“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.”
– Mark Twain
“Who told you that you were naked?”
— God, Genesis 3:11
I shot a glance at the man in the airport. The rational part of my brain appreciated the fact that this was a man working to make a living. The part of my brain coaxed for a year into cultural-integration reached my mouth first.
“Are you saying my shoes aren’t polished enough?” I retorted. His offer had become an argument. “I polish my own shoes.”
It didn’t take long to pick up on the fact that people where I’m living place great value on a shoe’s shine. Walking along the roads, littered along the side lay beer bottles, condom packets, and empty tins of shoe polish. (I considered but rejected the likelihood of some wild parties involving the three items in tandem). When I meet someone, I’ll often catch him or her shooting a none-too-subtle glance down at my shoes as we shake hands.
Until I arrived in South Africa, I had never given the condition of my shoes much thought. But now, knowing that I’m likely to be ogled from the ankle down, nightly shoe clean has become a ritualized labor of love.
A few brush strokes remove the heftiest clumps of the day’s dirt. Water, gently heated in my trusty iron, is misted across the surface of the shoe. Next, a coat of shoe polish is scooped from the tin and evenly applied. I use a toothbrush to work the polish into the crevice where the sole joins the leather. Next, I work a second, stiff-bristled brush across the shoe. Finally, with a piece of cloth, I buff out the shoe until it’s picked up a soft shine. Then, I repeat the process with the second shoe.
This is in no way exceptional. Virtually everything I do elicits some commentary – how I eat my food, how quickly or slowly I write something down, how I type, how I drink my coffee, how I walk, how I talk, how I don’t talk. One day, in the middle of the teachers’ staff room, I pulled a cloth from my pocket and started conspicuously wiping some dirt off my shoe. Lo and behold – no comment.
The real kicker (no half-pun intended) is that my shoe polishing is the most Sisyphean of tasks. In terms of dirt and gravel, I might as well live on the surface of Mars. Two steps out of my rondaval, my shoes have started picking up a film of dust. By the end of they day, my once-black shoes have taken a furry orange covering of dirt.
The conspicuous attention paid to shoes is neither simple materialism nor simple vanity. As one astute South African pointed out to me, people aren’t looking for a brand name, or for the expensiveness of vestments. First and foremost, they’re likely checking the condition. And not condition in terms of newness, but in terms of maintenance.
There are two basic explanations for clothing. The first is one of function. A post on the Social Evolution Forum describes pants as a technological adaptation, an important weapon in the arsenals of both the cavalry who unified China and the soldiers securing the Roman Empire. My shoes have their functional value; they protect my feet from the wicked thorns and swarms of insects on the ground. Dirty shoes, however, protect as well as shiny ones.
In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam takes a bite of forbidden fruit, and acquires a sense of shame. He has gained the ability to perceive himself through the eyes of others. Shocked, he uses clothing as shield, concealing his naked body from others’ gazes. A passing observer might attribute furious shoe polishing to a similar sense of shame, less corporeal and more economic.
But the shoeshine isn’t an obstruction. It doesn’t conceal the worn condition of a shoe. Shoe shining is, rather, a prideful declaration.
The Sisyphean nature of shoe maintenance isn’t incidental to the value ascribed to the shine. It is the ultimate hopelessness of the task that gives such profound, if ephemeral respect accorded to the buff.
There is some analogy to be found in shaving. With pale skin and dark hair, I have to shave every morning before heading off to work. Even as I pat on after-shave, running my hand across a smooth cheek, I know my victory is temporary. Stubble, entropic, begins retaking ground the moment the razor is removed. My clean-shaven face represents personal upkeep, and a vague sense of professionalism.
The polished shoe is prey to the same entropic force. But its upkeep has an additional significance. People discuss dirt roads in symbolic terms. The well-developed tar road passes by, outside the village. The village paths are left unpaved. No mystery in the significance.
Many problems are beyond individual capacity. Some problems, like steady water supply, are intractable. Paving roads require municipal resources and technology. Community and political initiatives are at work, but for tomorrow, people are left walking along dirt paths.
Underdeveloped conditions are beyond immediate control, but conditions need neither define nor limit dignity. During my schools’ morning assemblies, I’ve seen students with shoes so worn that the front part of the shoe has become detached from the sole — but the shoe is polished.
Bring what you will, unpaved paths. For at least a few minutes, you can track my stride as my shoes flash in the sun.