Shoes make the man

10 Dec

.

I am not the bravest of men. But sometimes there are moments.

It was Christmas Day, getting close to dinnertime. I was around 16 at the time. I’d been visiting with some of my aunts and uncles and was now walking back to our apartment when I noticed a familiar sight: a neighborhood guy named Rudy trying to get a passerby to get down onto the icy cold sidewalk and tie his shoelaces for him.

Rudy was a cripple. That’s what people like him were called back then. He’d had polio as a boy. His spine was noticeably curved and the fingers on both of his hands bent inward and towards his wrists. Among other things this meant that the man was unable to tie his own shoes. 

That task fell to those of us around Rudy. If you were a neighborhood boy or girl, man or woman, butcher, barber, teacher, plumber, whatever, and took seriously the concept of community, then tying Rudy’s shoelaces was your job, your responsibility. No less important a responsibility than helping an elderly neighbor walk across Atlantic Avenue or keeping somebody’s child from running out in front of a city bus. 

I had gotten down on my knees and helped Rudy plenty of times. At first, when I was little, it seemed funny, even a little creepy. But as I got older I didn’t mind it so much.

Reflecting on it now, I learned an awful lot about compassion and humility by kneeling down in front of that poor man. Maybe some others did too.

Rudy was around my parents’ age. He lived with his sister Frances and brother Johnny in the brick row house where they had grown up together as children. He was as much a fixture in our tightly knit Brooklyn neighborhood as anybody. Rudy was always hanging around where you could run into him, either on the stoop outside of his house, a street corner where other men gathered, or on the sidewalks where he constantly—and very slowly and deliberately—walked alone each and every day.

“Rudy Tie My Shoes” is what people called him.

This was not to be cruel to the man, mind you. A guy who lived across the street from me had a face that was framed by almost perfect right angles. We called him “Frankie Squarehead” because, well, why would you not? His name was Frank and his dome was square. Nicknames like this were just the way of the time, that’s all. They weren’t meant to insult or to hurt anybody.

Anyhow, back to Christmas. I was a short block away from where Rudy was standing when I noticed what was actually going on. He had been walking in the light snow and happened upon a group of four guys around my age. Once I could determine who the others were I slowed my pace in order to read the situation more clearly.

It was Crazy Philip and three of his friends. Which did not bode well at all for poor Rudy. 

Philip was trouble from the day he moved into the neighborhood, around a year or so earlier. He had quickly formed his own street gang and got great pleasure out of intimidating people. I saw him beat the crap out of plenty of guys for no reason whatsoever, occasionally doing the kind of damage that required a visit to the doctor or to the ER. The two of us had come close to blows on more than a few occasions.

To be honest, I was afraid of the guy. He was pure anger and rage, without a shred of good judgment. Not so long after this day that I’m telling you about Philip got killed in a knife fight, bled out right there on our sidewalk. Few were sorry to see him go.

When I saw him and his boys circling around Rudy I knew that I had two choices: Find another way home or take my chances and hope for a Christmas miracle.

Felipe, que tal?” I yelled loudly while approaching the scene. Unlike me and everybody else within a five-block radius, Philip’s people were from Puerto Rico not Italy. “Feliz Navidad. You seen Anthony today?” Anthony had been my best friend as a young boy; he still was my friend, only we had grown apart ever since he and Philip started hanging out. They were equals in the gang they were a part of, the only two equals as far as I could determine. I had always believed that, if not for Anthony’s known history and friendship with me, and his influence over Philip, his new friend and I would have come to violence long ago.

“We’re busy here, man,” Philip said staring at Rudy in a way that I had seen and feared many times before. “Tony’s at home. You want him, you know where he lives.”

Anthony had only recently come to be called Tony, just not by me.

The snow picked up and Rudy wasn’t wearing a hat, a scarf or a pair of gloves. He was his usual slow self, not speaking, but the man appeared to somewhat grasp the delicacy of his situation. 

“What you lookin at?” one of Philip’s friends said pushing Rudy’s face with an open palm as the others laughed. 

“Hey retard, your shoe’s untied,” said another. “C’mon, let’s see you tie it.”

This was not looking good at all. The only chance I had would be to act quickly and decisively.

Felipe,” I said loudly and in a way meant to strongly draw his attention away from Rudy and toward me. “Respect. Sabe? I’m just gonna bend down now and help this man out with his shoes. I don’t want any trouble here.”

Asking Philip’s permission to do anything, let alone assist a helpless man like Rudy, was enough to make me want to hurt somebody. Badly. But it was the only possible way out of this. Philip’s boys would do whatever he told them to do. If he decided to let Rudy go on his way then Rudy would go on his way. If not then there was no telling how far they would go, how badly they would hurt the poor guy. Or me.

Philip stared me down in a way that suggested I had miscalculated my ability to diffuse the situation. But when enough seconds passed without him saying anyhing, I moved through the pack until I got to Rudy. I could see how frightened he had become but also noticed a bit of relief in his face. Mine was at least a familiar and friendly presence and Rudy knew it.

“Who he to you, man?” said one of Philip’s boys as I kneeled and brushed the snow and slush off of Rudy’s black leather shoes. “Maybe you should mind your business.”

Rudy’s left shoe trembled as I tied it, possibly from the cold but perhaps not. 

“Okay, now the right one,” I said as much to the others as to Rudy. 

Philip had yet to speak and his boys had turned quiet. I imagined getting kicked in the head and pummeled to the ground.

“There you go, good as new,” I said standing to face the man I had assisted like this since I was a child. “Merry Christmas, Rudy.”

All that was left to do now was to turn around and to face Philip. 

“We’re done here, right Felipe?” I said summoning more courage than I’d thought I had. “The man can be on his way?”

Philip’s frizzy dark hair was topped with white snow, his black and red leather gang jacket wet around the shoulders and down his chest. The guy had the blackest, scariest, most intimidating eyes I had ever seen. Being stared down by them made me feel small. 

“One day we’re gonna get it into it, Tony or no Tony,” Philip said, turning his stare first to Rudy and then to his boys. “Vamos, chicos.” 

Rudy stood motionless as Philip and his boys strutted away. After they turned the corner and were out of sight I gently grabbed Rudy’s misshapen elbow. I can’t speak for him but I myself only felt a little less scared than I had moments earlier.

“I’m gonna walk you home now, Rudy,” I said. “That all right?” 

He didn’t smile or nod or say anything at all, but he did let me keep hold of his arm for the couple-block walk to his house. Before climbing the steps of his stoop Rudy motioned for me to tie his shoelaces again. They didn’t need tying this time and so I took this to mean that the man needed a little more friendly human contact before the two of us parted ways. 

Which was okay by me.

I needed the same thing.

7 Responses to “Shoes make the man”

  1. Joanne Gray December 10, 2020 at 10:52 pm #

    You’re my hero.

    • twinklechar December 10, 2020 at 11:35 pm #

      Bravo!

      • Denise Givens December 11, 2020 at 1:03 am #

        I agree with both of you!

  2. cfrolio December 11, 2020 at 1:51 am #

    Inspiring story – thanks!

  3. Claudia Risbara December 11, 2020 at 3:35 pm #

    Ahhh, a true Christmas story!

  4. Matthew Fanning December 12, 2020 at 7:37 pm #

    Good man! That’s reflective of the way you and I were brought up.
    Your story Reminded me of my father’s words of wisdom. He died when I was 11 of asbestos, he was a sheet metal worker (tin-knocker) who worked the Brooklyn navy yards and the Twin Towers. Some of the things he taught me, I can still hear him saying as if it were yesterday.
    He grew up during the tough times of the depression and told me , “ never be ashamed of what you have, never be ashamed of what you don’t have. When I saw the photo of the beat up shoes I heard him again.
    Another pearl was when we would see old guys in the park( they were down on their luck and were know as “ the drunks”. But not by him.
    He would point them out and say, “ there but for the Grace of God go I “. Not what you would expect from a very tough construction worker.
    Thanks for sharing your story!

  5. LeAnne December 14, 2020 at 3:49 am #

    Thanks for this story–it is the reason for this season.

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