Shoes and a Sword

The following is a note I wrote for Facebook on February 21, 2013, when I lived out in Pennsylvania. 

There is a place south of College Avenue, a short walk downtown from my office, that sells Penn State gear, anything from sweatshirts to magnets to nice little stuffed lions with blue and white scarves.

But today, I wasn’t interested in any of that (although I became interested in the lion, which I should go back for). I was headed for the shoe section.

I was looking for shoes especially for flat-footers that could help alleviate some soreness in my knees and help me run better. When I walked in, I wasn’t sure where to go, but one of the sales representatives asked right away if I needed help. I said, “I heard you have special shoes!” He smiled and replied, “We sure do!” and he led me to the back wall where several types of running and tennis shoes lined the faux wood paneling. He took a look at how I walked and then pulled some models from back storage for me to try.

I didn’t expect what happened next. I sat down in a folding chair and when he pulled the first pair of shoes out of the box, he sat down across from me on a specialized stool. Attached to it was an incline on which he placed the shoe, loosened the laces, and waited for me to slip my right foot into it. When I did, he tightened each section of laces one at a time, and tied the best and most comfortable knot I have ever seen or felt in a tennis shoe. Then, he did the same for my left foot. He methodically checked the space I had for my toes, then had me walk so he could see how they fit.

Within five seconds, he told me what I could already feel in my feet: “Those aren’t right. Let’s try a different type of stability.”

When I sat back down, he motioned for me to put my foot back on the incline, and he proceeded to take the shoes off for me. Then he reached for the next pair, which had a different level of arch support, along the way telling me to inform him at any time when a shoe didn’t fit right.

As soon as I put the second pair on, I knew that it wouldn’t work, and I told him that. He replied, “That’s all right, you need to do what works for you.”

I experimented with several types of shoes, and with every pair, the sales representative held the sides open so I could slip into the shoe, and then he tied the laces. During the process, he talked me through how he was choosing the shoes for me and how I could figure out what worked well for me. He patiently listened to my concerns and suggested solutions.

At one point, he asked me where I was from, and when I replied, “The state of Indiana,” he said, “Ah, so you follow Hoosier basketball then?”

I corrected him a little too enthusiastically (I believe I startled him with my emphatic, “Nope! Purdue!”) but followed up with, “Their team is doing great this year.” We were able to talk about that for a while because he had watched Indiana’s recent games.

After about 20 minutes of trial and error, one pair of running shoes worked well. I liked the colors (red and yellow with orange laces) and the arches gave the right support to my feet. Even though I said I liked them, he replied, “Let’s keep going to make sure.”

So he patiently walked me through trying on some more shoes, and after that, I was absolutely sure that the fiery shoes were the ones I wanted. That particular pair was a bit tight, though, so I asked, “Could I try half a size up?”

Instead of getting frustrated with the fact I was taking so long, he went to the back and retrieved the half-size I needed, and that was the perfect fit. I was grinning as I walked up and down in them, knowing that I had found what I needed to help my knees.

In the end, I thanked him and said, “Great service!”

Yes, he was paid to provide that great service. Perhaps he was paid on commission, so he needed to make that sale and acted on his best behavior. And yes, it was his job. But I don’t believe that a sales representative such as the one I interacted with today exists unless he has a certain quality in the first place, a quality that no employer can impose upon an employee, a characteristic that the individual decides he wants to possess.

I saw possession of that quality several weeks ago on the north side of campus, up the steep hill from College Avenue, in the Palmer Museum of Art. It had been a rough morning, so in the early afternoon, I went to the museum to walk around a bit. After stowing my backpack in a locker and hanging up my coat, I set out with a binder full of paper, for I planned on writing about what I saw, and maybe even developing a story out of the paintings.

The initial plan was to avoid pictures of people and head straight for the landscapes or the animals. The lower floor was strictly portraits from the Rennaissance and Baroque eras and ceramic bowls, not my favorite type of art (unless the latter are full of edible goods like Rice Krispie Treats). I headed to the second floor, admiring the blue and orange Chiluly blown glass pieces next to the bottom of the steps. There are several rooms on the second floor, and while I wasn’t sure where I would end up, I headed for the room with the least amount of people. There still was a class in there, and I was entertained by the groups huddled tightly around statues, intensely scrutinizing the works. They were speaking English, but it was still a completely different language to me.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a place to sit and look at the painting of a quiet forest I wished to. Disappointed, I kept walking and found an empty bench. Surrounding that bench were portraits.

Not what I wanted, I thought. But immediately after that, my attention was drawn to the tallest painting. I sat down on the bench to absorb the life-size depiction of a French soldier, sword at his left side and young daughter, curious but protected, at his right.

I was captivated and sat there for about five minutes, just absorbing it all, when a student from one of the art classes glanced at the expression on my face and sat down on the far side of the bench.

He said something, and I wasn’t sure that it was meant for me, so I still sat in silence. A moment later, he spoke again, and I realized that he was analyzing the painting with me.

As someone who has been involved solely in the music side of the fine arts curriculum in school, I had no experience analyzing works of art. Sure, I could tell someone I liked a painting or a sculpture or a black-and-white pencil sketch…but questions about technique and color schemes were beyond me.

All of these objections briefly ran through my head, but none of them really mattered. I brought to mind some principles I learned during art class in elementary school, some I read in books, and even a few I knew through photography, and I was able to talk with the stranger who saw the tired, pensive expression on my face and hoped to ease it.

We pondered the backstory of the soldier: who he was, where he was going, why he was in the room. The art student pointed out how the man’s bright red uniform contrasted with the dreariness of the room and how the artist used light and other such elements. He asked why I liked it; yet that wasn’t a question I could rightly answer, as it was more personal than simply stating I thought the little girl’s eyes were painted well. I did say something about her eyes and did not delve too deep into my reasoning with someone whose name I did not even know.

As we talked, despite having no idea who he was, I felt immensely better. Somehow, the interaction encouraged me, and it was as if my creative side was selfishly screaming, “Finally! After all the neglect you’ve put me through while your left brain has been working like crazy on your master’s thesis, you finally pay attention to moi….”

I am not sure how long we spoke. It was a brief encounter, and as soon as he rose from the bench at the conclusion of our conversation, I never saw him again.

Yet I remember clearly his actions. They just happened. There was no monetary gain. No exchange of phone numbers. No signing of a form saying the art student had discussed the portrait with me.

His actions had the same motivation as the actions taken by the sales representative.

Kindness.

That was it.

A word as simple, and as hard, as kindness.

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