The Cordovan Shoes

For a brief moment, an instant before the Boeing 737 touched down at Philadelphia’s International Airport, seventy-eight-year-old Harold Levine recalled, more accurately relived with vivid exactitude the feelings that accompanied him sixty years earlier as he arrived at the city where he would begin his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. Harold had stored the chronicles of those halcyon days in the file drawers of a half dozen highly paid therapists, so he was caught unaware by the clarity of the memories his psychiatrist archivists had labeled: “The past – interesting but no longer useful.” Reluctant to let go of the moment, Harold sank into the curve of the upholstered aisle seat and considered the surprisingly sharp recollection that had poked its way into his consciousness.

A yellowing snapshot forgotten in a shoebox long since relegated to the basement storage room is in the viewfinder of his father’s Brownie. Eighteen-year-old Harold is grinning foolishly, showing off the Twiddle Dee dink he would wear from the start of school until Christmas vacation, barring a victory over Cornell at the annual Thanksgiving Day football game, a triumph that would lop a month off the hazing ritual.

“It’s my college yarmulke,” he jokes as his dad takes the picture of his smirking son in the silly cap.

The afternoon is drawing to an end. Harold hugs his mother goodbye. For a brief moment, it is kindergarten redux. But oddly, it is his father who has the salt in his eyes. Wiping away his tears, he kisses his sun (his father’s favorite homophone), mumbles a final goodbye and they’re gone. And Harold is on his own, optimistic, excited, the world his oyster.

The jolt of the landing gear on the unyielding tarmac snapped Harold upright, but he remained pensive. Harold wondered if his roommate from his momentous freshman year would be at the reunion. They were an unlikely pair, Harold, the street kid from the Bronx, the liquor salesman’s boy, and Jon Holm, Jr., scion of the South, son of an undertaker, reaffirming his intention to manage the family-owned funeral parlor by going to classes in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, a wardrobe rehearsal for his role as aide de camp to the angel of death. The absurdity of their friendship delighted them both; they had gone away to college to experience new phenomena, and surely there was no occurrence more improbable. Harold smiled at the memory. He couldn’t wait to catch up with that good ole boy.

Harold and Jon are wolfing down malts in a booth at Sophomore Sols, the beeps, bongs, and bells of the pinball machines in the back of the long, narrow storefront competing with the jukeboxes blasting endless repetitions of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,” “Mr. Touchdown, USA,” and Teresa Brewer singing a mind-numbing syncopated rag, “Music, Music, Music.”

A hundred and one new chums – boys from the dorms, nodding acquaintances from lecture halls and classrooms, teammates from the informal ball games played on the quad lawn, classmates identifiable by their preposterous freshman caps – crowd by, instantly acknowledged with boisterous shouts, leers, grimaces, punches on the arm, whacks on the rump, the good natured jargon that singles them out from the upperclassmen. In their dorm are boys with Roman numerals following their names and initials preceding them; they hobnob with Southerners, New Englanders and Midwesterners, adding their peculiar pitch, tone, and rhythm to a harmony of drawls, twangs, brogues, howdys, and y’alls. For those first, glorious weeks before fraternity rushing splinters the class into factions representing the worst in snobbery, pretentiousness and vanity, it doesn’t matter where you are from, who your parents are, what prep school you attended, and wonder of wonders, if your nose has a hook, bump, or acute nasolabial angle of Jewish descent.

As Harold followed Elaine out of the emptying plane, he felt a pinch on the heel of his foot, the sock bunching up or the first sign of an imminent blister. Harold dismissed the warning; he had worn the same 8½ D shoe size ever since his junior year in high school and rarely had problems with his feet. He wiggled his toes and looked down at the mahogany colored, cordovan shoes he had put on earlier that morning. On a whim, he had resurrected them from the back of the floor-to-ceiling shoe rack he had installed when he moved in with Elaine. He hadn’t worn them in years, not since his freshman year at Penn, when he bought them as part of his transformation from street rat to college boy, replacing the Thom McCann blue suede shoes that singled him out as a schmuck first class during that first day of fraternity rushing. He had saved them all these years, shoetrees and Mink Oil preserving the leather as they nested in one packing carton to another, accompanying Harold along his journey from underclassman to Old Guard alumnus. On a whim, Harold had decided to wear them to the reunion, polishing the horsehide to a boot camp shine.

Harold is quick to understand that the costume often defines the actor. For his role as Ivy Leaguer he exchanges his double-breasted, brown serge suit and clip-on yellow bowtie for a blue button-down shirt, gray flannel pants and red and blue rep tie. Dressed for the part, he takes on the persona of a graduate of Choate by way of Old Westbury. He learns to talk without moving his jaw, becomes a pen pal to a girl at Smith, and to a large extent assumes that the world owes him the same perks of power, affluence, and obeisance as any scion of the Pew family. It’s a harmless sham, and he has fun playing the part, except when the real heir to the Sun Oil fortune talks to him like he just stepped into a pile of dog shit and the girl from Smith asks if he prefers a Presbyterian or Episcopal service. His charade notwithstanding, Harold has genuine affection for the authentic symbols of the university. Coming from a history that stops at the Ellis Island seawall, he reveres the campus traditions, the stone faced sculptured busts and commemorative plaques on ivy-covered cornerstones. He takes courses in accounting, economics, finance, marketing, statistics, and transportation and wears a jacket and tie to class to replicate the office environment of the corporate workplace. He addresses his instructors as “Mister” and learns the consequence of handing in a paper past the deadline.

“Would this be tolerated by your superior at IBM?” Harold knows that he has about as much chance of landing a job at IBM as becoming Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, but he gets the point.

“Were you and your roommate Jon in the same fraternity?” Elaine asked while they waited for their luggage.

Harold turned to his wife, taken aback by her question. “Elaine, I went to college in the early fifties,” he replied indulgently. “Fraternities were segregated. There were no Jews in Delta Tau Delta, no sweethearts of Sigma Chi named Esther or Leah. If you were Jewish you could join a Jewish fraternity and that was it.” He continued, “Everybody knew Penn had a quota system. If it wasn’t for the Wharton school, there wouldn’t have been ten Jews in the whole damn place.”

“But you and Jon were good friends, weren’t you?” she persisted. “You just said you were excited about seeing him again.”

Harold thought for a moment. “We were good friends.” He paused, “At least in the beginning.”

The friendships and social equality of the freshmen quadrangle becomes a field of anxiety, wrought with envy and small-mindedness as a surfeit of apprehensive hopefuls compete for the tap on the shoulder that will separate the insiders from the “independents,” a snide, mean-spirited synonym for klutz, unwanted, not good enough. Each night, Harold and Jon preen, splashing on Aqua Velva and screwing on fixed smiles as they practice small talk with the Greek brothers who hold their fate in limbo.

Each fraternity house has a profile the supplicants try to match, flaunting or concealing a lengthy list of descriptive adjectives corresponding to the desired paragon: Protestant, Catholic or Jewish; jock, brain or socialite; prep school, public school, or from the Bronx; old money, new money, or no money. About a third of the class will be picked to pledge. An equal number will be blackballed. The remainder will maintain a defiant attitude held from the beginning of the process and throughout their undergraduate years: piss on you!

Eager and determined to be one of the chosen ones, Harold shunts his egalitarian views aside. He wants to be a fraternity man, to live in a fraternity house, wear a fraternity pin with the Greek letters spelled out in white pearls, to keep forever the secret of the brotherhood’s finger-locked handshake. In his mind, he has a preposterous Roaring Twenties image of himself wearing a raccoon coat and strumming a ukulele as dozens of co-eds dance the Black Bottom, the Shimmy, and the Varsity Drag.

Harold is wise enough to set his sights on the attainable, avoiding the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. It takes but a few minutes at the ZBT house to determine that his public school, middleclass background is not the pedigree required. “What school did you say you went to?” These boys are like gentiles!   He has never seen so many nose jobs in one room. Sigma Alpha Mu is a popular house, and they offer up one of the few Jewish athletes on campus, posed prominently in his varsity sweater as the potential brothers make their way through the welcome line.

“Say, did you know that last summer we won the intramural softball championship?”

Harold is not exactly given the bum’s rush but gets the feeling he is not the catch of the day. He fares better at the Alpha Epsilon Pi house. One of the brothers there is a boy from his hometown! He embraces Harold like a long-lost relative and introduces him to all the big shots in charge of the rush committee. Harold is grateful for the chance encounter and welcomes the attention. He makes sure not to trip over his best foot forward as he’s hustled from brother to brother, a smiling beneficiary of their non-stop snow job.

“Oh yeah, we have great parties here, but we keep up a good grade point average.” Harold likes these guys and is exultant when he gets the thumbs-up as he leaves.

When Harold and his roommate are accepted as pledges they guzzle six-packs from the State Store to celebrate their new status as fledgling Greeks, elated at being accepted, included, approved, CHOSEN as worthy of the select few. It doesn’t take long to become sloshed. Jon is curious about “them Jewish houses,” and Harold tells him he’s pledging Zeta Laida Shiksa. Jon says he’s joining Ada Mada Pie.

Convulsed with laughter, Harold screams back, “Don’t forget I Felta Thigh.”

It’s a great evening; the beer bash is a good way to cover up their uneasiness at what lies ahead. The next day, they start having their meals at the fraternity house, giving up the table at the student union where they had eaten dinner together since the first day of freshmen orientation.

Elaine’s curiosity about her husband’s college years was short-lived. In the taxi to town, she kept her head buried in the book she had been reading since taking off from O’Hare, but ultimately her innate good nature overrode the lingering, peevish reluctance to accompany her husband to an event she had zero interest in attending. Clearly, Harold’s wide-eyed request that she join him had not allowed for a refusal that would have put a moat in the center of their king-sized bed. Restraining herself from reminding him of the lousy time he had endured at his sixtieth high school reunion, she had listened patiently as he conjured up a weekend of endless bonhomie with old pals, sharing memories about the good old days at the good old U of P.

“Thanks for coming with me, honey,” Harold said, nudging his wife. “This should be fun.”

Harold was grumpy. The flight home, delayed an hour by pouring rain that slowed Philadelphia to a crawl, was crowded, hot, and stomach-churning turbulent.   The headache he had managed to subdue with an illicit Vioxx saved from his previous year’s hernia post-op had reappeared along with the sour stomach and stabs of dizzying vertigo made worse by the lurches of the storm-tossed Boeing.   Harold didn’t hide his ill-temper but was careful not to complain to Elaine sitting stoically across the aisle, anticipating her “I told you so” reproach. What made matters worse, the blisters on both of his heels had broken, oozing a sticky wetness into the gauze pads he had taped behind his ankles in an effort to reduce the excruciating pain he felt with every step. He stared straight ahead, avoiding Elaine, avoiding the chubby businessman in the center seat whose glare of disapproval had not dissuaded him from removing his ruined shoes, the backs hacked off like makeshift clogs salvaged from the dumpster by an artful vagrant.   Harold tilted his seat back, pretending not to hear the protest of the lady sitting behind him, and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t the weekend he thought it would be. There was nothing left of the old campus that capricious memory had mapped so clearly. The fraternity house had been razed, an Institute for Advanced Macroeconomics in its place. The trolley tracks that ran past Sophomore Sols were paved over, the busy street now a meandering lane to a cloister of modern dorms and a cutesy mall with a faux Gothic façade. At the entrance to the quadrangle where the freshman dorms were located a guardhouse worthy of a maximum-security prison barred his way pending picture ID and reason for visit. The cafeteria where he and Jon and their exuberant classmates met each night for hot coffee and fresh gossip was now a food court, the extruded plastic signs of a dozen franchises offering food to match.

Harold had run into Jon at the class tent.

“Hey, Jon, it’s me, Harold Levine. Howya doing, roomy?” Harold had exulted, reaching out to hug his friend.

It took only an instant to squelch his enthusiasm. Clearly Jon, circa 2010, was not the type for hugs and high-spirited stories that started out with, “Hot damn, remember when…” In point of fact, Jon’s memories of the good old days had left him lamenting the admission of women into the Wharton School and grumbling about the number of Asians and blacks that had infested the campus.

“Infested?” Harold had exclaimed, his appalled look signaling the start of confrontation not typically observed among jovial alumni celebrating Homecoming Day. Their conversation scratched the sore spots of evangelical right and liberal left: the war in Afghanistan, the foreign policy of the American Israel Political Action Committee, the inheritance tax, private school vouchers and the influence of the NRA. The two men were separated when “fucking bigot” and “unpatriotic bastard” became the talking points of the argument in question.

Harold was determined not to let the disappointing afternoon taint the evening’s festivities. The class dinner was scheduled as the highlight of the weekend and he was looking forward to mingling with friends he hadn’t seen for decades, particularly since the banquet was being held at the Union League Club. As he told Elaine with more than a trace of malice in his voice, “When I was an undergrad, the only way I could have gotten into the club was through the back door as a dishwasher.”

After a nap and a shower, Harold dressed for the event, an uneventful routine until he tried to fit his college days Florsheims over his raw, red heels. Harold yelped in pain; the stiff, horsehide cordovans could not have been more painful if the backs were serrated. He couldn’t walk, never mind dancing and gad-flying his way around the banquet hall. With no time left to find an open shoe store, Harold called the concierge and asked for a sharp knife.

Minutes later the man was at the door accompanied by two burly bell caps and a concerned look on his face that said, “Sir, you can kill yourself if you wish, but not at the Union League.” Noticeably relieved after learning how Harold planned to use the blade, he returned fifteen minutes later, the shoes, now backless, transformed into makeshift sandals still spit-shined from the laces to the toes. Harold contemplated an evening sidling about the room with his back to the wall.

Tucking his aching feet under the table, Harold looked around the circular ten-top and estimated that he and Elaine were sitting next to about two billion dollars of net worth, two face-lifts, and two trophy brides.   Fifteen minutes into the conversation, he decided he wouldn’t trade his life with anyone there. It wasn’t as if the scion of the family cosmetics company was uninteresting or the single largest shareholder of the world’s biggest REIT was boring; it was the one-chord harmony of their chorus: “Did you see the WSJ this morning? Obama has got to ease off his human rights demands or bond markets will feel it in the ass.”

Harold did not engage. He was offended by the selfishness existent in a solar system where the world orbits around a stock portfolio, but conscious of the occasion and the afternoon’s fiasco, he kept his thoughts to himself. Midway through the dinner, the president of the university announced lavishly generous multi-million donations from each of the men, the ten-digit grants to be used by the School of Social Service for an ongoing outreach to the city’s poor and undereducated.

Harold re-examined his compatriots seated around the table, the chair emeritus of a global electronics conglomerate and the leading rainmaker of the country’s most prestigious law firm rounding out the quintet. It came to him that each man was successful for the same reason: they had a goal and they strove to achieve it, going from point A to point B, no stops in-between. Everything in their lives contributed to the ultimate conclusion: the right wives, the right in-laws, the right politics, even the right rehab centers. Harold, on the other hand, had bounced around like the pinball swatted by the blind wizard’s flailing flippers. He had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory a dozen times (on purpose, expostulated his cadre of therapists, “impending disaster is a wonderful way to make you feel alive”). He felt deflated. But as the evening came to a close, the most extraordinary event took place: the four honored members of the Wharton School Hall of Fame embraced him with warm hugs, firm handshakes, and heartfelt parting words of admiration. Harold was floored by their deference.

“God, I envy you, Harold. What an exciting life you’ve led, not like my boring existence,” was the joint theme.

Harold would contemplate the irony on the flight home.

Back in Chicago in the weeks that followed, Harold recited the affirmations of his Tuesday evening men’s group, reeled off aphorisms from a dozen paperback iterations of Chicken Soup for the Soul and visualized the mottos from his favorite Success motivation posters: “Live in the moment,” “Be here now,” “As long as you’re here, you might as well show up.” He knew them all; he believed them all.

Harold put a fresh band aid on the heel of his bruised foot and laughed wryly, if the shoe doesn’t fit, why wear it? He thought to himself.

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