A Lift for the Little Guy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From time to time people ask if it bothers me that I'm bald, and I can honestly say that it does not. Not in the least. I had bad haircuts when I had hair, and no great success with the opposite sex. It was only after I lost my hair that things started happening for me. Eventually, I was even able to get married and have children.

Oddly, nobody ever asks how I feel about being short, possibly because it is perceived that there is no remedy for shortness, no equivalent of toupees or hair weaves, no Height Club for Men.

The fact is, I hate being short and would tell anyone who asked. I wasn't meant to be short. I was on the tall side until about second grade, and by eighth grade I still had hopes of overtaking Big Irv, my uncle and the family giant at 5 feet 10.

That, to my horror, was when I stopped growing. Twenty-five years later, I'm a shade under 5-foot-6. And bitter.

I hate being squeezed into an elevator with tall people. I hate having to recite my pathetic inseam when ordering pants mail-order. (Sometimes, in deep denial, I overstate my length and suffer the additional humiliation of having to ask a tailor to hack 28 inches down to 27 1/2 inches.)

I blame shortness for detonating my basketball career (hey, I was captain of my junior high team), and I honestly believe that if God had granted me just another foot -- is that so much to ask? -- you would know me from my Nike commercials. In my dreams, I play above the rim and get whistled frequently for goaltending.

So you can imagine how I felt when I first saw the little magazine ad that said MEN: BE TALLER!! I could have Elevator shoes, with exclusive hidden "innermolds"! Immediately I grasped an opportunity to correct an injustice, in a deceptive kind of way.

But I was skeptical. I mean, you'd have to feel like an idiot, wouldn't you, walking around all day in little foot falsies?

But there was that ad, every month in the same spot in the same magazine. This company was selling shoes, maybe to men I knew, maybe even to famous men. Maybe everybody was wearing these things, and I was the last short sucker still playing it straight.

No other advertisement had ever spoken so directly to me. I came to understand that there was something I had to do. Some people get Rolfed, some rebirthed. This was my personal journey.

The catalog from Richlee Shoe Co., makers of Elevator shoes, drops through the mail slot within days of my call.

I lock myself in the bathroom. Eagerly, I paw through it, utterly amazed at the breadth of choices.

They have golf shoes!

Cowboy boots. Insulated snow boots. Boat shoes. Wingtips and classic oxfords. Several pairs of loafers with tassels. I've never liked tassels, but maybe the taller me would.

I notice that several of the shoes have the word lite in their name. The sneakers are called Sport-Lites, there's a Plain Toe Flex Lite and a pair of space shoes called Chukka Boot Lites that short astronauts might wear. I wonder what's up with this Lite-motif -- has market research revealed that short people find their shoes too heavy?

The most intriguing thing about the catalog are the travel bags near some of the shoes. What are they telling me here? Are these shoes actually for the man with a double life?

In Philadelphia, he's a 5-foot-6 father of three. And in Baltimore, he's a 5-foot-8 father of five. How can he carry it off? The shoes.

There are also Elevator slippers, which suggest that a short man might want to stay tall until the very moment he is prone on the bed. (At this point, he must hope that he is not pinned down and measured like a baby in a pediatrician's office.)

I have no idea what to order. I know I don't want the Gazelle Print Slip-Ons (hideous at any height), and I don't see myself in cowboy boots. I'm gonna back off on the tassels. The deck shoes don't look bad -- I wouldn't mind trying life as a tall sailor.

When I call to place my order, I have a few questions. For instance, will I have to get my pants lengthened?

My order-taker has heard this before. "Some of our customers change the length of their pants, but 90 percent don't," she says. "It's not necessary."

Then I have to ask about the golf shoes. That's a very difficult game, golf, and I can't believe anyone would attempt it in Elevator golf shoes.

"We get a lot of calls from men who say the shoes throw their swing off," she says. "They usually stop playing in them."

I tell her I'm not surprised.

The UPS man pulls up one sunny Saturday and hands my wife two boxes. "Clothes for you, shoes for him," he says.

My wife is mortified.

I go back into the bathroom, rip open the boxes, take off my Rockports and put on my Richlees. That deck shoe is a smart-looking number, two-toned brown leather and blue suede, with the exclusive 1 1/8-inch innermold inside.

I take a couple of uncertain steps in them. My first impression: They're very Lite!

Second impression: They make me sick to my stomach.

I'm sort of pitching forward, so I take the exclusive innermold out of the shoe and investigate its properties. I find that it's not flat -- the exclusive innermold looks like a miniature version of one of those ramps that ski jumpers fly off.

I lace the Els back up and go tilt at my wife.

"Do you feel like RuPaul?" she asks.

At work I feel self-conscious. I stand next to people I used to be shorter than. I'm still shorter.

Right at the start of my personal journey, I have reached a turning point.

I cart my Elevator shoes to a shoe-repair shop.

The man behind the counter seems to struggle in English, and I'm afraid I sometimes fall into the habit of speaking overly loud to such individuals. I explain my situation: "I HAVE THESE SHOES HERE, BUT THEY DON'T MAKE ME TALL ENOUGH."

There are four businessmen sitting against a wall getting their wingtips shined. One of them peeks at me over his Wall Street Journal. They all look at me like I'm a lunatic.

The man behind the counter examines one of my Elevators, pulls the exclusive innermold out and holds it aloft. "ALREADY HAVE LIFT IN SHOES!" he observes. "ALREADY MAKING YOU BIGGER."

A lesser man would have slunk out onto the big-city sidewalk. I press on. I tell the man I know my shoes already have lifts. What I want is more lift.

He pulls a crude thing out of a drawer that looks like a thin piece of plywood. Do I want one of these in each shoe? he asks.

No, I tell him. Hammer two of them in. And layer the exclusive innermold over top.

My new best friend, the guy behind the shoe-repair counter, has carried out my instructions with great expertise. I feel like a really big guy now.

For starters, I am taller than my wife.

She notices that while wearing my enhanced Elevators, I have developed the creepy habit of loitering next to her. Perhaps she is cooking dinner. Or brushing her teeth. I just stand there, being taller.

My wife doesn't like the shoes at all. More precisely, she does not like what they do to my posture. The ski jumper's ramp is very high now, and I walk as if I'm wearing pumps.

So it follows that my back and knees ache most of the time. Orthopedically speaking, doctoring the Elevators probably was not a sound idea.

I go to a party. Fifty people I know well. They're eating, drinking, talking. Not one of them stops by and says, Mike, you're looking really tall this evening.

I take my sister to lunch. I loiter near her. Finally, I ask her point-blank: Do you notice anything different about me?

"Are you losing weight?"

I'm not.

I ask a friend. She looks me up and down. Then, she notices! "You're not wearing glasses!"

I don't wear glasses.

Finally, I put this to what I think will be the ultimate test. I call my best friend, not the shoe-repair guy, but a guy I've known since I was 12. I figure he knows how tall I'm supposed to be.

He's working. I tell him he's gotta take a short walk with me. He says OK, thinking I must have something important to say. We walk, I say nothing. Finally, I look him eye-to-eye and ask: Notice anything different?

He ponders. His eyes fall on my two-toned deck shoes. He shrugs.

"The only thing I notice is that you're wearing funny shoes."

So I'm done with these shoes now. Nothing exciting happened in them.

It took me a while to figure out where to unload them. Not to a thrift shop. What if some poor person took a spill off a bus, and I found myself in the middle of a personal-injury lawsuit?

Then it came to me.

I've got this older brother. Buying gifts for him is impossible. He's got everything -- a big fancy house, a pool, more than one luxury car, hair. He's already been to a baseball fantasy camp.

But he's even shorter than I am.

The shoes are in the mail.

MIKE SOKOLOVE is a writer in Philadelphia.

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