Before strip malls and e-commerce made shoe shopping mundane, one fast-talking, chain-smoking, small-town salesman elevated footwear hustling to an art form.
Too many years ago, my father owned a hole-in-the-wall store called Townley Shoes in Cranford, New Jersey, a whistle-stop along the Erie Lackawanna train tracks in Union County. Working-class Cranford may have been flatlining at the time, but Townley was a shimmering, neon-swathed palace of platforms, penny loafers, wingtips, wedgies, saddles, slingbacks, sandals, sneakers, Mary Janes, ripple-soled bluchers, bucks (dirty and white) and steel-toe boots.
We carried a shoe lover’s feast of makes and models — Life Strides, Cobbies, Stride Rites, Buster Browns, Converse, Keds, PF Flyers, Miss Americas, French Shriners, Hush Puppies, Freemen, Walkovers, Red Wings, Welcos, Daniel Greens, Footjoy and Florsheims.
My father started out as chiropodist, an archaic name for what today is called podiatry, at a walk-up office in Orange, New Jersey. But when massaging bunions and shaving off corns and calluses wasn’t paying the bills, he opened his first shoe store in Brooklyn. After he got held up by a gunman one evening in the early 1960s, he moved all of his inventory west to Jersey.
In the early 1960s, long before malls began multiplying like rabbits, Townley’s customers were just beginning to defect to renegade discount stores like Thom McCann and Kinney Shoes. These highway chains were poison — at least to my father —because they could lowball the same shoes he carried. They bought in such large quantities they could undersell small merchants. They might have carried seconds — imperfect pairs with nicks, scuffed soles, faded uppers — but so did my father. At Townley, though, customers got serviced by a professional.
By the time I got on the scene, those cool X-ray machines (Pedoscopes or Foot-o-scopes) that had been popular since the 1920s, and showed your foot bones radioactively glowing, had all but been phased out. Still, every customer who walked into Townley had to stand in a black-and-silver foot-shaped Brannock device to “scientifically” determine foot length and width.
And handing a shoe to the customer? Are you kidding? That what the highway stores did. At Townley, you got a personal fitting, each shoe professionally slipped on with a shoehorn, and if it had laces, with a firm lace-up, a pat on both sides, and an invitation to take a “little walk” around the store.
Much to my hormone-charged teenage disappointment, Townley didn’t carry a single pair of stilettos, vinyl mules or white boudoir slippers (with or without ostrich feathers). My lot wasn’t to explore the outer limits of toe cleavage. Outside of cranking the awning down at noon and up at five p.m., I was usually assigned to the stockroom, shifting towering walls of shoeboxes to insert a box of 7½-B prom pumps next to a box of 7½-A’s.
“Get ’em off the floor!” was my father’s constant refrain. “Can’t sell ’em if you don’t know where they are!”
Business was always bad — except during Christmas season. That’s when my father hired a motley crew of salesmen, or shoedogs — from morbidly obese men who bit their fingernails to the quick, rail-thin racetrack junkies or itinerant Dexedrine freaks who freelanced their way down the Eastern Seaboard from Hartford to Baltimore.
Manny was an insomniac who complained constantly about his sacroiliac, varicose veins and switch-hitter knees. One day, he downed a bottle of aspirin and blacked out in the showroom, conked out cold for thirty minutes between the purse and sock racks. Two nine-year-old Boy Scouts circled Buddy’s limp body with a macabre fascination.
“Is he dead? Is he dead?” they kept asking.
Irv was a high school gym teacher who moonlighted after school. He used to talk my ear off about his glory days playing football at Rutgers. He was history when my father caught him giving away a pair of Keds to a shapely neighbor from Linden.
Harry adored Elvis. He had a perfect pompadour and kept it sharp with a black Ace comb while standing in front of the store’s full-length mirror. Harry’s days ended when my father caught him in the bathroom masturbating to a magazine with grainy black and white photos of muscled, tattooed sailors.
But of all the Townley shoedogs, the one I liked most was Murray, shoedog extraordinaire. Numero Uno. El Supremo. O Chefe de Pe Feminina. Master Shoedog Deluxe Murray. He was Townley’s finest — the greatest shoedog who lived in Northern Jersey. Hell, Murray was the greatest shoedog who lived in all of Jersey. He was the holy shaman of shoes, lord of the loafer, wizard of the wingtip.
Murray’s crowning achievement was selling a pair of heels to the actress Bette Davis. Not in Townley, but in some store on Broadway in New York. At least, that’s what Murray crowed to everyone. Everyone who’d listen, that is.
At five-feet, five-inches and no more than 130 pounds, Murray wasn’t much larger than Bette. When I first met him, he must have been pushing seventy-five, was bald with twin hearing aids and had a bum left arm. (He mumbled something about a World War I injury.) Still, he was able to balance teetering towers of shoeboxes in both hands like a juggler. With a perpetual Kent hanging from his mouth, he looked like an aged Montgomery Clift, wearing Sansabelt slacks, sheer-white Robert Hall shirts and gray Hush Puppies slip-ons.
Under Murray’s tutelage, I got an unexpurgated lesson in shoe lingo (and a lot more). Like all shoptalk, shoe code was essential. How else could two shoedogs talk without the customer figuring out what they were saying?
Customers were always called ups. Ups had to be handled just right, coddled and coaxed to lay down the green backs. Ups were gold.
C.U. was an up who came into the store and asked for a particular shoedog (translation: c meant see, u meant you).
Nowadays, everything comes in one width. But not at Townley.
In shoedog lingo, Alberts were A-widths, Bennies B’s, Charlies (pronounced CHA-lies) C’s, Davids D’s, and Eddies E’s. Jimmies were felt or cork liners that made big shoes feel smaller. Cookies were rubber arches for guys who were flatfooted. For some reason, thirty-three meant the same as a T.O., which stood for “turnover,” passing an up from one dog to another.
L.Y. meant “last year’s” stock, double L.Y. was stock two years old, triple L.Y. was stock from three seasons ago, and God-knows-how-many L.Y. were shoes out of Mamie Eisenhower’s closet. P.M.’s stood for “poor merchandise,” seconds, the dreck.
A D.I.S. (pronounced as three separate letters) was short for “discount,” usually fifteen percent off, given to nuns, priests, city aldermen, cops and firemen. An eighty-six or thirty-four was an up who walked out without buying. I’m unclear on the etymology of these two arcane numerical prompts. Too many of them and you were out of a job, bub. If you couldn’t sell her shoes, for God’s sake, push some Daniel Green slippers for the husband!
Engineers were ups who examined everything about a pair of the shoes: the stitching, the sole, the tongue. Sometimes, they’d even smell the shoes. They drove shoedogs nuts.
The fanaricater was a shoe stretcher, a wooden contraption that when inserted made shoes roomier. “Couple of minutes on this baby, and I could fit Bobo Brazil with a pair of size-six triple Albert peau-de-soie pumps,” Murray once told me.
I’m not sure what exactly Murray possessed that made him such a shoe magician. Maybe ups felt sorry for him. Or they looked at him as their grandfather. All I knew was this man could sell.
“My wife has a pair and she loves ’em!” he told working women. “And today only, they’re ten-percent off!”
“They make your foot look so small, and the style is so smart!” he told gigantic ladies as they munched ladyfingers from Eppler’s Bakery down the block. “And they’re on special!”
“I just opened up a new crate of these mid-sized heels. They’re the latest!” he told mothers. “And what a value!”
“Whadaya need, Mack?” Murray bellowed in his best blue-collar timbre to factory workers. “ ’nother pair of the usual? Biltrite soles, Cat’s Paw heels? They’ll last you a lifetime!”
That meant steel-tipped Red Wing boots that weighed in at five pounds each.
When children came into the store, if they had Alberts, Murray told them to eat mashed potatoes standing up. If they had triple-Eddies, Murray advised them to stand on their heads so the fat would ooze from their feet, down their legs, through their arms and out their fingertips.
Once a kid came in with his mother and Murray greeted him by pumping his hand so hard he almost pulled the little guy’s arm out of its socket.
“How ya doin’, how ya doin’, George.”
“My name’s not George.”
“Well, ya sure look like George. You sure ya not George?”
“My name’s Bobby.”
“You’re not Bobby! Bobby just left. Ya look just like my friend George!”
“My name’s Bobby.”
“O.K. Have it your way. Now, whadaya want George?”
If the Abbott and Costello shtick perplexed the kid, it did a number on the mother. And if she was youngish and had a figure, Murray sometimes played a game on her, too. After he wrapped up the kid, he’d talk the mother into trying on a pair of pumps.
“We’ve got some lovely new styles, ma’am. I know they’d look wonderful on ya,” he’d coo. “Don’t cost you nothing to try ’em on. Ya just relax.” It was hard to refuse the little man.
Then, just as he was slipping a pair on the woman, he’d slide his index finger on the fleshy soft underbelly of her foot and momentarily press a tiny spot under her arch. It happened too fast to protest. “Fits ya like a glove,” Murray would say as a kind of foreplay.
“This feels just right!”
“Slip it on!”
By now, the up would practically be moaning.
Murray had found the G-spot of feet. As the mother squirmed in Townley’s yellow vinyl chairs, doing everything in her power not to slide down onto Murray’s shriveled noodle, he’d be ready to wrap up the sale.
Murray has engineered a shoe-gasm.
“Gets ’em every time,” he told me nonchalantly, pulling on a Kent, fading in and out of view in a plume of azure smoke. “You put the right shoe on a woman and she becomes Miss America. You fit ’em with the glass slipper. After all, the foot is the window to the soul.”
It made no sense, but Murray had crafted a science out of selling shoes.
“You give ’em what they want, even though they don’t know what they want. All the while you’re so sincere, they start believin’ that’s what they really wanted in the first place.
Truth is, I, too, was putty in Murray hands. I hung on his every word.
“Name another job that gives you the right to touch a woman that ain’t your wife,” Murray told me, taking out another Kent and pulling on it. He’d appear and disappear with each puff of smoke, staring off into the radiator-heated cosmos, one skinny leg folded over the other, waiting for the eternal up.
We seldom were busy, but that just gave Murray more time.
“Gonna see a man about a horse,” was Murray’s way of saying he was about to go to the bathroom. To this day, I still don’t get who the man was and why he was representing a horse.
When Murray and I did inventory — the scourge of all shoedogs — he’d bark out lengths and widths with machine-gun precision while I wrote down what was on the shelves.
“Thirty!” he’d say, moving from one completed style to another.
“End it!” signaling to me that he’d finished one line of shoes before going onto another.
“Wilson?” I asked.
“He’s dead, ain’t he?”
Taking inventory from Murray was not for the faint of heart. He’d be high on a ladder reading off what shoes we had while I’d be writing down sizes and style numbers. I had a hard time keeping up. But that was the point.
“Albert two, Eddie seven go-to-heaven, ten double-down deuce David, quad Bennie, ten triple-treat Charlie — whoa, that’s a Big Mama! — David zip, Benny uno, dos Alberto, tray Bennie twelve, Eddie eighter from Decatur, straight down.”
He was on fire. “Ace Albert, do the David times two, over three, Bennie one, David again, scratch the first Bennie, Charlie times four, deuce spruce David, double-deuce Alberto, David four, tray-top Bennie, Charlie uno, David dos.”
When we’d finish, Murray would take a break and play the crossword puzzle from the Newark Star-Ledger. “Seven-letter word that begins with X. You know any seven-letter words that begin with X?”
For lunch, Murray and I went to Morganstern’s, a soda fountain around the corner. He’d order black coffee (three sugar cubes, extra cream) and a white-bread egg salad sandwich with the crusts cut off. Something about his dentures. I got grilled Velveeta and a cherry Coke.
Sitting at the grimy soda fountain counter, Murray had a captive audience. “Newark used to be wide open in the ’20s,” he went on one day. “My buddies and I used to go to burlesque shows on Broad Street, and once while I’m minding my own business, I swear to God on a stack of Bibles, this broad sits down next to me and writes her address on a matchbook and gives it to me.
“That night, amigo, Je-sus Christo!”
Murray took another bite, set down his sandwich and held out his right hand. With one finger at a time, he ticked off names. “I remember Rosie,” up went his thumb. “Emma,” he counted with his index finger. Then “Lilly, Mildred and Doris,” sticking out his middle and ring fingers, then his pinky.
“But Eva, she was somethin’ else,” Murray said, gazing up at the wainscoting on Morganstern’s yellowed ceiling. “They called her Eva because she was like Eva Perón. Grab you by the belt buckle, pull you into the stockroom between the Bass Weejuns and the Red Cross lace-ups, and it was to the Moon, baby!”
“You expect me to believe any of this, Murray?” I said, hoping it was all true.
He waved me off. “I used to pick her up at the stage door, then stop by the Drift Inn. Federico would be there, ready with the set-ups. Then it was back to my place.
“Caliente, moo-ey caliente.”
“I see you picked up a little Spanish,” I said.
“The language ain’t important. You ain’t doing much talking, kid.”
Murray paused, savoring either the memory or the last of his egg salad.
“A little service, barkeep! A refill for my friend and me! Chop! Chop!”
Claudia Morgenstern, herself pushing eighty, looked like she was going to smack Murray. She put down the Ledger, rose from her stool at the end of the counter, complaining about her arthritis and rheumatism — and under her breath, Murray.
She lumbered over to us, poured Murray coffee and squirted some cherry syrup into my Coke.
Murray lit another Kent. He defied the laws of physics. He was able to keep the smoke in his lungs for minutes on end, talking and gesturing all the while. Where’d the smoke go? He belonged on Coney Island with the sword-swallowing lady.
“You meet this woman, Ava, and you end up in bed with her? Just like that?”
“Ava? Who’s Ava?”
“The Perón woman, in the stockroom, the to-the-moon girl.”
“Eva! Don’t get ’em mixed up. And ‘this woman’ hardly does justice to her,” he said, exhaling finally. “Eva was an ar-tiste.”
Murray’s bum arm started twitching.
“She used to dance behind these fans of hers,” he said, moving his hands in opposite circles in front of his chest, his cigarette dangling from his mouth. “She’d wear a tight little two-piece number. Easy on, easy off.”
With that, Claudia had had enough. She rolled up her Ledger into a bat and came after us.
“You dirty, old man! Get the hell outta here!”
Murray and I giggled all the way back to Townley.
As we walked in, my father glanced at his Longines watch. “You guys forget we got a business to run? Look at all the goddamn shoes on the floor. Can’t sell ’em if you don’t know where they are!”
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
We disappeared to the stockroom to size up galoshes and rubbers.
That Christmas the big sellers were Daniel Green scuffs for men and those god-awful furry slippers for girls. They looked like either cotton candy or dead wolverines dyed pink.
The Christmas season went better than expected. One afternoon, we got so busy that my father let me try my hand at a couple of ups. They bought from me, too, a pair of black wing tips, two pairs of Jack Purcells and an L.Y. pair of Florsheim cordovan bluchers. I sold a young nurse a pair of 6½ double Alberts, but when it came to pressing her G-spot, I passed.
On the night of December 24, my father gave out Christmas bonuses to the help, meaning Murray and me. He put some crisp bills in an envelope and sent us on our way.
I opened mine. Twenty bucks — pretty great for a fourteen-year-old. I was elated.
Murray opened his. Two Jacksons.
I glanced over at Murray and saw his eyes widen. This was a shot to the little man’s solar plexus. Murray had worked from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Forty bucks wouldn’t buy him a month’s worth of Kents the way he swallowed smoke.
Murray walked back to the stockroom. I heard the snap of his Zippo lighter. Blue smoke wafted to the showroom.
“Pop, you gotta give Murray more,” I whispered.
“Stay out of this,” he said, writing out the day’s bank deposit ticket.
I flipped through a French Shriner catalogue. Lots of shiny, grown-up men’s shoes with buckles and tassels that I could never imagine wearing.
Nothing happened for another ten minutes as I ran my fingers over the glossy pages. There was an eerie silence in the store as motorists honked their horns and shouted to each other in a mad dash to get home for Christmas Eve dinner.
Finally, Murray sauntered into the showroom.
This was the moment of truth. Or so I hoped.
Murray looked up my father. There was no telling what he’d do.
“Thanks so much!” Murray boomed.
This was Murray, the man who caressed Bette Davis’s gams in the morning and squired Eva at night. The dude who could administer shoe-gasms to any woman who’d allow it.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
Murray walked to the front of the store and looked out through the plate-glass door and pulsating neon sign in front. He lit a Kent.
Within seconds, he had disappeared in a vapor of smoke.