Archive | September, 2018

The Shoe Salesman as Relic

27 Sep

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He is thin, well postured and wears a fine suit and silk tie. His shoes, of course, are high quality. They are shined.

 

He is the Shoe Salesman, a man from another era. Proud, maybe arrogant, certainly fussy about footwear, he treats you, his customer, with respect and wants you to walk away in style and comfort.

 

You are seated when the Shoe Salesman approaches. He is polite and professional. You notice he moves well. There is some discussion about what you need and want. He makes suggestions and you tend to agree with him.

 

Now he must measure your feet.

shoe measuring device

The Shoe Salesman pulls up a specially designed bench that allows him to sit and you to put a foot up so he can place a shoe on it. But that comes a little later, after the measurement, which is done using a device that looks as if it belongs in his hands. He can move it about easily, flipping it to measure either your right or left foot.

 

On his request, you stand for the measurement. He moves the calibrators, touches your big toe, presses the foot flat and – regardless of what size you see on the device – tells you what size you should wear.

Eatons Shoe Salesman Chair 1970 1

Using the information from your earlier discussion with the Shoe Salesman, he goes into the back to get your shoes. A moment later he returns with three or four boxes. There are different styles and even different sizes, just in case his measurement is off.

 

The Shoe Salesman puts down all but one box. He holds it in his left hand, gracefully removes the lid and secures it underneath the box. There is a “fliff, fliff” sound as the Shoe Salesman deftly pushes aside the two pieces of tissue covering the shoes. You notice how good the shoes look.

 

He sits on his bench and takes one shoe from the open box. Then, in a move that would humble a magician, the Shoe Salesman produces a silvery shoehorn from somewhere. You are not certain from where. He manipulates the shoehorn and the shoe glides silently onto your foot with minimal friction.

 

The Shoe Salesman ties the laces like you never could. He repeats all this for the second shoe and asks you to stand. With your foot inside the shoe, he uses his thumb and forefinger to squeeze the tip of the shoe. This is to judge the distance, if any, from the top of your big toe to the leather in front. The Shoe Salesman decides if it’s enough.

 

He asks you to walk, which you do. He watches you closely. He asks questions.

 

You try on another pair or two and, upon the recommendation of the Shoe Salesman, make a decision. He expresses delight at your choice and while boxing up the shoes asks if you need socks. You say no, and then a point of importance is mentioned: Do you need shoe trees?

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Cedar shoe trees: $25

The shoe trees, he explains, are vital to the care and life of shoes. They allow the shoes to hold their shape and help to disperse odor. They come in plastic, but those are not recommended. You should only buy cedar, the Shoe Salesman advises, even if they are expensive.

 

With a degree of embarrassment, you decline the shoe trees. There is a look of disappointment on the face of the Shoe Salesman. This detracts from the near joy of the shoe purchasing experience. Something in you wants to make the Shoe Salesman happy, and you seemed to have failed at that.

 

But the Shoe Salesman rallies and the transaction finishes in upbeat fashion. There is a request that you visit again soon.

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A pair of $2,000 shoes

 

The Shoe Salesman may still exist at fine men stores where shoes sell for the price of a good suit. There was a time, however, when they were found in main street establishments and in family department stores like Sears.

 

It takes dignity, a reasonable salary and longevity to produce the kind of service described here. It is unfortunate these things were severed from shoe sales decades ago. So today, we are accustomed to what would have been an unacceptable horror in 1960: We must try on our own shoes and judge for ourselves whether or not they fit. In the entire shoe department, it may be impossible to find anything even resembling a rudimentary shoehorn.

 

Like in restaurants where we must serve and clean up after ourselves, we are pretty much on our own in the shoe department.

 

This is the American economy, a place sucked dry of everything deemed unessential. Remarkably, without someone trying to sell you shoes, the shoes manage to get sold. This is the miracle of our time. In a society where labor is horribly undervalued and skills like those of the Shoe Salesman will never be properly rewarded, the American public has been trained to supply free labor that previously was paid for.

 

How did this happen? Damned if I know. Perhaps it’s the results of global markets and the ability of foreign people with lower living standards to produce things once produced by those in countries with higher standards of living.

 

But I think it’s also related to the predatory nature of our society championed by corporations that want to keep an increasingly larger portion of their revenue. They succeed at this in the absence of any morality requiring a more even distribution of wealth, and with no market forces pushing up wages.

 

When Henry Ford needed to ramp up production on his new assembly line in order to meet the swelling demand for his cars, he famously boosted wages to $5 a day, an unheard of rate. Slyly, that rate was enough so all his employees could afford cars.

 

Today there are legions of undervalued workers, many at multi-billion dollar companies such as Walmart and Amazon, who cannot afford an automobile. As long as cars and other American products are purchased by consumers in the global market, this presumably doesn’t matter. It does, however, create instability, conflict and adds stress to government.

A Snug Fit

A shoe salesman attends to a customer in 1955

 

 

I say this not because I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal. I say this not because I want to penalize private enterprise. Rather, I say this because I am a person who once enjoyed purchasing a pair of men’s shoes and would like very much to someday enjoy that experience again.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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A Modest Place of Distinction Continues to Survive

26 Sep
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Near Broad and Wolf

 

Circumstances brought me to South Philadelphia this week.

 

For those unfamiliar with this legendary locale, it is a crowded little sub-town of look-alike row homes. South Philly probably is best known as the birthplace of the Philly Cheesesteak and as the home of 50s teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.

 

Traditionally, it is considered an Italian neighborhood, and although it has had its ups and down, with people moving in and people moving out, it remains intact. Its vibrancy is illustrated by the thriving Italian market that has been in existence since the early 1900s. In the movies, Rocky runs through it as part of his training.

 

The area is broken up into many neighborhoods. I was at Wolf and Broad streets, a humble section without landmarks. One day at around 1:30, I decided to find a restaurant for lunch. I knew the big name South Philly restaurants were elsewhere, but whatever place I chose had to meet at least baseline standards in order to exist here.

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The Italian Market

 

I came upon a small corner joint named Johnnie’s at 12th and Wolf. My plan was to takeout, a good idea since the place was empty save for a waitress sitting at a table. Didn’t matter. Johnnie’s was clean and decorated with wine bottles, plastic flowers and garland. There were several religious icons, including a statue of the Sacred Heart, which is Jesus exposing his bulging heart through an open robe.

 

I ordered some pasta and sandwiches, including a Cheesesteak with sauce and onions.

 

“Sauce?” the waitress said with a puzzled face.

 

“Yes, sauce and onions.”

 

“You mean red gravy?” she asked.

 

“Yes, red gravy,” I said, remembering where I was.

 

After she put in my order we chatted. Having walked down Wolf Street, I noticed a good number of the 3-story homes had been gentrified, with beautiful wooden doors and fancy nameplates displaying address numbers. I hadn’t been in one of these homes for decades, but I recollect at least two common interior features. First, all couches and chairs were protected with clear plastic slipcovers. Second, one interior wall – the whole thing — was faced with mirrors to give the narrow homes a feeling of depth. The mirrors may still be there. I’m guessing the plastic slip covers are gone.

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Singer Fabian Forte, from South Philly

“How’s the neighborhood doing?” I asked the waitress.

 

“Well,” she said, “I’m not from here. I’m from the other side of Broad Street (three blocks away). But I’d say it’s doing OK. Things have picked up. For a while, I was thinking about moving. Not now. It’s pretty good.”

 

South Philly has been targeted by an army of millennials looking for a small town feel in the big city. They have made South Philly one of the hottest Philadelphia neighborhoods for rentals.

 

“What do these homes sell for?” I asked. “A good one, not a great one.”

 

She thought about it. “Maybe the low 300s. That’s what they go for on my street. Maybe the high or mid-200s.”

 

“It’s nice when a neighborhood comes back,” I said, thinking about the Chambersburg section of Trenton, which has not come back.

 

Trenton, New Jersey, was where my father was born. Our family lived there for a few years. I think we moved out when I was seven. We didn’t live in Chambersburg, but as children we’d hear talk about this very ethnic Italian neighborhood. Occasionally we’d eat at a restaurant there, but mostly we bought bread and pastries from its bakeries.

 

As an adult, while living in suburban Philadelphia, I joined my father’s Trenton-based lodge, The Roman Society. In its day it was a remarkably successful organization, and I’ve written about it here. Without repeating too much, I’ll just say the lodge owned a beautiful restaurant and banquet facility called the Roman Hall. It outlived its usefulness after the unmistakable truth became known: Chambersburg was no longer and never again would be Italian. Also, walking the streets was getting dangerous.

 

No surprise. The restaurant went under.

 

An entrepreneur wanted to turn the place into an Hispanic-style nightclub. He asked that the lodge to hold the mortgage, which it did, and our signs were taken down. For me, this was like Rome falling all over again.

 

But back to the better-fated South Philly.

 

Not far from Johnnies, a young man I know (non-Italian) lives happily with his new wife in a South Philly row home. The couple, both of whom work in Center City, got married at an old but stately South Philly high school that had been converted in a bar/banquet hall. It’s a large, slightly Greek-style building on a small, cramped side street. Hardly any parking. I’m told the wedding attendees stayed at a riverfront hotel and Ubered over.

 

South Philadelphia is an indication that things can change for the better. The defining question is how much better and for how much longer. Either way, I hope Johnnies’ dinner trade is better than its lunch trade. It’s not Dante and Luigi’s or Ralph’s or Marra’s, but it’s a nice place for quick, simple food. If you, like I, are near 12th and Wolf due to circumstances, I can recommend it. Be sure to remember it’s “red gravy,” not sauce.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Acting like you’re famous and wishing you were: The Million Dollar Quartet

3 Sep
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Actor/musicians (from left) Brandyn Day as Jerry Lee Lewis, John Michael Presney as Carl Perkins, Ari McKay Wilford as Elvis Presley and Sky Seals as Johnny Cash

If you’ve been to a minor league baseball game, you know it’s tame fun with a hint of sadness. What’s sad is that many of the wildly ambitious and talented players will never hear the roar of a real crowd or get the glory that accompanies fame.

For me, the experience is similar to seeing a Broadway show at a regional theater. The one difference is that on good nights the actors at a regional theater do hear the roar, a sound satisfying beyond money. Still, after the curtain falls, you’re in a bar wearing street clothes and looking normal and someone asks what you do for a living and you’re afraid they’ll laugh if you say you are currently performing on stage as Elvis Presley.

At the Bucks County Playhouse this weekend in New Hope, Pennsylvania, I saw not only Elvis but actors portraying Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This 50s-era group of rock and roll royalty once came together by chance at a small recording studio called Sun Records. For a few brief hours on Dec. 4, 1956, they formed what came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

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That was the show I saw, “Million Dollar Quartet.” It was based on the recordings the four made under the guidance of legendary producer Sam Phillips. When I walked into the theater my first impression was that the set, a recreation of Sun Records, looked really good. Knowing little about what I was to see and hear, I was even more impressed when a Playhouse employee announced that all music would be live and performed by the actors on stage. Nothing had been prerecorded.

As I waited for the show to start, I assumed the audience would be kind but not overly enthusiastic, mainly because it was a very old audience. More than a few people had walkers and canes and I wasn’t feeling too good myself. When the music started playing – there are 22 numbers in the show – I was relieved that the reaction was, if not effusive, at least respectable.  The performances, however, were so good that younger people might have been up and hollering. Even so, I was confident the people who created the show were experts at pacing and that we weren’t supposed to really let go until the end. This turned out to be true.

A few points in general about the show, which continues thru September 29: Johnny Cash didn’t look much like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis came off too much like Harpo Marx, but as a regional show is was worth the ticket price. As one of those so-called jukebox musicals, songs dominated over plot. A minimal story line involved Sam Phillips’ struggle over whether to sell out to RCA; Johnny Cash’s worry about telling Sam he was leaving Sun for Columbia Records; and Carl Perkins’ anger at Elvis for recording his song, “Blue Suede Shoes.”

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From left, the real Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

In the end, everyone came together in mutual respect, understanding and friendship. This fresh harmony allowed the actors to finish in concert style with three strong numbers. Right before the concert, there was a touching bit that probably doesn’t sound touching if written about. Sam Phillips, the record producer, asks the four boys to pose for what he says will be an historic photo. They pose, Sam shoots, and the actual photo the real Sam Phillips took on Dec. 4, 1956 comes down from the ceiling. Everyone claps. Some tear up.

The concert consisted of  “Hound Dog” by Elvis, “Ghost Riders In the Sky” by Cash and “See You Later Alligator” by Perkins. These numbers were clearly full-tilt/high energy and the crowd, some with walker assists, finally got on its feet and went nuts. After “Alligator,” the boys proudly marched off stage and Sam Phillips urged us to demand an encore, which we already were doing.

The boys came back. They ripped it up and shook the house with Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Whole Lotta Shakin.” Sam Phillips, who so far had only dialogue and narration, coolly pulled out a harmonic and gave an incredible mouth organ solo.

It all ends, and we cheer loudly. This was the best part because you could see the actor/musicians break character, glance at each other in unexpected ways and silently say with expressions of delight and satisfaction, “Seems like we did pretty good tonight.”

The loving reception gave them hope that even if they are in the minors now, one day soon they could be called up.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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