There’s a narrow band of road that snakes from Donegal town to Malin Head, Ireland’s northernmost point.
Sheep, goats, and the occasional, and increasingly rare corncrake, were some of the only witnesses to my days working in the late-1990s for Ireland’s LA Gear distributor. You know, the shoes with lights in the heels?
In those days the village of Malin had an urban population of in and around 120 souls, and it was my duty to drive the winding road to the 1991 Tidy Town’s winning location once a month as part of my territory. I loved the drive, through sheer landscape, rock and heather, a barren place where even the seabirds suffered personality disorders.
One shoe shop, opposite the Allied Irish bank, close to the large Celtic cross in the center of town. It was my privilege to service this customer, pointing out the merits of flashy American trainers with lights in the heels, and some with sparkles and rhinestones studding the uppers. One of the bestsellers was the MVP, endorsed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and that bore a remarkable resemblance to Nike’s original Air Jordans.
“Howreyedoingtoday?” the bent-double old lady said. “Sure, dyehaveanyofyonsparklyshoeswithyetoday?”
“Sorry?” I said, unable to decipher her Joycean stream-of-consciousness dialogue. The coconut crumbs from her morning snack of Kimberly Mikado biscuits were embedded in the wiry mustache she sported. She had the look of Fu Manchu on an off day, but I needed the sales because my figures for the month were dire.
“Thelightssonnythelights.” And then she wheezed, as if it was her dying breath.
I unzipped the bag and pulled out a selection of perfectly laced left-only shoes.
“Here’s the new Stardust range,” I said, offering the five sample shoes for her inspection. “They’re selling well, strong leather uppers, EVA midsole, great design.”
I handed her a sample and she treated it as if it were a potato dug from her garden, rolling it around in her arthritic fingers, the long pointy fingernails crusted with dirt. She peered at the floral design on the outsole.
“Nogoodtoushereatallatall,” she decreed. “Itslightstheyoungwanswantlights.”
“We’ve got plenty of lights, still. You can put in an order for them if you like,” I said, plucking the order book from my briefcase.
Ten minutes later she’d ordered twelve pairs of shoes, between an 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 in the Catapult, and a 5, 6, 7, 8, including half-sizes, in a women’s lights model. Barely enough commission on the sale to buy me a fucking Mars bar at the nearby petrol station shop. I was zipping the samples back into the bag, when she appeared at the door to the back of the shop and waved feebly at me.
“Comehereandlookatthese,” she said.
On a table in the back room was a heap of Catapults and light-up shoes, tied with lace, in various states of decay and soakage. The smell was mildewy, and the woman shook her head from side to side. “Theyreallruinedfromthepuddlestheyoungwansdoberunningthrough,” she said.
“Ma’am, they’re not supposed to be worn in the rain, or to go through puddles,” I said.
“Honestly. They’re not built for that abuse.”
She had a point. It must rain over two hundred days a year in the North-West of Ireland. There’s no chance shitty, mass-produced sneakers will hold up to the ravages of such a climate. Resignedly, I dropped my sample bag in the car and came back in for the returns. I loaded thirty pairs of shoes in the trunk of the car and drove the desolate road back to Donegal town for the night.
Next morning, car stuffed with returned shoes, I sat outside a drapery in Donegal town, paralyzed with a hatred of my job. Instead of calling on the account, I filled in the Irish Times crossword, both Simplex and Crosaire, and had a sausage roll and cup of tea in a gaily decorated café. Finally, I sucked every ounce of self-esteem from my nether regions, and walking into the account for the last time.
That Friday I unloaded a cache of over one hundred pairs of crap sneakers from the company car, walked into the director’s office, and handed in my resignation. Worst part of it was I had to work out my notice and endure two more weeks of sneaker abuse at the hands of little old ladies speaking in tongues, and ruddy-faced farmers trying to diversify their interests, accepting their returns, and taking orders for more of the happy, shiny shoes I hated so.
And now, twenty-odd years later,with my summer school teaching job coming to an end this week, and no real prospect of work beyond that, I remember the old days, driving out to Malin Head, Achill Island, and Oughterard, trying to sell shoes that had the habit of falling apart at first wear, and consider that things could always be worse. Recession be damned.