The Black Shoe Sorrows

It was a beautiful, sunny September morning in 1965—my first day of kindergarten. I wore a very uncomfortable dress with a crinoline (I so never understood the froofroo of crinolines) and brand-new, shiny black patent leather Mary Janes that my mother had scraped up money for and purchased at Stride Rite shoes. The Buster Brown boy and his dog were inside the heel (I always thought that the dog would bark while I walked), with a white pearl button for the Mary Jane strap.

I thought I was late for school so I ran a little too fast, and then it happened: I slipped on the new Mary Janes and splat, I fell face-first on the concrete. Terror filled me as the blood from my nose trickled down the crevices of the sidewalk and rolled away like the bubbles of a small brook.  Stunned and mortified, I lay there for what felt like an eternity—until a boy probably in the first or second grade reached out his hand and helped me into the nurse’s office. He was a kind soul, and as we walked into the school, he guided me gently and whispered, “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay.”

My first day cut short, I went home with a bloody nose and scraped knees and elbows. I stayed in bed for the rest of the day, though I believe I was hiding in my bed from humiliation more than from pain.

I heard my mother on the phone with my father and she said, “Yes, she fell right on the sidewalk, and some nice colored boy picked her up!”

Colored boy? What was that term? To me, “colored” meant, “I colored my book,” or “I used up all the green and red Crayola crayons with my coloring.” I wish I could tell you that this was the only time that my mother used that word, but it wasn’t.

In 1978, while in college, I rented a small room in a creepy old Victorian house. A friend was helping me move and as we approached a long corridor, a door opened across the hall from my room and a black (not “colored”) woman peered out. She had a beautiful face, warm, kind eyes, and a smile that made you want to smile back. She said hello and told us her name was Mary.

As we entered my room, I mumbled, “She’s gay!”

My friend nudged me in the arm and exclaimed, “How would you know that?”

“I just do.”

Months later, I waltzed into Penelope’s, a New Jersey dive bar with a small, multi-colored dance floor and disco ball in the basement.  A friend and I had been driving around aimlessly and he pulled into the bar to get out of the snow. Mary was drinking a dirty martini with a million olives and looked at me in disbelief. Mary was twenty-eight; I was eighteen.

With a twinge of annoyance, Mary asked me, “What are you doing here?”

Like a dope, I answered, “I don’t know—it’s snowing out and we wanted to get a drink and dance!”

Out of a protective concern for me, Mary nearly shouted, “Do you know this is a gay bar?”

“Yeah. Who cares? Maybe I think I’m gay!” As usual, my flippant eighteen-year-old arrogance masked my fears.

I stood staring at my Timberlands, which were originally beige but I’d dyed them black to feel punk and cool. I looked at my boots the same way I stared at my Mary Janes right before my big fall in ‘65.  I suppose I felt equally insecure and unsure in both moments.

I watched Mary sing and dance to Chaka Kahn’s “I’m Every Woman” while she substituted the words for “I’m Mary Wilbon.” It somehow worked great with the song and marked my entrance into a life of dance and music—very far from the grieving abyss I was feeling from my father having recently died.

Mary became a partner for a short time (I had years of soul-searching and identity-piecing left to do and I wasn’t exactly faithfully committed). We both weren’t sure if I was actually gay. But I was young and grieving over my father’s sudden death from a massive heart attack, so I wasn’t focused on letting myself be loved.

Mary was, more importantly, a friend who introduced me to poetry, journaling and the theater.  You see, she was a community actress at night, and when we met, she was starring in For Colored Girls (there’s that word again). And then there was my mother, not accepting of my life choices, who asked me, “What were you thinking getting involved with a colored girl? Were you really that lonely?” I stood in silent disbelief that my own mother could be this ass-backwards in her thinking. In 1965 it was bizarre, and in 1978 it was shameful that my mother was still in that place.

In 2009, Mary and I found each other again and began chatting and emailing.  She had authored two detective novels. The books were funny, dramatic, and selling on Amazon and major bookstores.  I was thrilled for her that she was able to be published—and not once, but twice. One day, I emailed her to get together for dinner. There wasn’t a response.  I innocently Googled her for her address and instead found her obituary. It was dated one month prior. We had just spoken a few weeks before her sudden death. She’d been fifty-six; the cause was kidney complications from an emergency situation. I felt lost. So much still needed to be talked about between us, after thirty years apart.

At her grave, I stood staring at my black Gucci shoes—the soft leather with the big bone on the loafer, and the red and green ribbons like my Crayola crayons. I remembered the kind boy who reached for me and lifted me up from the bloody concrete.  I remembered the woman who lifted me up from the depths of despair and praised my poetry and lured me into all the great stages of my life.  I had found laughter, art and romance with her, to be cherished for the rest of my days.

I felt the warmth of tears slowly trickle down my face like the warm blood on that sunny morning in 1965.  I stared at my shoes as if the answers lie at my feet; I loved my Mary Janes like my Guccis and my Timberlands, so special and sacred to me. The answers seemed to only be found in my own desperate silence. The appreciation of moments of kindness, found simply by a hand reaching out to me without questions—and most importantly, without judgment.