One Small Step: When Shopping Goes Wrong

Two things happened last month: my daughter officially learned to walk, and she outgrew her shoes. As an interim measure I Velcroed to her feet a pair of rubber-soled slippers that slapped awkwardly against the pavement and tripped her when she walked. The falls left her bruised. And angry. New shoes had to be procured.

“Ohhh,” said the saleswoman at the shop in our village when I pointed to the children’s shoes. I tend to hear this a lot from English people in business situations. It’s an apologetic sound, like they’re sympathizing with some sad piece of news, and it usually precedes the announcement that whatever service or transaction I expected to take place is definitely not going to happen.

“Our foot measure’s broken,” she said.

I asked when the measure would be operating again.

“That’s the thing,” she said, again with the apologetic sigh. “The owners aren’t sure if they still want to do children’s shoes here. So they don’t want to get a new measure until then. Until they decide.”

Surely you remember the little rounded ruler you placed your heels against as a child. The technology hasn’t changed. It’s not a complicated apparatus with delicate internal mechanics that you have to send to a technician in Switzerland for servicing. It’s a glorified ruler. An unglorified ruler, even, could serve the same purpose in a pinch. I just looked it up. You can buy a children’s foot measure for $9.95. You can also download a foot-shaped chart for free and then use it to help people buy shoes, at your shoe store. Even if you plan to discontinue your children’s line, selling shoes seems like an awfully handy way to get rid of your remaining stock. But I’m just an American drunk on capitalism. Don’t let me tell you what to do with your business.

We walked down the street to the boutique children’s shoe store.  Its shelves are sparsely appointed with butter-soft leather booties in the vaguely orthopedic style of comfortable European footwear. Discreetly-placed placards with phrases like “crafted” and “handmade” give the impression that every shoe was lovingly assembled by an Italian eunuch from the finest organic fairy skin available in the EU. The saleswoman brought us a small bootie of sky-blue leather that fit nicely on her foot. Then I asked the price.

“It’s £57,” she said.

Fifty-seven pounds, at the current exchange rate, is $89.49. You can buy round-trip airplane flights for less than that. I’m not spending £57 on shoes she will wear for a maximum of three months. I’m not spending £57 on shoes for a person who chews her toes.

“Thank you,” I said. “Do you sell Clarks?” (Clarks are the Gap of children’s footwear: dependable, unimaginative, ubiquitous.)

To say that she was rude doesn’t do her justice. She morphed into a parody character from a B-movie, a snide English snootypants dripping pretension and disdain.

“Ha. Ha ha ha ha,” she said. She really did laugh in that deliberately haughty false chuckle that people only use in movies when they’re telling Julia Roberts she can’t shop at their store. “We don’t sell Clarks. Our shoes are handmade. They are genuine leather. If you are looking for Clarks . . . well, it’s just simply not something we do. We offer a completely different level of shoe.”

You do no such thing, I should have said. You sell walking shoes to people who can’t really walk. You run a doll-shoe racket targeting bourgeois parents with class anxiety. You sell shoes for people who still crap their pants. But I didn’t. I said thank you and left, and I regret it.

The thing is, I had already been to the Clarks store in the next neighborhood over that morning. We walked in, I set my daughter down, and she ran straight out the door and into the street. I chased her down, scooped her up and carried her, kicking and flailing, back into the store. That is when she slapped me across the face.

You feel a lot of things when you are slapped in public by a person wearing a diaper. The first is sadness, because – for reasons that in that moment are totally unclear – you deeply love this person, and no matter what you may know about their rational capabilities it still breaks your heart a little to be struck by someone you love.

The second is rage.

It’s hard to hold a grudge against your assailant, who has already forgotten that her hand ran into your face and is nuzzled against your chest sniffling over the injustice of being denied the fun of running into the street to hug a big red bus. But there’s so much else to be angry about: the embarrassing stares of the strangers who watched you get schooled by a baby; how laughably weak your “No hitting!” admonition sounds; the reminder that you are no longer capable of performing the simplest tasks; the outraged voice in your head that thunders “Who raised this monster??” and then meekly remembers: you did.

(And after all, that the only pair of shoes in stock in her size were fluorescent pink with LED lights in the heels. She doesn’t need to dress like Roller Girl Barbie yet.)

As a new parent and an expatriate, I often feel at the mercy of forces I don’t understand. There are so many little misunderstandings, confusions, well-laid plans that don’t go as I expect. I never know if I’m doing something wrong, or if this is in fact the right way, and the right way just happens to be hideously awkward. We left the boutique and went to the park, where she tripped and lay howling on her back. I scooped her up and we boarded a bus to central London.

We went to John Lewis, the sturdy, sedate dowager of Oxford Street that offers working foot measures, a broad range of reasonably priced children’s shoes and, according to the logo on their shopping bags, an appointment to Her Majesty the Queen as Suppliers of Household and Fancy Goods. We bought a pair of tiny white shoes that look like miniature versions of those worn by Florida retirees. She tottered proudly around the children’s department without falling once. We accomplished the thing we set out to do that morning. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal then you probably don’t have kids.

Only one thing would have made the day better. I wish we had returned to the children’s boutique with its obnoxious saleswoman. I would have liked to pull open the glass door with its gently tinkling bell and usher the kid in, with her new shoes, newfound independence, and accompanying desire to use her new powers to destroy everything in sight.

“Big mistake,” I would say to the saleswoman as I quietly pulled shut the door. “Huge.”