This essay was written in 2001, a few days after visiting my daughter in New York and walking down to view the destruction of 9/11.
Shoes of 9/11
by Billie Kelpin Pagliolo Olmon
I never understood why my mother would sing it to me night after night--the song about the shoes. I don't think she really understood why herself. I must have been only four or five. "But, honey, if it makes you cry...." "No, Mommy, please, just one more time." And she'd lean on her elbow against a propped up pillow and watch me as she sang, "Come now mother bathe my forehead, for I'm growing very weak," The little boy in the song was dying. "Give my toys to all my playmates, but put my little shoes away." For more than 50 years I've wondered about that song, where it came from, why my mother would have sung it to a four-year-old, and why a four-year-old would have wanted to hear it. It was one of those quirky kinds of family mysteries a person wants to solve. "Soon the baby will be larger and they'll fit his tiny feet. Won't he look so handsome mother as he marches down the street? You will do this mother, won't you...put my little shoes away? Give my toys to all my playmates, but put my little shoes away."
I didn't think about this song on the day that I bought the white tennis shoes in November in New York in 2001. My feet had been aching from the high-heeled black boots I had worn so my daughter would be proud of me as I visited her in Manhattan. It was the Thanksgiving weekend. She was just about to leave on Broadway tour of "Mamma Mia", and was doing what all actresses do between gigs--working some short-term job, this time selling tutu's at a pre-Christmas shopping boutique in Grand Central Station. There was time to kill while she worked, so I took the 4 train by myself down to Fulton Street and started walking. I stopped off at a drug store along the way to buy some film, although I felt guilty for the purchase. It seemed inappropriate to want to take pictures of whatever it was I was about to see, but I purchased the film anyway. I continued walking down to Battery Park. I had expected the indescribable plastic-metallic smell in the air, I had heard about that aspect in the news. But I didn't expect the silence. Walking the streets near Ground Zero felt like I was walking inside of a painting - the kind of feeling you get when watching something like Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George."
I didn't want to ask where to go; it felt sacrilegious. So I just turned right because it seemed to be the direction I should follow for my intended purpose. A middle-aged man with a camera slung over his shoulders crossed the street a half a block in front of me. He was walking quite purposely and a teenage boy, who I assumed was his son, followed behind him as if being pulled reluctantly along by an invisible rope. The man knew where he was going and I followed a few feet behind the boy. The three of us now wove in and out of zig-zag alleyways until we became part of a line of others walking single file next to a street open to massive pipes that ran underground. I knew I was going in the right direction.
By this time, my high-heeled black boots felt like vices tightening around the bones of my feet; I was sorry the aching was distracting me from the reason I had come. Still, I was able to take notice of the buildings standing tall and straight and unharmed, and it seemed strange that that they should be doing so. I had never walked around this area on other trips to New York and I was surprised to find a clothing store amid the office and bank buildings. It was one of those cheap basement type of a store, and it felt in-congruent it should be here near Wall Street and almost surrealistic that it should be open - as if nothing had happened. I walked in, hoping to find something that would take the ache away. There wasn't much on the shoe shelves actually--one pair of this, one pair of that-- one of a style in various sizes. I was wishing there would be some kind of comfortable tennis shoe--perhaps even in white, my favorite in a sneaker. "Why would there be any here?" I thought. "It's November and well past the tennis shoe season and long before spring." And then I saw them--one pair of tennis shoes-only one --white...and in my size. They were made of cheap vinyl but had a unique zipper opening so they might pass as not so bargain basement-y. They were amazingly comfortable when I tried them on, and for $11.99, I would take them. The clerk let me throw my boots in a bag and rang up the shoes. I didn't know what to say to her--about the attack. I asked her if she had been working that day and she looked at me, almost insolently I thought, and then answered with a curtness I sensed came from "tourist" overload, "Of course."
I sputtered in response, "I can't imagine what it must have been like," and was surprised that I could feel tears starting to well up in my eyes. She must have noticed, for her gaze softened, and she muttered a barely audible and reluctantly obliging "Happy Thanksgiving" as I left the store.
I walked out of the store and into the still silent group of people passing on the sidewalk. Everyone was looking towards the left, and they filled up the middle of the street. Without words, or direction, they knew what to do and I followed them. I made my way up to the yellow barricade and when a man in front of me turned to leave, I filled his place as if we were exchanging places to view a coffin at a wake. There were probably two people standing to my right; I paid little notice. I snapped a picture of the jagged shell, paused in silence, and then let the person I knew was behind me take my place. It seemed wrong to linger longer for a better shot. I opted to just quickly take a picture of the National Guardsman and policeman standing together - just because - and walked back to the 4 train in my new shoes.
I was glad for the shoes on my trip home to Minnesota. Security had been tightened at the airports and the shoes were serving me well as I stood in line with two hundred other people waiting to board flights out of Newark. I didn't think much about the shoes when I got back home; I wore them to work on casual day and around the house. I know I was wearing them the evening I walked in the living room where the TV was on. It was another interview of another New York fireman still working after so many weeks amid the rubble of the WorldTradeCenter. The interviewer asked him if the task was wearing on him and he responded, "Yes." I stood in front of the TV and watched as he added, "It's the little things that get to you...finding a pair of women's high heeled shoes..."
I don't know how many days passed before I thought of them together--my mother's song, my new shoes, the fireman's comments. It was my need to make them come together that let the arbitrary take on meaning. Humankind is interesting in that respect. Inanimate objects become symbols and the symbols take on power and the power overcomes powerlessness. For years I had tried to analyze what had motivated my mother to sing "Put My Little Shoes Away" to me at such a young age. But sometimes when reasons are elusive and the puzzle has no solution, our minds, craving logical explanation, create our own reasons. I decided on the meaning that I now wanted to attach to this song that had so long been in my psyche; I decided on the meaning I needed to attach to my New York shoes. "What if," I thought, "I would look at the shoes, not from the perspective of the dying child of that old Woody Guthrie song, but from the perspective of the child's brother who would eventually receive the shoes?" It wasn't a far stretch to imagine. Suppose a woman very much like me, (a sister in the world, so to speak) had been given a few more hours on 9/11. She might have walked the short distance from the World Trade Center to that basement shoe store during her lunch hour. Perhaps her feet would have been aching from her high-heeled shoes, and perhaps, like me, she would pick the cheap white vinyl shoes to wear back to the office for the same reasons I picked them. I chose to imagine that these were her shoes, and that they were given to me to wear them for her. I wanted to feel obligated to the shoes and to her simply because I am here - and she is not. The shoes would now become a symbol to me. They would be a tangible reminder of Walt Whitman's answer to the question of why we are here "...that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."
We live by symbols and we die for symbols. Year after year, as we re-live the dissonant, cacophonous, and asymmetrical chaos of 9/11, it gives me a sense of symmetry to imagine that the song my mother sang, my New York shoes, and a soul unknown to me, might all be connected. I need the symbol of the shoes, and I need the memory of that unknown woman to shake me out of complacency and push me back onto the stage where the powerful play goes on and where I make an attempt, no matter how humble, to contribute a verse.