When Philly told his niece about the Stride Rite x-ray machine she got that aha look in her eyes.
It was the rays, she said. That’s what chewed your voice.
Philly wasn’t so sure it was the rays or the machine or anything at the Stride Rite store that chewed his voice. But Ally was all bubbles about sharpening his footwear wardrobe, every time they met. She was a professional and used a professional term: she called it upgrading.
On his last trip east she dragged him into the Puma store and Nike Town and even the Prada store. Once when she came out on America West with a girlfriend she even dragged him off the strip into the cavernous Caesar’s mall, the one with the tourist hordes circling the Roman statues on steroids, and tried to put him in Campers. Those were the shoes that Philly thought looked like bad imitations of old-time sneakers.
The rays, huh, yes, well… you never know, do you. Philly said this in his eeriest gravel voice, his white-guy voice that was Louis Armstrong if you cut a deep gash in the Louis Armstrong record.
It was the voice he just woke up with one day, he said, too many years ago to count.
I guess I’m just a Florsheim guy, Philly said, I am what I am from the ground up.
Philly was a Florsheim guy as was his father before him. Wingtips and oxfords, blacks and oxbloods. Leather soles thick as planks and hard as sidewalks.
They look like bricks on your feet, Ally said. She looked so cute in her orange sneaks. Clydes, she said, though when he quizzed her she hadn’t a clue who the original Clyde was, or even what NBA team he used to play for.
Bricks on your feet isn’t such a bad idea, Philly said, and he was thinking hard about all the ground you cover just being you and what you could tell your niece and what you really shouldn’t.
So he kept to the subject of shoe brands, something Ally could dwell on since she was a fashionista—a word he had learned from cable TV—and not just a fashionista but an associate at Saks shoes in Copley Place. He cabbed in from Logan and took her for lunch at the big Cheesecake Factory on Huntington just up from Symphony Hall—where the last thing she’d let herself eat was the cheesecake–-and asked her if she’d heard of Buster Brown. It was the only make he’d ever worn except for those baby Stride Rites and, of course, Florsheim.
Long ago, he said, Buster Brown was the boys’ Florsheim.
Buster Brown, he lives in a shoe. That’s my dog Tighe. He lives there too.
While eating his cheesecake he sang the jingle. But, as usual, any singing he did came out like Louis Armstrong with strep.
The waitress, who was delivering new chai to Ally, suggested he clear his throat.
There’s nothing to clear, Philly said.
It’s his voice, Ally said. They made it that way at the Stride Rite store. They used to stick kids’ feet in these x-ray machines, just to get the sizes. They’d go to jail for that today.
The waitress looked at Ally as though she were a candidate for the daft house. She grabbed the old chai glass and moved off into the lunch crowd.
Hogans, said Ally, watching the waitress’s ankle-backs as she hightailed away. Now how can a waitress in the Cheesecake Factory afford Hogans? I have to save up for them, and I get the Saks discount.
She nibbled the last strands of her seaweed salad.
Philly’s ears were still blocked from the flight into Logan and he thought Ally’d said hoagies. He thought of the hoagies his old man used to make. Yay long and enough onions to burn your heart for a week.
You had to have the heart of a cop to eat one of those things, his old man used to say. He’d say it as he shook vinegar on the hoagies. Enough to scour away the tattoos that ran up both arms of McGuirk, that old Navy line cook of his. McGuirk the Papist, in truth, made better, crispier gribenes than Philly’s mother. And his jellied cow’s foot killed her jellied cow’s foot, no contest at all.
With that sweet voice of yours you won’t be working in the deli, you’ll be a cantor some day, his mother used to tell Philly. So she enrolled him in Hebrew School with hopes for Hebrew Teachers College. Then she took him to the Stride Rite store for new Buster Browns. The x-ray machine had jazzy stripes and swirls. It was about the size of a juke box, with two holes in the bottom where the salesman had Philly put his feet. They all looked into the viewing compartment on top and saw his foot bones, glowing green.
There were no rad restrictions in those days. Who knew what setting they had on the machine?
Before flying back for his blackjack shift at The Aladdin, Philly bought Ally some Hogans and some Jimmy Choos as well, just because she looked so cute in them. He peeled off five hundred. They asked for three hundred more.
You could have been a cantor, Ally said, twisting to check her ankle-backs in the shoe department mirror. All my aunts say so, she said.
On one ankle, just to the right side, was a tiny tattoo of a rose. Philly smiled, thinking back.
What’s to complain about? Philly said this as he finished peeling off the bills. He said it in a voice that could slice cheesecake and shred the plate it was on too. But Ally loved that voice. It spoke of the flames shooting out of the man-made volcano in front of the Mirage. It had the echo of the waiter’s blowtorch igniting the Cherries Jubilee at Spago’s in the Caesar’s Palace mall. It told Ally she had bigger fish to fry than the sales floor at Saks, Boston.