04/10/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

Life and Shoes

Let me start by saying that I'm a shoe whore. I use the word whore not because I get paid to have sex with shoes (although I may have thought about that once or twice), but because, if I see a pair of shoes I want, I may set aside a personal principle or two in order to have them. But really, it's much bigger that that. My life story and circumstances can be told by tracking the shoes that I've worn up until now. The type of shoes I bought and wore were very indicative of my life during my decadent fashion years, punk rock and new wave phase, the many ups and downs to follow, and the stable portions of my life as well.

I've been attracted to shoes since I was a kid growing up in Syria. My parents would often ask us what we wanted as gifts for birthdays or Christmas, and even at the age of 2 or 3, I'm told, I always asked for a new pair of shoes. This could be because I broke both legs very young -- first my left leg, at 2, jumping off a couch; then my right leg, at 6, on the bars of a swing set at school -- and both times I was stuck in a bed for weeks or months with traction weights to heal the break. Perhaps it was then that I first became infatuated with shoes, after staring at my bare feet for much too long. The vehicles that got me up and out, first into the rest of the home, and then outside and beyond. I've also always loved fashion, though -- trying on and taking off new identities, becoming someone else for an hour or a day or a year. What better way to do this than through shoes?

We had a tradition in my family that on Christmas Eve, we would put our old shoes by the fireplace, and when we woke in the morning, we'd find brand new shoes that had replaced them. The new ones were usually stuffed with chocolates, and maybe one other gift for each of us. I remember the shoes more than anything else, because that's what I looked forward to the most. I remember my Te'te, my grandmother, telling me that a new pair of shoes at Christmas would help us have a fresh start: a new beginning to travel for the new year. We were a pretty well-to-do family, living in a huge flat in Aleppo with all of the conveniences of modern life and technology, but the thing I loved most were my shoes. From the white booties when I was little to the black patent leather Mary Janes when I got a bit older, I cherished them all, and even when they got old and worn or didn't fit my growing feet anymore, I wanted to hold onto them and keep them in the back of a closet, where, like page markers, I would pull them out and reminisce about when I'd first gotten them, and how they'd made me feel.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, my mom told me, I started to sleep with every new pair of shoes she bought me, even after I'd worn them on the dirty streets. She had to make a rule that I was allowed to have shoes in the bed only before I wore them outside. But I could still keep them next to my bed, so I could look at them as I was falling asleep. This was weird, I knew, but I didn't care.
My mom saw how important my shoes were to me, and because I had a meltdown about taking them all with me when we moved to the United States in late 1967, she allowed me to pack most of them even though space was tight. When I was dealing with kids who bullied me while I was learning how to speak English, pulling out a pair of those shoes from Syria helped me to find a peaceful place and remember happier times. As I got older, shoes helped in yet another way: I was styling hair for magazines and was very into fashion myself, but I was also heavy-set back then, and most designer clothes didn't fit me. So expensive or weird (or both) shoes were my way of being stylish, extravagant and sometimes outrageous.

When I went to Europe in the 1980's, I had to buy extra luggage just to bring back all the shoes I bought. The Creepers I picked up on Kings Road that helped polish my punk rock look; the black suede booties that later would be manufactured into a huge pair of platforms for one of my performance pieces; the pointed granny boots I acquired in Paris at a shop on a cobblestone side street; all were relevant and important to me. And all made me feel like a star when I wore them.
In my late-twenties, as my life got increasingly difficult in New York and I began spiraling down, I spent most of my money on the drug habit I'd acquired after dealing with a major heartbreak. I stuck to wearing the same pair of Dr. Martens while I indulged day after day, running and hustling after my drugs -- often for months at a time. These boots were tough, and comfortable, and secure, they never let me down. When I was mugged in Alphabet city many years later, I wished I'd had those Doc Martens on, 'cause they were stable and I could've probably ran. But I had on NaNa Platforms, which caved when three teenage boys came at me from behind; I fell and broke my ankle in three places. I even got my nickname, Harley Loco, because of a pair of biker boots I wore during -- yes -- a brief stint at Riker's Island: Harley because they were biker boots which I never took off, Loco because I acted crazy to keep the inmates from messing with me. When I finally got clean, these were the only boots I'd managed to keep. They were a symbol of both where I'd been and how far I still had to go: I was starting a new life, and it was difficult from every aspect. The durability of those boots reflected to me how durable I had to be to get my life back in order. At two years sober, I bought my first pair of Prada boots. They were $400, and I thought I would have a heart attack as the woman swiped my credit card. But I stood on my feet four full days a week then -- cutting hair -- and I convinced myself that wearing those boots was like having a foot massage while I worked.

Though I've parted with my childhood shoes at this point and lost most all the ones from my difficult years, I've been actively collecting shoes and boots again for the past fifteen years, and by now, I probably have over three hundred pairs. Once again, I can reach into one of my closets, pull out a pair of shoes, and remember precisely the situation that prompted me to buy them. I can visualize which partner I was with when I wore them, or which family member or friend had admired them. Happily, I'm no longer overweight and I can buy designer clothes if I choose, but getting me into a department store is the tricky part -- unless, of course, they happen to be having a sale on shoes.