Payless ShoeSource is closing nationwide. I’ve reached the point in my life where all deaths make me sad. People deaths, snackcake deaths, store deaths, the weird warm day in the sixties a few days after it snows, melting that last patches of sludgey snow deaths. There was the death of the behemoth Toys R Us, and the death of the local pizza restaurant, Pizza Primetime. But I could have told Primetime that. There have been three restaurants in that spot in six years. It’s like the minor character with an asymmetrical jaw line in the horror movie. You just know they’re going to die.
They were Payless ShoeSource. Then they were Payless Shoes. And finally, just Payless. Each decade they lopped off an appendage to seem hipper and more carefree, like a Mom with a new hair style. Payless was sensible, like a cardigan. It was plain, like the melba toast crackers Mom loved so much.
Yet it was also feisty, sixty-two years old, like an old woman keeping herself alive on indignation, Marlboro Reds and a pot of black coffee each morning. Walking into a Payless, you felt the stewing resentment it had toward Nikes and Kate Spades. We’re just as good, Payless said. Mom nodded in agreement.
As a kid, walking into a Payless ShoeSource was like walking into your sentencing, ball and chain affixed, the literal weight of those clodhopper shoes on your feet. You were heretofore imprisoned to uncoolness for your middle school years. Brand name shoes sold you a lifestyle. Payless sold you a fact of life. It asked, if all the other kids were walking off a cliff, would you join them? And in your heart, you whispered, yes.
The stores had an aesthetic of yellow and orange, tan and beige, the colors of 1970s couches and carpets in apartments. There were rows of boxes, stacked upon boxes. Hopeful shoes peeked out like puppies in the pound. There was a box of slip on nylons, as disheveled and mussy as the ladies your Dad pointed out were hookers, working on Pennington Avenue just outside of the city. There was the foot measure, strange as medieval torture tool. At Payless, a feeling hung in the air — a scrambledness, a tiredness, a feeling of fine, these fit. Don’t pout, they’re fine. Do they feel fine? Walk a few steps, are they fine? They’re fine.
You poked at the silica packets, imagining how bad your mother would feel if you swallowed these and died. This made you feel superior, in a strange way. A pair of Converse would have made you feel superior, too, but this was also fine. A fineness is what hung in the air.
I was sentenced to a shapeless, formless black shoe, a glob, with velcro straps that sounded like an echo when I peeled them. Payless, you were my comrade in a war I didn’t know was happening. You taught me kindness is more important than coolness. You showed me saving money is more important than style. Just kidding. If we’re lopping off appendages, give me the bite-stick, the amputation, and a fresh pair of Adidas Superstars.
Later, Payless. And thanks. It was fine.