End of the Line

Feet Forward

In defense of going shoeless

Illustration: Illustration by Barry Blitt

When I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have a new pair of socks every morning, so I won’t have to wrangle my old scraggly snag-prone feet into anything that has lost its pristine flexibility, as I have mine. In my boyhood, some of us were trying to imagine the worst thing you could get in your Christmas stocking. Snakes? Doo-doo? My friend Sally won with “an old person’s foot.”

Back then, of course, I ran barefooted over red mud and ryegrass, and gravel, and bees, and hot asphalt, and those little hard acorns with the points. Not thinking anything of it until, as I approached puberty, I heard an older boy say, “If you’re not barefooted, you’re not really naked, and if you are barefooted you’re halfway there.”

In my view, our finest writer on manifestations of bare feet is William Faulkner:

“…moving at a shuffling shamble like a mule walks in sand, without seeming effort, his bare feet hissing, flicking the sand back in faint spouting gusts from each inward flick of his toes.”

“…the print of his daughter’s naked feet where she had squatted in the mud, knowing that print as he would have known those of his mare or his dog.”

“The earth immediately about the door. …had a patina, as though from the soles of bare feet in generations, like old silver or the walls of Mexican houses which have been plastered by hand.”

“…her bare feet were pale coffee-splashes on the dark polished floor.”

Lena, in Light in August, walks barefooted into town, carrying her shoes so as not to get them dusty or put any wear on them when folks aren’t looking.

A recently bereaved man in Go Down, Moses walks down a dirt road over prints of “unhurried Sunday shoes, with somewhere beneath them, vanished but not gone, fixed and held in the annealing dust, the narrow splay-toed prints of his wife’s bare feet.”

Thomas Sutpen, in Absalom, Absalom!, is turned away from a plantation house’s front door because, being a tenant farmer’s boy, he is naturally standing there in his “splayed bare feet.” Resentment of that moment drives him for the rest of his life.

Faulkner himself wrote and golfed barefooted, and could be seen that way in public (while sometimes, as a young man, wearing a monocle). So his pedal extremities, possible hookworm aside, may have been healthier, and less stinky, than those of people who keep theirs pent up in shoes. Considerable sentiment in favor of unshod splay-toedness may be found online, at any rate. The Society for Barefoot Living advocates going barefooted all the time, so your feet can breathe, your toes get a grip, and you are grounded, drawing energy from the earth.

Beyond the Web and the beach, however, I don’t see a groundswell of shoelessness. It didn’t happen in the sixties, even. Check out, on YouTube, singers and musicians of that era performing the excellent song “Barefootin’” (written by Carl Perkins, recorded most notably by Robert Parker). They’re wearing dress shoes.

My mother once said that when she told non-Southerners she lived in Georgia, “I want to add, ‘And yes, we do wear shoes.’” Even in Li’l Abner, the hillbilly comic strip, barefootedness was confined to the impossibly voluptuous and scarcely clad (Daisy Mae Yokum, Moonbeam McSwine) and the severely déclassé (Big Barnsmell, inside man at the Skonk Works; Hairless Joe and Lonesome Polecat, distillers of Kickapoo Joy Juice). A respectable person did not identify with any of those.

And as stirred as I was by the feet of Moonbeam McSwine, in particular (dirty honey, lived with pigs), I don’t recall that my female playmates’ feet were much to look at. Carson McCullers writes of twelve-year-old Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding, “The sole of her foot was…pitted with ragged whitish scars, as every summer Frankie stepped on many nails; Frankie had the toughest feet in town. She could slice off waxy yellow rinds from the bottoms of her feet.”

Inside every shod person, however, a barefooted one will out. Why do you think everyone from Robert Plant to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has recorded “Cindy, Cindy”?

The first time I saw Cindy
She was standing in the door,
Her shoes and stockings in her hand
And her feet all over the floor.

I assume the choir, at least, sang it shod.