My mother was into blingbling back in the 70s and 80s. Not flashy jewelry or Rolexes or Spinner rims and such. Nothing like that. But, she liked her home to bling! We lived in an apartment bigger than most homes, 10 rooms in all: 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, living-room, dining-room, and kitchen…about 2000 sq. ft. in all! I actually got lost the first day we moved in. It was like a palace. But, the feature that was the source of most of my mother’s pride, the thing she invested the majority of her energy in up-keeping, was laid out from the front door to the kitchen: a span of about 30′ by 6′ feet of Pre-war parquet wood flooring.
My mother went about making this hallway the centerpiece of her home. She waxed and buffed, sanded and shellacked this floor to a bling that would impress a museum curator. So that when you walked into our apartment, the bling, the gleam, the beam would almost paralyze you, like a wooden mirror.
Mind you, this palace was in the ‘hood proper. Over the course of 100 years or so the neighborhood had gone through a number of metamorphoses. It used to be an affluent community, a well-to do suburb of Manhattan. My apartment was equipped with maid’s quarters, servant’s entrances, food preparation nooks, and even a dumb-waiter. All the moldings were handcrafted and art deco, a chandelier hang in the dining-room, glass doors separated it from the living room, and the master bedroom window looked out at the Brooklyn Museum across the street. This was some high living back in the 1920s and 1930s. By the time my family arrived at the apartment in the 1970’s it was at the tail-end of the White Flight from the inner cities to the newer safer suburbs out in Long Island or up in Westchester and beyond. A slumlord had taken over the building. It still had a doorman and a canopy and much of its Pre-War charm, but it also had mice and roaches, graffiti on the walls, piss and garbage in the elevators and knife-wielding, gun-toting, tenants with that ghetto mentality totally incapable of
appreciating the feast for the senses the building used to be.
But, my mother could.
(btw, I just found a listing for apartments in that building- now condos- one sold for 1.1 million)
The drawback, for me, to keeping a floor at museum level blingbling was shoe removal. There were two closets near the front door and once your shoes were removed they were to be placed in one of them. Convenient, you say? No big deal, right?
Well, no big deal if you have normal feet. But, I don’t now and I didn’t then. Back then, I had many of the ailments I still retain, with one other that doesn’t plague me as much as it used to, but the trauma, the complex, remains intact: Atrocious smelling feet.
I don’t know why my feet smelled so bad. I mean, it wasn’t a hygiene problem. I bathed as often as any kid did. And I even gave the washing of my feet extra attention I was so concerned. I mean, nothing worked. My foot bacteria somehow managed to deactivate all that super activated charcoal rendering Odor-Eaters useless, their effective period reduced from the period promised on the packaging to mere days. Moreover, drawn by the funk and moist bacterial breeding environment in my sneakers, Roaches would congregate. I had to shake a colony out before putting them on in the morning. My sibs teased me. Even my older brothers, whose feet stink too, teased me; my stink was so bad it canceled out all other stinks.
My mother raised the 6 of us, my 3 brothers and 2 sisters, on her own so, after my father was in the wind, we were on social services the remainder of my childhood. Welfare paid the rent and some of the bills, WIC and food stamps paid for the food, and Medicaid paid for health care. Basically, we were set. For everything else, Mom had to hustle- and hustle she did, very well.
Everyone and their daughter could braid hair, but in the pre-hair weave days of the late 70’s / early 80’s, with Bo Derek running on the beach in the movie “10,” cornrow braids and T&A flying every which-away, everyone wanted cornrows with extensions, and this was decidedly more difficult and time-consuming than regular hair-braiding. My mother built a name for herself and carved herself a profitable niche in a saturated market. Her clientele even included a couple of celebrities, and with that she was able to make ends meet more times than not. Best part: it was all off the books.
These clients would come to the house, excited at finally getting an appointment with Loco’s mama, and when they arrived they would be welcomed,occasionally, by an urine-scented elevator, with perhaps a bag or two of garbage left by one of my neighbors too lazy or scared (with good reason…there had been incidents) to take it down to the basement, and then, at the summit of this misfortune, upon entering our apartment, an odor assaults their nostrils so repugnant that they think fondly back at the stench of the elevator.
Before they can say, “My god, what the hell is that smell!?” they’d see my mother’s floor, glowing like some château in the French Alps maintained by a squadron of servants, walls adorned with intriguing art, exotic potted plants and vases with splayed flowers on pedestals, and the warmth of my mother’s smile. And, they’d be disarmed.
My mother’s smile was hiding her anger and embarrassment. My funky feet were bad for business.
So, I developed a method of getting into my house without stinking it up. I would take off my shoes in the hallway, enter the house and run to my room as quickly as possible, for my footprints even stunk. Once in my bedroom, which I shared with one of my older brothers, I would run to the window that looked out on my fire escape / veranda, open it and put my shoes out there, shutting the window behind them (to keep the wind from wafting that stench back into the room). Then I would make my way to the nearest bathroom and wash my feet with soap and water…This was a regular routine. It went on for years…So, as you might imagine, I was never keen on taking my shoes off…never.
Living in Japan changed all that.
I had to once again remove my shoes upon not only entering my own house but every house, etc. And I still get nervous every time. I keep praying that my Timberlands do not reek. That my Converses do not Bring the Funk. Part of the problem, I realize now, was that my feet were bound to shoes all day back in America. Trapped in that sweaty, acrid, bacterial-plagued environment all day, the funk had time to gather their numbers and plan their olfactory assault on the masses. But, here in Japan, my shoes are off as often as they’re on. My feet breathe all day, as do my shoes, sweet air keeping the bacterial forces at bay. This particular Japanese custom has been a godsend, a cure for my funky feet.
Now, when I go to my Japanese friends homes, though I still feel a pang- the complex is still in here somewhere- it doesn’t become the full-fledged panic attack it used to. I no longer fear removing my shoes. I kick them off with glee. I can even smell other people’s feet now (something I could rarely do before because I’d be so focused on my own.) If only I had known this when I was a teen. I could have spared my family, and myself, quite a bit of suffering.