I've been fired twice. It's not like getting dumped. Getting fired, in my experience at least, is both more trivial and more shocking. The first time it happened at a health-food restaurant where I worked as a waiter. The cook and I got into a tiff over something, to the point where he picked up a cleaver and threatened me with it. The owner said that anyone who could provoke a man to do that didn't belong in a restaurant. The second time I was working as an actor in summer stock. I had the lead until suddenly I didn't. I must have been really bad because not only did I lose the part, I was told to leave town.
I haven't had a lot of other jobs, so the number of times I've been canned, expressed as a percentage, is huge. Mostly I've gone through life as a freelance writer which, as anyone who has tried it knows, is lunacy. I did have one job early on as a staff writer at a men's magazine in New York. They started me out doing featurettes on high-end clothing stores. Doing those well is a challenge, believe me. I soon discovered that there was some value to it. To make something out of material this weak, you have to have maniacal focus. You really have to look and think.
This held true up through my fifth or sixth piece when I thought, ok, I've learned what I'm going to, for Christ's sake give me something else. To be fair, they were starting to. But then John Lobb's name came up.
I was on my way to London then ? on my own nickel ? when the editor called me in and said, "As long as you're there, how about doing a little something on Lobb's?" He went on to explain that the store, founded in the late 19th century, produced shoes made by hand, best in the world, big-name clients, so on and so forth. Declining this assignment was not an option, so I figured, well, I'll dig down one more time.
But when I walked through the door of that place I couldn't. It wasn't in me any more. When it came to stores, I was tapped out. I had to come back with something though, so to keep myself amused, instead of writing a short article about the shop, I wrote a poem.
Back home, its reception wasn't the best. When I gave it to the editor and he read through it, I could practically hear the cords of our professional relationship popping. I stayed on for a while after that but ? though it got a bit bigger ? I could never get used to the size of my cage, to the point where the editor actually put me on double secret probation. I found the letter on my desk. Clearly it was time to go.
Anyway, here's the poem. Just to be clear, it doesn't take shoes as a starting point for riffs on human nature. It's not like Charles Lamb's "On Roast Pig" or deQuincey's "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" or any of those other great Romantic-era essays that lift off from a very small subject into the fascinations of what it means to be alive. This is about shoes, period. I can promise you only one thing: it scans.
O for a muse
Of leather, of shoes
To sing of a farm boy who rose,
Of John Lobb, a Victorian
Craftsman we glory in
Still (as the following shows):
He was just out of school
When a fall from a mule
Left young Lobb barely able to hobble
A blow this severe
Might have nipped his career ?
But the boy was determined to cobble.
His farming left undone
He set out for London
A lad with a limp and a quest;
But shoemakers chided
His gall, and derided
His dreams of becoming the best.
So when newspapers told
Of a rush for gold
In the land of the kangaroo,
And hordes sailed for Australia
In mining regalia
John Lobb thought he'd try his luck too.
He found thieves, he found cholera.
Gold? Not a dollar.
As prospector, Lobb was a flop.
But near Sydney he saw
Feet in rags, rubbed raw,
So he opened a bootmaker's shop.
Those boots ? what a hit!
They were sturdy. They fit.
He made them in rapid succession.
With a hollow heel
Where a man could conceal
His booty (if that's the expression).
And we see him now
Standing proud at the prow
As homeward at last he sails
With a sizable stash
Of nuggets and cash
And dress boots for the Prince of Wales.
Winning this Royal Warrant,
He soon had a torrent
Of London's elite to accouter.
For a century plus
They've been coming, and thus
Have made Lobb's the world's most renowned booter.
So come in to be shod:
You'll be met by a squad
Of the best in affaires des pieds.
First step: models, or "lasts,"
Like wooden casts
Of each foot. (Do yours differ? They may.)
Then one expert picks leather,
One sews it together,
Yet another assembles the whole…
At last comes the day
When you wear them away
And take that inaugural stroll.
What a feeling of pep,
What a spring in your step ?
These shoes practically teach you to dance.
And now down the street
Comes a drumming of feet
In rhythmic retreat and advance.
They're Lobb customers who
Are welcoming you
To their brotherhood large but classy:
Here come Bela Lugosi,
Lord Douglas, called "Bosie,"
Sinatra, Caruso, and Massey,
Cecil Beaton (photog.),
Many other great men in their time.
Mountain climbers and writers
And lovers and fighters,
All famous ? but none of them rhyme.
Sweeping off like the tide
All together you stride
While those craftsmen continue to cobble.
Shoddy workmanship, waste,
The erosion of taste ?
If one firm can combat all this, Lobb'll.
My thanks to Powell's for the chance to blog this week. I hope you've enjoyed the posts.
These are my kids.