G TIMOTHY GORDAN
I was still a newbie graduate student when I moved into a rent-controlled walkup in a messy neighborhood off 63rd and Parkway grandfathered to me by a second cousin’s phlegmatic brother who I once dated, briefly. It was close by the El and Blind Faith Natural Foods, the University library, the petite, once pristine, square that now passed for a park buttressing our district where only old men and young boys played chess and checkers into the early evenings before second-tier gang members took over to sell their wares, and prospective, socio-economically deprived clients I counseled during my in-service practicum field training. The middle-aged, single, and seemingly semi-professional man who lived above me on the top floor had to rent both small flats in order to get the rent-control, too. Still, it was a good deal, with the rent control, and comparative privacy. He always wore a nice pair of shoes, cordovan wingtips or narrow, black Italiano ersatz Florsheims he kept scrupulously clean.
In the late evenings I could hear him working the cloth patiently and gently like a strop-cum-chamois across the tanned leathers, back and forth, back and forth, sometimes on especially great nights for hours, making them warm and glow under the touch of the cloth, now stained a rich and vibrant tincture of browns and blacks and burgundies and tans and cordovans, adding a textured luster to the solid-toned shoes. Every now-and-then he snapped the magic rag with loving little flourishes that only raised more luster to the surface. He worked inside the little crevices and grouts on the toe of the cordovans, detailing them with a nail file thrust up into the cloth with his pinkie, then switching to a long, vertical brush to clean out and dispose of the excess grime before wiping off. It was nightly work.
When I saw him unexpectedly on the stairs once on a late and drizzly city afternoon a year later he nodded and smiled a hello and I was momentarily caught off-guard. This was at the start of my second-year when I nervously hoped to complete my thesis and was booking it and writing late into the early mornings. I wished to God I had looked better. He was about what I pictured from the shoes, slim and petite, maybe 5’9” with a stiletto-Pete mustache scissored neatly to his wafer-thin upper lip and thinning, close-cropped, preppy-butch, blue-black hair parted neatly, high on the side, early Clooneyish. I could tell he mostly blow-dried off. Thin lips had just about been out ever since Jagger prominently displayed his rubbers on album covers that sort of kissed-off the ‘50s and kicked-in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Sometimes on early warm spring evenings I saw a seersucker jacket flash by, so maybe he had dates with coworkers.
When the running and fitness thing first hit big, he appeared out-of-the-blue one late spring evening in a pair of white adidas tennies. I guess he had put on weight. Evidently, he was taking up the game at the public courts over by what I mockingly christened the Lower Depths. He must also have begun to run the small park course extending from 33rd to the semi-nude statues by the public fountains and back, at least a good four, four-and-a-half, miles each way. His hair dripped with sweat now that he had grown it out, or added a clever Diana Ross piece, not ‘60s crazy, not Def Leppard mullets or a Simon LeBon overly-moussed shag, but small, early Rick James jheri-curls permed into neat, tight rings that maybe indicated he had taken a different job which allowed for small makeovers and a looser look. While he piled more hair on top, the stiletto lip-fuzz was excised and replaced by a tiny vertical soulpatch under the lower lip. It was a pre-millennium look. This was even before they had become really hot with younger guys to complement exotic bodily piercings.
He still kept up the everyday shoe polishing because, after all, he couldn’t very well waltz into work in sneaks, no matter how lax incipient ‘80s company policies had become. The nightly ritual still continued, the pre-coatings of Executive Imperial Carnauba (no Kiwi need apply), then the makeshift mottled strop gently layered over the fronts and backs, the heavy saturation deep into the matrix of the leathers, and finally the big brush for the hard-to-reach near-back and backsides you couldn’t see. He never neglected the backs of his shoes. He usually placed a small mirror on the floor for this step so he could control the buff and watch the shine reappear almost magically after a hard day’s pounding on the city streets and Els and probably ins-and-outs of scruffy subway cars.
The only real time we ever really talked was when I literally ran into him shortly before June graduation coming into the downstairs vestibule by the mailboxes. I looked a mess. I was still under the spell of a very late ‘60s/’70s thing (foregoing, now, heavier drugs and ‘ludes), wearing no makeup, which might have helped accentuate my thin lips and high cheekbones and snippet of a cleft chin, forgetting to braid my long, straight, uncombed and unwashed hair, actually de-curled (fried, processed, blacks once called it), flopping about in a pair of ratty Birkenstocks with a loose strap, baggy thrift store denim cutoffs that couldn’t mask my hairy, unshaven legs, and loose tank-top that, when I reached up to open my box, displayed womanly European underarms, not the stuff any American male dreams are made of.
You’re right below me, aren’t you? He reached high for his mailbox, his hand just above mine.
I couldn’t speak. And so I just nodded.
I sometimes hear your stereo. Lots of old sounds. Still, it’s like nothing else in the world, is it? Retro Airplane? Zepplin? “And I’m climb-iing the stairr-waay, tooo— heavv-uun,” he crooned madly.
I groped for words but stayed tongue-tied. “Control,” I tensed. “Total control over you.”
He might have smiled, but I kept looking at his shoes to check for defects after today’s worldly beating.
You’ve got really nice shoes, I offered blindly. I think I like these Cords even better than the black Venetians.
He looked at me the way someone might not be expected to to a prospective degreed psychiatric social worker. Summa cum. With honors.
The cords were in fairly good shape, still exuding a slight residue of last night’s high polish and buff, a patch of frayed leather, here-and-there (to be expected), but worn a little unevenly in the heels. That didn’t do it at all for me. I figured a ¼” supreme rubber or breathing-leather Cat’s-Paw adjustment would do the trick. I couldn’t tell anything about the soles.
Thanks, he said. They have their place, sure, but for comfort these babies (he pointed to the box under his arm which read New Balance Signatures) are the right stuff for longer commutes. He smiled and gestured his arms back and forth as though talking to a foreigner. I really like the colors. Fresh, I mumbled off-key. Loud butterfly blues, magentas, and yellow pinstriping, aka “piping,” gleamed from off the NBS box.
I didn’t, of course. Too grounded. I had clients to see in the morning, too. He had to be off to his job. I needed to graduate. Go out into the world. Meet new and interesting people. Earn money. Establish a small counseling practice. Discard the flats and huaraches for heels. Shave-off what was left of ’60s me. Gone totally Martha Davis ‘80s.
I looked at the New Balance box of sneaks. Maybe take up jogging. Maybe even run in competitive races, later. Firm up the love-hooks, lose the weight packed on through years of sedentary schooling and poor nutrition. I was still inhaling the leather filling and filling my nostrils. All my cilia attentive, on edge, vibrating. “I’d sell my soul for/Total control” indeed.
Well, he broke in, grabbing his mail and tightening his grip on the New Balance box, I’ve got a long haul and then some serious business to take care of tonight, upstairs.
EVERYTHING SPEAKING CHINESE, recipient of Riverstone Poetry P Competition, and GROUND OF THIS BLUE EARTH (Mellen) are in print, NIGHT COMPANY nominated for NEA Western States' Book Awards and several poems nominated for Pushcarts, while FROM FALLING and UNDER ARIES will be published in 2010 and 2011. Work may be found in AGNI; AMERICAN LITERARY R; BIRMINGHAM POETRY R; CINCINNATI R; EVANSVILLE R; LOUISVILLE R; MISSISSIPPI R; NEW YORK Q; PHOEBE; SONORA R; SALZBURG POETRY R,SOUTH FLORIDA LITERARY ANNUAL; THE ART OF BICYLING (anthology); & TEXAS POETRY R. Current fiction and poetry currently appear in THE ART OF BICYCLING(anthology); CONCHO RIVER R; DIMSUM: ASIA’S LITERARY JOURNAL (HK); DOS PASSOS R; SEA STORIES; PITTSBURGH Q; and PRESENCE: INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION.