Big Lessons Discovered in Small Store

My life changed forever inside the walls of a Payless Shoe Source.

Last week the small-but-mighty chain of shoe stores from Topeka, Kansas announced the closing of its 2,100 stores. Known for affordable footwear, you could always find a pair of shoes to keep your toes dry and a leave a few dollars in your pocket.

But it wasn’t the knock-off Sperry boat shoes that changed my life – it was the job as a shoe clerk inside the modest building that changed my life.

I was in college and needed a job. Payless needed a clerk. Not exactly a match made in heaven, but a job nonetheless.

Back then the school posted jobs on a bulletin board on note cards. When you ran across one you were interested in, you pried out the thumbtack and carried the blue card around the corner to the job placement department. The lady at a small desk picked up the phone and arranged an interview.

After a career of typical high school jobs of making pizzas and dropping chicken into vats of boiling grease, my job application probably did not knock the store manager out of his shoe-fitting stool. But for some reason, the manager gave me a shot.

Gordon was an interesting man. With his oversized-plastic glasses continually sliding down his nose, Gordon was what we called a Shoe Dog. Unpacking cardboard shipping boxes and carefully arranging each pair of shoes into a precise order along the half-dozen rows was his kingdom.

But there was more. Gordon taught me to sell.

“Walk up to the customer, greet them, and offer to help them find something.”

He made it sound so simple and effortless. But for me, it was terrifying.

First time I was left alone in the store I almost threw up in the backroom toilet.

One day I remember hearing a lady with her small daughter on the next row looking for a pair of shoes for Easter. With my back against a row of men’s work boots, my stomach began heaving, and a wave of sweat washed over me like I was back shoving pizzas in a stone oven. I took a deep breath and forced myself around the corner offering to help.

I don’t know if I sold a pair of shoes that day. But I do know I relived the same physical and emotional nightmare repeatedly until it one day, curiously, it faded away into the background.

Soon I learned the art of meeting strangers, discovering common ground, and finding a way to help them along the way. And to my surprise, this rewarding and empowering lesson altered the course of my life for the better.

Today whenever I find myself facing an intimidating or stressful situation, I always remember standing with my back up against the wall of boots sweating and panting – trying to break free from the chains of self-doubt. And then suddenly, I know whatever is on the other side isn’t so scary after all.


Life Changes Lanes Abruptly 

My nerves feel as if my fingertips are being dragged across a rough piece of 40-grit piece of sandpaper.

Sniffles are dripping through the receiver of my cell phone.

“They are going to take me into surgery next,” says the voice.

Our daughter is strong, confident, and driven. But she’s also human. Being wheeled into an operating room is enough to shake even toughest of exteriors.

The day began as another Friday; not a day she would end up in the hospital.

I am sitting on a sofa 800 miles from my little girl – the same one who turned 24 a month ago. My wife, too, is on the other side, sitting on a tarmac waiting for the plane to unload. She’s still an hour’s cab ride away from holding our daughter’s hand.

As a parent, there is nothing you won’t do or give up for your children. And if a bottle of magic dust existed that would allow me to trade places with my daughter right now, I would gladly hand over a ransom.

I don’t need to see tears to know they are dripping down her cheeks, my heart hears them clearly.

The doctor has come and gone. Our daughter knows what is ahead. But knowing does not dilute the unknown.

I tell her I love her and that everything is going to be all right. I say I wish I could gently hold her in my arms.

Muffling sounds come from the other side.

“Someone is here. I need to go,” she says.

I discover an invisible force pushing back against my finger as it hovers above the glowing red button on the screen. Mercifully, the other end goes quiet.

My wife texts she is in a cab. It is raining. The driver says an hour.

Earlier today a friend told me of the birth of his first granddaughter and how he was given the honor to cut the umbilical cord. His words carried me back to a small hospital in western Pennsylvania when my daughter decided to arrive on a day Mother Nature decided to dust the landscape in white. I cut the cord that day as well. As much as I feel the memory is from yesterday, I know she is an adult, the time between dissipating into a mist of memories.

My phone dings from the kitchen counter. The doctor is going to hold for 10-minutes for my wife to arrive.

Twenty minutes later the map on my phone shows my wife is at the hospital. A text arrives saying the doctor’s held for my wife. I thank God – literally.

For the next several hours I catch snippets of sleep with the phone planted in my hand. A call comes each hour to share an update. Finally, a text says our daughter is headed for a room.

My wife calls. I know where my daughter gets her strength. Tears meet across the digital spectrum between us.

And now, as a family, we move forward.


Cell Phone Stolen By Uninvited Callers

Someone has stolen my cell phone. And the odd thing is, the little black device the size of a perfect skipping rock is sitting next to me.

My cell phone constantly rings, converted into a de facto dumping ground for robot dialing, trespassing telemarketers. I’m not sure how this happened. I did not invite them into my private space and I wish they would go away.

My cell phone is a private space. From the home screen with a photo taken while my wife and I stood along the Pacific Ocean one chilly February afternoon to the Kenny Chesney music stored away for when I need a cool breeze of relief from the 40-grit sandpaper day. My cell phone is also home to strings of group text messages from my son, daughter, and wife – each dripping with the loving sarcasm only a family can deliver.

My cellphone is my personal and deeply intimate world. And I want my privacy back.

When I was a kid, a beige telephone hung from the wall in the kitchen. With a pigtail cord, you could walk clear over to the stove but not much further. And when the muffled but ear-piercing bells rang, you would run from wherever in the house you might be. After all, it might be long-distance.

But as much as we respected our telephone, we also viewed it as something akin to a public utility – much like the electricity running through the walls or the water dripping from the faucet over the kitchen sink.

I remember when telemarketers would interrupt our family dinnertime, and the caller would be lucky enough to get my dad on the line. He’d listen for a few moments like a cat waiting calmly for a few moments for its prey to drop down its defenses. And then my dad would spring in for the kill.

“Is this one of those damn recordings?”

On the other side of the call you could hear the pitch jaggedly interrupted, a bit of hemming and hawing, and then, sensing his moment, my dad would throw down his theatrically delivered closing line.

“Sorry, I don’t buy from people I don’t know and call me on the phone.”

And without another word, he would calmly replace the handset – many times with the voice on the other end trying to restart their pitch – as if nothing ever happened.

Today my cell phone lights up all day with the names of cities I’ve never visited and area codes I don’t recognize.

There was a time I loved my cell phone. To me, it represented the ultimate in privacy and convenience. I could drop off the face of the world and be back in a moment if need be.

But today my cell phone is the bane of my existence – now the 40-grit sandpaper of my life. Robot-calling thieves have stolen a private and valuable space. And with each passing day, this little device looks more and more like a perfect skipping rock.