Friday, February 25, 2005

In search of clean tennis shoes

For a while now, I’ve been in conflict with the manager of the health club where I do my aerobics. They have a very strict policy about shoes. Everyone going into the club must take off their shoes at the door and place them into cubbyholes. Since the majority of the club’s visitors are men who take wrestling lessons, the entrance hall reeks of sweat and dirt and toe jam.

I’m then supposed to walk in stockinged feet over carpets they’ve spread on the floor, around the wrestling mat, and upstairs to aerobics, where I am to put on my tennis shoes. The tennis shoes I’m supposed to put on should be used only for aerobics and no other purposes. They don’t want any dirt to get on their nice carpets.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to this policy. Since I often go by foot to aerobics, I’d like to walk there in my tennis shoes. Why add a second pair of shoes to what I have to carry? And since I have to be ready to move at any time, I try to limit my accumulation of things. The last thing I need is a separate pair of tennis shoes for each activity.

A few weeks ago they started becoming dictatorial, making me pull my tennis shoes out of my bag as I arrived and inspecting the soles for dirt. So I could no longer wear my tennies directly to the club. But I would still sometimes wear them at other times.

On Tuesday I went through the rituals of replacing my boots with the tennis shoes and sat on my step before class began. All the staff seems to have been instructed to monitor my shoes. And when the teacher came into the room, she pointed out that I had some dirt on my shoes and needed to go wash them.

I did, then came out to face the wrath of the manager, a tiny middle-aged blond Russian, dressed in navy warm-up pants and a yellow jacket.

“How could you come in here with dirty shoes?” she asked, angrily.

“I didn’t realize they were dirty.”

“How can you not realize it when you put them on?” She continued in a stream of vitriol, telling me I’m a horrible person and that if I don’t have new shoes by next class, she’ll give me my money back and I can please not come any more.

If I had another choice of aerobics classes, such an outburst would have caused me to take my business elsewhere. But since I need my exercise, I have to do what they say.

So yesterday, when I was in Kara-Suu, the market town on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, I decided to pick up some tennis shoes. Business had been good that morning and the majority of containers (the metal boxes people sell things out of) had already closed for business. There were only two containers selling tennis shoes still working.

Our driver Malan and I approached the one with the larger selection and I tried on some shoes. They were relatively expensive ($15-20), but I was in a hurry. The first pair felt strange, so I tried a second.

“Jump up and down,” Malan told me. I did as he said.

The second pair was satisfactory and I bought them. The vendor didn’t speak Russian well, so throughout the transaction, Malan translated, speaking Kyrgyz or Uzbek.

When we got into the car, he told me about their dialogue.

“The vendor wondered what you needed shoes like that for. I told him you were an athlete and that you know karate. So then when you jumped up and down, he was really impressed.”

“Why did you tell him I do karate?” I asked, laughing. “So that’s why you told me to jump?”

“I just felt like it. And when you jumped his mouth opened in shock. The local women here can’t move from the ground. He’s not used to seeing a woman jump.”

So I got a pair of shoes, and inadvertently frightened the seller in the process.

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