They were always Excursions, these solemn trips to buy new shoes. I can't say why, or even whether it was my mother's own idiosyncracy or a quirk of her entire generation, but the fitting of shoes to children's feet was serious business. Dire consequences would accrue to the waif wearing ill-fitting footwear with rounded, not squared, toe boxes. Heaven forfend!
The employees at Tru-Form, located at 86th Street and Third Avenue, adjacent to the McDonald's that we were never allowed to frequent, were of a piece: older, bespectacled men in poorly made suits who gave off an acrid smell of cigarettes and sweat and wore expressions of beleaguered disappointment in their stations. I found them vaguely sinister and ran off as soon as I could, my stubby, chubby toddler legs carrying me up three steps on scratchy orange carpeting to a corner aquarium, where I pressed fingers on the glass separating me from sluggish, pale, overfed goldfish.
After a time I was called back from the aquarium by my mother (our number had been announced many minutes after she had sat clutching her little paper slip with a sort of grim resolve - I'd never seen her as powerless as she seemed in the shoe store). I sat beside her on a bench and stayed silent while a balding shoe salesman pushed my foot roughly into a shoe sizer, a frightening metal contraption, a ruler gone wild with letter widths and number lengths, so many permutations of numbers and letters that it gave me a headache. When the man, scowling with effort, was satisfied with my measurement, he went into the back, a dark, mysterious place where children were expressly forbidden to venture.
He returned carrying boxes of shoes, each pair uglier than the last, until I was convinced that these were in fact orthopedic shoes and that my feet must be well and truly deformed. I had no say as to which pair of shoes was ultimately purchased and knew in any event to keep my mouth shut, because the one time I had expressed a preference my mother had deviated so far from it that I'd wised up, deciding that if I said nothing at all I might by chance take home the least objectionable shoes.
Finally it was over, perhaps an hour later, and my brother and I selected lollipops, the candy slight but acceptable reward for our wasted time. The shoe salesman patted us awkwardly on the tops of our heads, and gratefully we opened the doors to sunshine, fresh air, and the thrum of the city before us. I wish I could say that I spared a thought for the bloated goldfish in their stale water, or for the sad old men I was so anxious to leave behind, but I never once did.