London tales 2: "Shoes" or Normative Judgement

The stranger came to work in a great city, full of sturdy buildings with many ancient domes and arches. As he approached his place of work he encountered a large number of other, similarly suit-clad people going about their business. The stranger observed their faces, for few smiled and many had sad eyes. As he approached, he noticed a common reaction. People with stern faces would approach and their eyes would alight briefly on his face and travel downward as though in appraisal.

When they reached his white cushioned running shoes their eyebrows would migrate upward and, as they made to pass, their heads would turn, eyes still rivetted to his feet. Others would approach and their eyes would take the elevator to the ground and then they would look quickly away with sterner expressions than those they had worn before. A few smiled and tried to hide their smile for they seemed to think that the City was a serious place and not to be smiled in. And the stranger thought about this reaction long and hard.

'Perhaps' he thought to himself "these people have sore feet and envy the comfort in which mine reside."

And then he thought,

'but these seem sensible people, so if they had difficulties with their feet surely they would find more comfortable footwear for the street, as I have?'

Days went past with still the same reaction, often by the same people each day, for he was punctual to his work and rarely varied his route. And the reaction was puzzling to him. At length, after some considerable reflection he thought this must be a strange place. A philosopher had once told him that this country was one that operated without words. And the stranger thought it somewhat strange that a society could work that way, for how would newcomers know how to behave in that society if no-one said anything? Ah, said the philosopher, in this country you just know. Indeed, had not the stranger recently overheard a person from this country telling a foreigner "in this country no-one asks why... things just happen"? So perhaps these people did not think about sore feet, perhaps after all their eyes suffered from an affliction such that they travel downward and become fixated. Yet the stranger knew that this was not always the case, for often they just stared blankly ahead.

But after considerable contemplation, the stranger recalled another philosopher who said that power was often wielded through the gaze. And this was a normative power. It was as if those who wore suits and stared rudely, even rather comically, expected that their gaze was sufficient to point out that something was out of place, different, Other. As though there were somehow a 'right' way to dress. Indeed, judging from the others who wore suits, it seemed that this power was strong indeed for those who understood it, knew the rules of the game, for they were like clones - even walking in a similar manner, uncomfortably straight. Yet, the stranger thought, how could this be a 'right' way to dress when they all looked so uncomfortable and sad. He also thought: "If this is a normative gaze, yet based on history and habit, perhaps these habits can change if people want them to."

Once he understood this, he resolved to act. Henceforth, he thought, I shall continue to wear running shoes when walking on the street, for to do otherwise would wreck my feet and give me back pain and worse still; a sad expression. He ignored the stares, indeed he met their stares full on and in many cases the starers looked away and soon he found that some looks were appreciative, and some among his colleagues took on expressions that seemed to say 'what a sensible idea' and soon the stranger began to encounter others who had walked in or who had taken long journeys to get there, wearing running shoes below their suits while on the street, changing to formal shoes for the theatre of the work place.

© Jerry Everard

email contact . . . creative writing index . . . return Home