he wouldn't even notice the gum at all?or simply take it as some sort of accident. Whatever the case, I knew I had to play it cool.

    So when I finally had a few days off, I ran the shoes over to the neighborhood shoe repair place and, even before presenting the shoes to be scrutinized, I explained very clearly to the large, swarthy, mustached man behind the counter what I needed done. We agreed that I could pick up the shoes three days later, and that I would be charged $6. Only after all this was taken care of did I plunk the shoes up on the counter and split.

    Way I saw it, by the time I returned to pick them up, he'd've forgotten all about what he found under there. It was clear, after all, just from the few minutes I spent in the store, that he was a very busy man. No time to worry himself with such things.

    I forgot all about my shoe repair anxiety over the next few days. All I hoped for was that they'd be done. When it came time to go pick them up, I strolled up the sidewalk, my spirits light. Walked through the door into the still crowded little shop, stood in line and, when it was my turn, put the slip and the $6 on the counter in front of the man with the mustache. He looked at the slip and never gave me a second glance. He went into the back room, foraged around for a moment and returned with my shoes. He's done a mighty fine job, I must say. Even shined them. As I was looking them over, he said, with the kind of Italian accent you only see in cartoons involving pizza parlors, "Hey, waitta minute." He looked at the slip again, then at the shoes.

    I could feel my body growing warm, but said nothing.

    "Hey!" he shouted suddenly, an enormous smile breaking across his face. "I knowa you! You putta th' bobble-gom onna your shoes, right? Sticka together witha th' bobblegom!"


    "You Mr. Bobblegomma Man, eh?"

    Every eye in the shop had turned to stare, but before I could run, the old man was shouting into the back room?

    "Hey! Josefina! Coma here quick! Lookata this! This here's Mr. Bobblegomma Man! Remember?"

    Soon he was joined behind the counter by his wife (Josefina) and his three children, all of whom were laughing uproariously, as, now, was everyone else in the store.

    "Hey, Mister Bobblegomma Man!"

    I turned and ran out the door, clutching my resoled and gumless shoes, the sound of their laughter echoing behind me. As I ran, I thought to myself, I must never forget my fears, because no matter how foolish, they always come true.

    At the same time, I also remember thinking something along the lines of, Well, at least I gave them something to talk about, and I'm never going into another shoe repair place as long as I live.

    It was kind of a jumble of thoughts. But I did indeed steer clear of shoe repair places after that, simply buying new shoes whenever my shoelaces broke beyond salvage.

    See, despite what books and movies and shrinks like to tell us, life rarely offers up any singular big dramas that culminate in a climax, a revelation and a major change of direction. And if it did, human nature being whatever it is, we'd still forget all about it a couple weeks later and return to the way things were before. No, when you get right down to it, life is really just a long string of small, generally insignificant dramas and revelations. We forget all about those, too?usually within a matter of hours.

    So there I stood, some eight, 10 years later, on the sidewalk in front of the same damn shoe repair place, hoping to buy a goddamn pair of shoelaces. The name of the place was different now, it had been renovated a couple of times and I was hoping beyond hope that it was under new management.

    It was more a shoe store now than a shoe repair place, even though that's what the sign outside had promised. It was bright, and, except for the two young men hanging out by the front counter, completely empty. Neither fellow, I was happy to note, bore the slightest resemblance to the former owner.

    I didn't say a word to them, but slowly roved the store, trying not to kick anything and, at the same time, trying to keep an eye open for the shoelace section. I at last found what I was looking for way in the back.

    As I pored over the choices, I heard a voice next to me ask, "Can I help you find anything?" He was a tall, skinny kid with short hair, who seemed uncomfortable with the idea of wearing a tie.

    "Oh, no, no?I'm fine," I told him. "I just need some shoelaces."

    I was relieved when he went away, and I continued poring over the selection again. Shoelaces all look the same.

    I guess I spent just a little too much time browsing over something most people don't even have to think about, because the next thing I remember, another voice, from halfway across the store, was shouting, "Hey!" I started, and looked up. A stocky kid in short sleeves was marching toward me. "What is it that you want?" he demanded.

    "Umm...shoelaces," I told him.

    He reached a pudgy arm up to the display rack, snatched what appeared to be a random pair of laces and thrust them into my hand.

    "Here," he said.

    "Yes," I replied, "yes, I think those will do just fine."

    I gave him $1.50 and left the store, vowing once again to stay out of shoe repair places for the rest of my life.