“Excuse me, but can I ask you a question?”
I spin on my stool, sloshing white drops of 150-proof Trinidadian rum mixed with milk—the throat-burning specialty at Imperial Bikers MC, the Crown Heights clubhouse for the African-American motorcycle gang. I’m a regular at this buzzer-entry dive, playing pool with fedora-clad gramps and croaking along to Motown soul. Initially, my presence was pure novelty, a dolphin leaping through a flaming ring. But after proving my mettle by ingesting mama juana, a Dominican aphrodisiac concocted by soaking rum in ruddy herbs and tree bark, I was welcomed with handshake hellos, back-slapping good-byes.
At this late hour, with the clock again grown small, I’m sharing drinks with my friend Aaron and his visiting brother, Colin. It’s their cherry-popping visit to dusty, trophy-strewn Imperial. They’re guffawing, having a grand time for the same reasons I always do:The no-bullshit bar is living history, shaped by outsize personalities and layers of grit, not an entrepreneur’s business plan. “And the beers are just $3,” Aaron sighs, sucking on a Bud longneck.
Now, this question has paused our booze-born camaraderie. We face the inquisitor: a hulking giant, with loose shoelaces and a holey overcoat seemingly blasted by a BB gun. Slung across his back is a gargantuan black garbage bag bulging with lumpy objects of indiscriminate origin—thankfully, nothing’s leaking. The giant eyeballs me, his gaze settling on my feet. I sip my courage juice.
“What size shoe do you wear?” the giant asks, gruff as a teenage David Z salesman. Is he a fan of male flesh, researching how I measure on the man scale? The correlation between shoe size and manhood is inconclusive and misleading. Sometimes. Fact is,
I wear an 8, sometimes a half-size larger or smaller, with feet as wide and fat as a halfpound hamburger—reverse clown-foot syndrome.
I give the giant my size. His eyes alight like a pinball machine on tilt. He rubs his papery hands and sets down his trash bag as gently as china. I pick up my drink.
He rummages through the bag, grunting and mumbling, before retrieving a pair of low-rise, brown-leather Pro Keds with Sunkist-orange stitching.
“They’re…they’re beautiful,” I say, like a teen boy pawing his first budding bosom. I’ve long worn old-school Pro Keds, loving the chunky-slim silhouette and vibrant color palette. Plus, they’re far plusher than Converse, which are as comfortable as cardboard duct-taped to your feet. “I know,” the shoe guy says, nodding. He orders a Guinness and drinks deeply. “Try them on.” Alcohol is a magically transformative drug. Under the influence, men become confident conversationalists. Our moods brighten, emotions spill out and, in bed, we last longer than a commercial break. With good comes bad: fisticuffs, urinating on shrubbery and poor decision making.
Sober, I would’ve told the shoe salesman to push off. But three sheets to the wind and staring at 2 a.m., nothing seems more natural than dipping my toes into lightly soiled Pro Keds. Like Cinderella’s glass slipper, the shoes fit perfectly. My toes roam like happy buffalo, while my arches stand tall and proud.
“They look good, man,” Aaron says. “Real good,” the salesman echoes, appraising my feet. “Give them a spin around the bar.” I stroll the room like it’s my private catwalk, sashaying past patrons sipping plastic-cup mixed drinks, past the green-fuzzed pool table and the decommissioned kitchen.
It’s as if the kicks were cobbled for my wide, hirsute feet. I feel pretty, so very pretty! Is this what it feels like to be a belle at the ball? “How much?” I ask. I remove the shoes and place them on the rum-stained bar. Excitement and alcohol preclude me from noticing that the insoles are absent, ripped out as if to erase bad memories or unbecoming stains.
The salesman scratches his mottled chin and fills his mouth with beer. “I suppose, you know, I could stand to take $10 for the shoes. Just $10,” he pleads, desperation sneaking into his voice.
Ten bucks? For the same reason that I worship Vanessa’s dollar pork dumplings and 2 Brothers $1 slices of pizza, I’m unable to ignore a bargain. And despite being of don’t-ask, don’t-tell origin, these shoes— retailing for $60-plus—are a surefire deal. “Sold,” I say, peeling off a wad of ones. He pockets the money and picks up his sack. “Wait,” Aaron calls, eager for his own footwear, “are you selling other shoes?” “What size are you?” “Nine, 10.” “No, man, I just got purses,” he said, edging toward the door. “And I don’t think you’ll look good wearing those.”