On flip-flops

There has been a proliferation of flip-flops. When I was a child, these were the shoes of poverty—the shoes you bought to wear in a gym if you were afraid of the shower floor, or the shoes you bought when you could afford no other shoes. They cost $.89 or so at the drug store. They all had the same imprinted pattern on the outside of the plastic straps, their insoles were pressed into a faint grid. There were three circles on the bottom where the ends of the straps pressed though. If you were lucky you got a pair that did not have a coarse ridge of plastic left on the piece that went between your toes. If you did get a pair with that, you had to scrape it down with a razor to avoid it chafing.

There is something mesmerizing about a huge store display of something in a rainbow of colors. One of the towering walls of flip-flops at Old Navy or JC Penney. It’s a promise of all the colors at once, even though the spectacle will be gone when you choose one thing and take it home.

In the past few years in the U.S., one cannot help but feel that the inevitable slip is in progress. Hints of the third world begin to creep in to the cocoon of comfort—accelerating inequality, falling wages, rotting infrastructure. Combine that with the knowledge that our level of consumption is environmentally unsustainable, and the general feeling is that, for better or worse, the jig is up.

I try to not consume for the sake of entertainment. I frequent thrift stores. But I fail at this often enough. There’s a constant tension between wanting to live responsibly and knowing that even if we can perform the highly unnatural task of holding the world in our minds at each turn, that we can’t hope to control it. And the immediate often beats out the distant.

I can’t remember her face, but I met a woman once who had worn her flip-flops until the sole on the inside edge was paper thin—narrowing to a frail chisel edge as you followed it from the outside to the inside of her foot. The plastic was matte and crumbly-looking, the grid pattern long gone. She was dirty, maybe homeless, itinerant, bumming cigarettes from my hippie friends and talking in vague terms about the road. I remember nothing but the shoes. A using-up of something that seemed so striking in the world of objects that come and go and clutter our lives and still draw us to buy them.

The new flip flops are a little different, but not much. They cost $1.99 or $2.99, $5 if you are not a good bargain-hunter. Their rainbow of color seems to be their primary selling feature. The shoes of the end of the empire. The sign at JC Penney said “A flip-flop for every outfit.” This is what we are promised. You can pretend to be the idle rich a bit longer if you like. You will have the things of poverty, but you will be surrounded by a rainbow of them, you can use your money to buy more of them than you can use, even if they are a shoe that is barely a shoe, that fills your foot with a faint fear of slipping, a nervousness around escalators. You can console yourself with these bright things. And sometimes I do.

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