Today marks 60 years since the Dream March on Washington, DC, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
While that march was focused on race relations, he later added poverty and the Vietnam War to his campaign despite great misgivings by associates and advisers, who didn’t want him to deflect his charisma and oratory from racism. Being the prophet he was, he saw how race, war, and poverty were interrelated and was ready to lose many followers and supporters, especially well-meaning, middle-class, white liberals who agreed with him about racism but didn’t want him to question the basic underpinnings of our capitalist society. He also lost the support of Lyndon Johnson.
Where was I 60 years ago? What was I doing? Surviving teenage years, which were pretty fraught in my case. Maybe fraught in every case. Wish I’d been in Washington then. Wish I’d been open enough and less self-concerned, less self-obsessed, to see the enormous possibilities of that moment. To see not just the future beckoning but becoming part of that future, part of the movement.
I wasn’t married at the time, didn’t have children or a job. I had school, a family, no friends, and a high quotient of self-involvement. Maybe not much differently from other kids my age. Dreamed of records, books, clothes, boys.
Years later, the next generation would ask me enviously about the 1960s: OMG, you were there, what was it like? What did you do? Not much, I’d tell them, though I did smoke some pot and spent a little time in Washington Square Park. Went to Central Park the day after King was murdered along with thousands of others. Otherwise, very little. Surviving my family, I’d think to myself, not saying this out loud.
To this day I bear witness to how my mind can once again become self-absorbed, indulge in new versions of the same old familiar mental dramas. The pull of some urgent need to protect myself from something, anything. The pull of ancient feelings of inadequacy and fear.
The writer Rebecca Solnit remembered what it was to want things when she was younger and without much money: I eyed things and was spurred and pricked and bothered by the promise things make, that this pair of boots or that shirt will make you who you need or want to be, that what is incomplete in you is a hole that can be stuffed with stuff, that the things you have are eclipsed by the things you want, that wanting can be cured by having.
Reading those words, I remembered one of the great loves of my life: Ferragamo shoes. I wasn’t living hand-to-mouth in those New York City days, managed to cover a studio apartment’s rent and groceries, maybe kept $500 in the bank, no more than that. And one day I read some fancy man saying that the way you can tell if a woman is truly well-dressed is not from her clothes but from her shoes. Does she wear good, expensive shoes? If she does, then she’s not only stylish, she inhabits style.
My clothes came from the Salvation Army and, walking all over Manhattan like so many of my friends, I never worried much about shoes (though I refused to wear the sneakers that are ubiquitous on NYC streets). Soon, I became obsessed with Ferragamo shoes. They epitomized money and elegance. A woman who wore Ferragamo shoes knew what she was about. A woman who wore Ferragamo shoes could conquer the world.
I started looking for them—on sale, of course. I bought a pair of beige pumps in the 5th Avenue Ferragamo store for $150, my all-time most expensive shoes, nothing else even close to this very day. This was in the early 1980s; 40 years later, equivalent Ferragamos are well over a thousand dollars.
But one pair wasn’t enough. At Saks Fifth Avenue I found 2 pairs, each for under $100, including a pretty pair of red pumps that were a size too small (the sale didn’t extend to a bigger size). I bought them anyway. The other pair was sandals.
I was sure they had everything I needed that I didn’t have. They would help me make the right impression. They would make me beautiful, sophisticated, fully in my skin. Instead, I limped around in those too-small red shoes to the office and onto subways, each evening thankfully taking them off and massaging my hurting toes. I did that for a few weeks till I finally gave them away.
The top-of-the-line beige pumps lasted me for several years and were very comfortable. I have no memory of what happened to the sandals.
But, as Solnit wrote, there was a hole there that wanted to be stuffed, and I looked to things to stuff it. Not friends, not family, not enlightenment, not vows, not the good of all beings, but things. Specifically, Ferragamo shoes.
That’s been over for a long time, thankfully. Now I know that the less drama inside, the more I can focus outside. The less-gnawing, consuming self-doubt, the less I worry about shoes (except to make sure they’re comfortable and that they match).
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