I'm lost within ten minutes of leaving the airport parking lot. I didn't think I'd need a GPS in my homeland, but apparently today I do. One town just slides into another these days. I feel like there used to be space between them that let you know you were changing zip codes. Okay, it's been a while.
It makes me wonder how teenagers keep school rivalries going these days. In the Class of '68, we referred to kids from Wantagh -- three miles away -- with a vague, almost mythical, curiosity as if they spoke a different dialect and worshipped at Stonehenge. I guess that's all over now because kids don't actually have to see each other anymore to be BFF's.
I finally get my bearings by telling myself that when I get to the corner with Shoe Town on the right and Carvel up ahead on the left, I'll know where I am. And then I recognize that I'm at that corner, but Shoe Town is gone. It's a bank now. It's probably been a bank for years. Maybe it's not even the original building. I have no idea. When you haven't lived in your hometown since 1973, things like this happen.
The light is red and it gives me a moment of silence to honor Shoe Town, one of the few perfect things in my pubescent years.
Before Shoe Town, all I had were pushy salesmen measuring my foot and then sighing and saying to my mother, "I'll see what I can do." Then they'd emerge from that secret room in the back with one box instead of the five or six choices other girls got.
The summer before 6th grade, just before Shoe Town opened, my mother and I went on a fruitless quest to find something in my size (10) that wasn't a patent-leather stiletto heel designed for a woman three times my age.
After one salesman measured my foot, he looked over at my mother and said, "Well, we don't have any shoes that will fit her, but I could give you a couple of boxes to take home."
She pretended to think it wasn't funny, but later when I overheard her telling the story to my father, I could hear chuckles all around.
For one thing, Shoe Town was self-serve way before its time, so I could be my own agent. I could also walk there with my friends and spend as much time as I needed to try on every shoe in Size 8 or 9 that looked like it had any chance of fitting my foot and walking a few steps before I'd melt in pain in front of the full length mirrors they had in the corners.
Eventually I'd wander over to the Size 10 rack and settle on a pair that didn't embarrass me too much. Later, in my room, I would rub the 10 from inside the shoes until it was gone. Just in case. In case of what? In case my shoes got hijacked to the boys' locker room and the entire lacrosse team took turns throwing them around and making mean comments about my shoe size? When it came to shoes, I was never sure what enemy was over the next hill. I took this all very seriously, as if it were a blight on my character.
When you come back to the place where you grew up, it's all right there, sitting at a red light. Now you remember everything. How good it felt to buy your own shoes and carry them home. How the Carvel Flying Saucer melted in your hand all the way down the street. Opening your front door and smelling roast chicken for dinner. Your mother humming along to the Ray Conniff Singers on the HiFi. Running up the stairs to your room and trying on your new shoes. And thinking there was no way life would ever change from that day.
So you mourn the passing of a shoe store that was kind to you, and that's not the weirdest thought you have at the red light. The oddest thing is that you still call this town home.