by Lani Peterson ©2014.
One Thursday morning at the Women’s Lunch Place, a soup kitchen/community center to support homeless women in downtown Boston, I was given this gift of a story in response to the opening prompt “Tell me about your shoes.” I pass this story along now in honor of the woman who shared it.
You see these beautiful white sneakers? I didn’t always have them. My last pair of shoes was pretty sad. After many winters of walking through snow and slush, I was holding them together with cardboard and masking tape. So I decided to go to the mall to get a new pair. There’s a Payless Shoes store there that often has sneakers I can afford.
Walking through the mall I knew everyone was looking at me. They didn’t like me being there. I wanted to get my new shoes quick and leave. Walking down the aisle, I saw a really nice pair of white sneakers. There was only this one pair in my size left. I put them on and couldn’t believe how good they felt. I walked all around the store in them, thinking how nice it would be if they were mine. I knew I didn’t have the money to get them that day but I also knew that if I waited, they’d be gone. I brought them up to the front of the store and asked the guy behind the counter if he would hold them for me. He said it was against store policy. I promised him I would come back as soon as I could to buy them, but he just kept shaking his head and saying no, he couldn’t. I put my masking tape sneakers back on and left the mall as fast as I could.
For the next two weeks, I scraped by until I had enough money to go back for my shoes. Funny how I kept calling them mine, as if somehow I could protect them from going home with anyone else. The day I had enough money, I ran all the way to the mall, and ignored all those people staring at my masking tape shoes. I went to the shelf where I left them, with my eyes half shut afraid to look. Sure enough they were gone. I looked at every pair of shoes in the aisle that had my size, but there were no shoes left like them. They were gone.
I started for the door. I wasn’t ready to try on anything else that day. I just felt too worn down to look any more. That’s when the manager yelled at me. I started to walk faster to get away, but he ran after me, still yelling. “I have your shoes”. It took me a few times of hearing it to get what he meant. ‘I HAVE YOUR SHOES.’
“OK”, I said. “I’ve got the money now to pay for them.”
“No. No”, he said. “They’ve been paid for. That’s why I’ve got them. They’re all yours.”
I can’t tell you fully what went on in my head in that moment. I only remember leaving my old shoes in the trash bin and walking out into the mall wearing my new white sneakers with money still in my pocket. I took my time leaving that day. As I walked past each stranger, I looked them in the eye and smiled. I felt so good. It wasn’t that I thought that they were looking at me differently because of my new sneakers. It was more that I was seeing them differently. I used to think no one was on my side. But that day I knew that any person I walked by could be the one who gave me my new shoes. Whoever they were, I wanted them to know I was saying “Thank you”.
Notes on the Story
Whenever I work with a new group of beginning storytellers, I try to start with some simple prompts that will engage without intimidating. The prompt, “Tell me about your shoes” has many ways to be interpreted, allowing each storyteller to bring as much depth or vulnerability to the response as they feel ready to share. Sometimes I give more direction to the prompt, depending on the group and what they appear ready for. Some variations include:
- How did your shoes come into your life?
- Where have your shoes taken you?
- If your shoes were to introduce you, what would they say about you?
- If another were to spend a day in your shoes, what might they experience?
More often than not, people’s stories about their shoes are funny and heartfelt. On the morning of my first day at The Women’s Lunch Place, I casually introduced this prompt and was not prepared for some of the responses I received. I carry this particular story with me now as a sacred story. I am humbled by the teller and the transformation that was enabled through the anonymous generosity of another.