I was so proud of my Amalfi high heels. They had called to me from the display case at the front of Rodder’s Mademoiselle, an upscale women’s store in downtown Fresno. Beneath a spotlight, the Italian suede glowed — movie star shoes, I thought to myself. Gina Lollobrigida shoes. They were a lovely, fawn color with a sling-back ankle strap, open toed, with three-inch high, pencil-thin heels that clicked on the pavement, an echo following me as I strutted down Fulton Street, turning heads. I purchased the high-fashion shoes with my 40% discount as a part-time Rodder’s employee.
Coveting these beautiful shoes stemmed from a childhood sentenced to ugly, sturdy oxfords. My father insisted on shoes of substance — Buster Browns that bore the stamp of the cartoon character for whom the shoes were named. I remember having my feet X-rayed in the shoe store to find the right size for those sturdy, ugly oxfords that still glare at me from my elementary class pictures. Because I was short, my teachers put me in the front, brown oxfords displayed for all of the John C. Fremont Elementary community. Fortunately, white buck oxfords became popular from my 5th grade-through-junior high years, shoes my father had no problem buying for me. We wore the buck oxfords along with full skirts and layers of crinoline petticoats. I remember feeling so stylish, carrying around my buck, powder bag to dab at scuff marks.
During my high school years in the 1960s, Capezio flats entered the fashion scene, but they were much too expensive for my father’s wallet. Capezios looked and felt like ballet slippers, feminine and lightweight. All my friends wore them along with a delicate gold ankle chain. I, however, resigned myself to pink or blue dyed sneakers sans gold ankle chain. With rolled-down, white Bobbi socks, I helped to usher out the era of the sock-hop. A few years later, when I met my husband-to-be, I must have mentioned my lust for Capezio flats. He bought me a pair for Christmas, but I could not wear such casual shoes to work.
Instead, I took advantage of my 40% discount at Rodder’s, with most of my purchases were in the shoe department, Amalfi high heels being the first. I worked Friday evenings and all day on Saturdays, standing on my feet for eight hours, wearing spiked heels as a symbol of my transformation into working girl. With three-inch heels and the elaborate sausage curls atop my head, I added six inches to my 5-foot frame. The smoldering little girl inside boldly cried out, “I am woman. Watch me strut!” And strut I did—up and down the staircase, to and from the sales floor to the store room, in and out of the elevator, crystal glasses and vases tinkling on the shelves as I paraded past the china department with my click, click, click.
One particular Saturday each time I passed a mirror, I noticed how the height of my Amalfi pumps noticeably slimmed my ankles and calves, and I smiled. At lunchtime, I retrieved my matching fawn, suede bag from the storeroom and sashayed through the sportswear department and around the gift-wrap desk to the top of the stairs. I’d always loved those stairs. They swirled up from the first floor like a crescent moon, framed by a polished oak banister. They were rich people’s stairs, creating a backdrop for dramatic entrances and exits. As I posed at the top, looking down, I remember thinking that the color of the carpet almost matched my shoes.
I lifted my chin, eyes straight ahead, hands at my sides, imitating Loretta Young, a glamorous movie and television star of the fifties. She would swirl into sight, her satin gown swishing, and pose a moment on the landing before descending a staircase, never once looking down at the steps. Head up, eyes up was the mantra I embraced. Appear as if you are gliding. I lifted my right foot and gingerly shifted it down onto the step. My left foot obediently followed. Four steps and I felt my body moving in a rhythm, my hips swaying with each step. I moved gracefully half-way down until my glide encountered a glitch. My right foot slipped, the skinny heel missing the step, whirling me into a somersault to the bottom of the staircase where I lay sprawled, my legs askew, my dress up to my hips, garters holding up my nylon stockings revealed to all who entered the elegant double-glass front doors of Rodder’s Mademoiselle.
“Pauline!” screamed Blanche from behind the jewelry counter. Her large brown eyes loomed anxiously over rhinestone, cat-eye reading glasses perched on her nose. Her normally stern expression, a result of her jet-black hair pulled tightly into a French twist, softened with fear. The customer she was helping turned toward me, and they both froze, mouths agape.
“I’m OK,” I whispered as I yanked down my dress and tried to sit up. By pushing down my right elbow on the last step, I lifted my torso onto the step. I was certain my face was as scarlet as the glass beads in Blanche’s hand.
“Help her up!” a voice shouted from the shoe department. It was my friend, Joyce, who always called me when new shoes arrived so we could drool together over the delicate straps, shapely heels and seductive leather cutouts. Joyce and I were the youngest employees at Rodder’s, the others being mostly middle aged. We bonded my first day of work, and our friendship grew rapidly with our girl-talks during lunch and dinner breaks.
Joyce’s 5-foot-10 model’s frame reached me quickly. She shook her stiff, orange-dyed hair, which did not sway an inch, and grabbed both of my hands with her long, slender fingers, yanking me to a standing position. “Are you OK?” her worried voice asked.
“I’m fine,” I mumbled, “just embarrassed.”
Her eyes floated to my feet. “Check your Amalfi’s,” she ordered. “Turn around. Now walk.” She examined the heels for wobbles and the ankle strap for tears.
“You can’t beat a well-made shoe!” she announced to the crowd of customers and sales women who had gathered around me. Then she put her arm around my shoulder and whispered, “From now on take the elevator. You don’t want to break those jewels.” She hugged me, turned sharply on her red Italian spike heels, her long legs gliding back to the shoe department, her orange hair retreating like a sunset.
That was 55 years ago and the beginning of my shoe collection. The secret is to never throw out a good pair of shoes. Styles always return, though I might be pushing it with my white go-go boots stuffed with tissue, tucked neatly into the corner of my closet.
Pauline Sahakianis a former Clovis Unified English teacher, Fresno State composition and education instructor, and UC Merced Writing Project director. She was the 1994 Fresno County Teacher of the Year and 2016 CSU Fresno Noted Alumni Award recipient. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.