(short story, 1980’s)
The trolley jolted along Fifth Avenue. Myles stared at the floorboards, watching the shuffling feet. The car lurched to a stop, water splashing off the track and the wires humming and crackling in the fog above. Off the street could be heard curses and snippets of conversation. Passengers were pushing and shoving, getting on and off, vying for seats. Myles kept his eyes fixed on the floor. By staring at one spot, one could see a remarkable variety of footwear, even in cold weather. Not only boots and rubbers, but shoes of all kinds–wing tips, long pointed Spanish toes, cheap leather clunkers. Even bare feet, bruised and freezing and dancing about amid the hardwood heels. Myles was amazed at just how much one could see in footwear, of what one could establish about station, gender and generation by casting the eyes downward. Perhaps if he just stood there, hand firm on the strap, as the trolley car made its way up and down Manhattan and stared at people’s feet he would come up with some theory, even a fundamental truth, about Man’s place in Nature, in the Universe. Who knows? People had been raising their eyes towards Heaven for eons and look what they’d gotten: the Twentieth Century with its Great War and Bolshevism and Influenza. Now he would stare at feet for a while and come up with something. Yes indeed, just let Myles ride this trolley car up and down Fifth Avenue for a couple months and we’ll see what he comes up with. He’ll show you…
Shouting from the street snapped him out of it. Myles stood up on his toes and peered over his neighbors at the scene– a wildly gesticulating Italian driver standing between his bored donkey and an outraged upstanding citizen in black cape and top hat, who was set upon braining the hapless animal with his walking stick. In the middle and attempting to mediate was a policeman—one hand applying delicate restraint upon the well-bred upraised arm, the other jabbing its nightstick into the outraged Italian belly. Spectators howled and guffawed, and Myles could almost see the cop’s handlebar mustache quiver with repressed fury. What luck, he thought, such a perfect miniature of the class struggle all the Bolsheviks and anarchists are raving about. This is supposed to be what I am terrified of. His old college anarchist chum told him— screamed at him, really—that the entire history of mankind could be summed up that way–Capital vs Labor, with the police always on the side of Capital, Big Money. The cop was alternating his polite patting of the gentleman’s arm with sharp billy club jabs at the greasy driver’s midriff. It was all too perfect.
The car lurched forward again, rocking Myles about on his tiptoes as he strained to see. Then, remembering his theory of a few moments earlier, he stretched himself up as far as possible to get a look at their footwear. The Italian was dancing about in his ragged cloth pull-ons, and the cop impatiently tapping one of his shiny NYPD boots. But the gentleman–well, the source of the disagreement rested atop one of his fine oxfords, steaming in the chill. It was as fine a donkey turd as one could hope to see, and the gentleman held his bedecked foot fast so that everyone could witness the indignity plopped upon it this damp afternoon. No doubt to his upstanding mind this one animal dropping represented all that need be said about the differences between rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, civilization and barbarism.
Alas, the progress of the trolley carried Myles away from such a perfect microcosm and as he could not rise any further on his toes without losing balance he lowered himself to his normal height and set his gaze again on the floorboards.
The struggle for standing space had not yet ended and pairs of feet still shuffled about. Myles watched their movements but his thoughts were still on the battle he had just witnessed, and the implication for the theory of the social value of footwear. Perhaps he had something here–an article in Harper’s at least. Too bad he couldn’t write worth a damn. But there were plenty of starving wordsmiths who could put it into words for him. He knew some himself. He might even send a few wires when he got home. Give them time to tie up the loose ends and come to the Big Apple. In the meantime, Myles could ride the trolleys and stare at feet. He’d find the answers, rescue mankind from foolishness and ennui. An old spinster stepped up next to him. Her shoes must have been fifty years old. Leather a faded white, chipped wood heels nearly two inches tall, greenish copper eyes instead of lace holes. My how shoes have changed. Time, he thought, is a whole new element to consider. Not only fashion and economy but time. The whole thing was suddenly growing complex. The car hit a nasty bump and jolted violently. Myles slid and for a second lost his grip on the strap and almost dropped to the floor of the car amidst his subject matter. Around him passengers swore, grunted, shifted weight. The bell rang incessantly. The idea of riding the trolleys all day suddenly grew wearisome. The book didn’t even have a title. How about Sole Searching? The car jolted again. Myles decided he had better lay off the puns.
A fat man was smoking a particularly obnoxious cigar. Each bump of the car sprinkled ashes liberally upon his neighboring passengers. Myles had never experienced such rancid smelling tobacco. The grower must have been extravagant with the fertilizer. The draft carried the smoke right into his face where, combined with the odor rising from all the packed bodies it seemed enough to make one swoon. His stop was a long ways up, and a miserable drizzle was coming down outside. There must be an alternative to getting off the trolley and waiting in the wet throng for the next one. His ears picked up the delicate squeeze and spray of a perfume atomizer behind him. It was a miracle. Myles was not the biggest fan of bottled scents but any of them had to better than that stogie. He switched hands on the leather strap he was clinging to and spun around carefully, eyes still on the floor so as not to be obvious.
The move was a fortunate one, for there before his widening eyes was what was then called a well-turned ankle. Remarkably well-turned, in fact. As the perfume he had spun around for wafted into his face, light and flowery, he followed the ankle’s course out of a daring open-toed shoe, into a perfect calf which curved of so delicately up and out of sight under the folds of a long overcoat. It was wrapped in a layer of silk hose that shone silvery in the dim light at the bottom of the car. Maybe it was the draft, or the stench of the stogie, or the rather overpowering scent of the perfume, or whatever, but Myles suddenly felt tingly all over and, fearing a fall, held onto the strap with both hands.
Myles could not pull his eyes away from that leg. It stood there, balanced atop a spindly, delicate high heel, yet it did not shift and slide with the jolting and bumping of the car—as did his own feet—but rather moved with the flow, a little to this way, a little to that—almost fluidly. He remembered great stalks of kelp off a California beach, and how he would hold his breath underwater and watch the flow gracefully back and forth with the waves above. But the overcoat that housed the leg quivered with the rattle of the car, and the trembling caught his attention. The coat was thick and wool and looked itchy to the touch; it also rather unconventionally buttoned down the side, big thick seashell buttons that looked man-sized. The garment fit loosely, and between the buttons the fabric pulled away, obviously letting in a draft as well as the quick glimpse of stranger, something Myles could not resist.
Again fortune was on his side as his eyes, in disbelief, caught not only a glimpse but a solid eyeful of what was beneath that heavy outer garment. There was no dress to be seen. That well-turned ankle was nothing compared to the stretches of silky leg visible between the buttons of that coat. Ever cautious, Myles raised his gaze slowly from the calf to the knee and even, gulp, to the thigh. It was all there, within reach, but touching was out of the question. Both his hands gripped the strap above paralytically. Only his eyes moved, ever upward. At last they came to the frilly hemline of a short, short skirt. Having attained the peak, his lips pursed together involuntarily and let out a near silent wolf whistle. Myles came to his senses and stopped staring. Nervously he reached into his pocket for a cigarette. As he drew it upwards toward his mouth he found himself looking right into her face. He froze. She smiled knowingly, her eyes on his. He held the cigarette between them, not knowing what to do. She snatched it from his fingers. “Merci” she said. “Have a light?”
Myles was saved by instinct. Smoothly he drew out another smoke for himself and then, with one match, lit both. She drew deeply and then craning her head backward, exhaled toward the top of the car where the smoke hung briefly before dissipating in the draft. “Merci” she repeated. “I am completely out of cigarettes. How could you tell?” Myles could feel the sarcasm and felt like an oaf. She must have seen it. “I am only teasing. Never mind.” She blinked twice. Myles looked into her face again. She had long lashes and rouged cheeks and lipstick and a little button nose and was pretty as hell. “Do you ever smoke clove?” she asked. Myles looked confused. “Do you dance?” He was too taken aback to answer. “Do you speak French? Do you ever talk?” She giggled and the bell clanged as the trolley approached the next stop. “Well, do you?” she asked again, jabbing him a little in the side with her elbow.
“Hell yes!” Myles shot back, laughing. It was all he could think of saying. She giggled again, turned round and looked over her shoulder. “Where are we” she asked him. “I– I– I’m not really sure”, though he was, or would have been under normal circumstances. Myles had been riding this route everyday for a couple of years. “Me either” she said, waving her free hand in front of her face, “but that fat man’s cigar is making me ill and I’m getting off. Will you join me?” With that, she slipped to the edge of the still moving trolley and leaped off. As she jumped her coat flapped up a bit, exposing both wonderfully shiny legs. A bit panicky, Myles followed, pushing his way to the car’s edge, knocking into the fat man and sending his cigar flying, ash spraying everywhere. There were curses and howls of protest and the once placid passengers turned on him. Myles felt blows at his back. He made the edge of the trolley when an incensed man took him by the shoulder and flung him from the car. Myles just barely caught his balance when he hit the pavement. He turned to look at the guy who had pushed him. He was rubbing his hands together for a job well done, while his fellow passengers crowded around , craning to see the villain, threatening him with fists and fingers. “And stay off, ya jerk!” the fat man yelled. Myles turned round. Something struck him in the head and fell at his feet. Brushing himself off he looked down to see the now dead cigar. He burst out laughing. The perfume scent was on him again. Someone took him by the arm. “Popular fella, aren’t you?” It was the girl. She was so French. “Yeah, you could say that.” Myles was so American. They strolled off down the avenue arm in arm, the lights of the city flickering on around them.