*In tribute to Terry Pratchett’s “Sam Vimes ‘Boots’ Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness”
I recently spent twelve months of my life periodically checking the price on a pair of black knee high lace-up boots from Frye. There is nothing else like them on the market, nothing that is both rugged and delicate in equal measure. There are some faux leather imitators at around the $35 price point; they all look terrible. Harley-Davidson makes a version for around $200 that is covered with branded hardware. Dr Martens, my usual go-to for all shoes, also has a knee-high boot, but it’s thicker, chunkier, not a shoe I could dance in. I can’t describe this boot that Frye has made as anything other than a pure anomaly. It looks like it was made for me, and it costs $458 at all times.
I know this because I watched those boots like a hawk on every possible platform. No one was selling my size on EBay. They never went on sale. The cheapest I have ever seen it was used, in the wrong color, for $400. A friend even tried giving me a different pair of Fryes, which were too small and did not quell my desire for the ones that cost $458. So eventually, in October, I bought them.
Why did I want these stupid shoes so badly? I tried to explain it to partners and friends in what you might call “aesthetic-pragmatic terms”:
It’s fall and knee high boots are a thing in fall
They make me look equally like a dominatrix and an 18th century master duelist
I’d like to plant the sole of one on your bare solar plexus and push you backward onto the floor
They will last my whole life and accompany me, as one reviewer on Zappos said, “on many misadventures”
The desire was partly about the boots, which were perfect, but also about the money, which involved struggle. The power and resistance inherent in trying to save up $458 for boots while being a person working in academia/food service, while my savings account rose and fell with my car’s need for repairs, made me mad with desire. Finally buying them felt like throwing fistfuls of cash out of an open window.
When the boots arrived, at first, I was wary of them, because I did not feel the overwhelming satisfaction emanating from them that I had expected. But I put them on and zipped them up, and walked around in them cautiously. I also went out for a trip to my local coffee shop in them and slipped on the concrete floor, because 1) they didn’t have the friction-rich tread of my usual boots and 2) I was so nervous that everyone was looking at me and could tell that my boots were expensive and I was a charlatan. I started to panic a little that maybe I had been seduced into thinking I need these boots when really what I needed was therapy for my gross consumerism.
I needn’t have worried. I ended up wearing the for a week straight, and then as part of a pirate costume, and then on my birthday, and at Christmas. I now wear them almost daily, to keep off the rain and sleet while I bicycle to work. They feel like a part of my body. What’s more, having gotten them, I feel less need for other new things. For example, I would like a new winter coat, but I haven’t yet found one that makes me feel the way the boots did when I saw them, and anyway my old one is fine. So I wear my boots and my old coat and am confident that I will be both warm and dry.
It’s a pretty common and often-derided impulse to buy something expensive when you can’t really afford it: a nice car, a fur coat. But I get it: even if everything else goes to shit, you’re still the kind of person who has a fur coat. Arabelle Sicardi writes poetically about fashion as armor, and I came to understand what that meant when in a year of many deaths, I bought a leather jacket. I could put it on and be transformed from someone who was lost into someone who was wearing a leather jacket.
The boots were like that, but different. Rather than transforming me into someone else, they transformed me into myself.
“These boots have resolved my feelings of inadequacy,” I said recently to the Beloved. “They’ve rewritten my attachment style. They’ve cured my fear of abandonment.” I was only kind of joking.
Of course, this feeling doesn’t come entirely from the boots. Part of what I’m experiencing is the freedom to make my own decisions about my desires while still having healthy limits placed on those desires. I know something about myself that I didn’t before, which is that if I want something very badly for a year and am willing to forego some other things (coffees/lesser boots) I can have it. But I cannot have everything I sort of want, and that actually seems ideal. Having to make choices helps me aim true on the occasions when the thingness of a thing really does matter, which is rarely. It turns out that most things you can buy will not make you into yourself.
I sometimes think that what rich people don’t understand about being rich is that they are actively losing out on satisfaction. For someone with a lot of money, spending $458 on boots wouldn’t be thrilling, because it would have no real impact on their finances, and the law of marginal utility quickly comes into play when you’re talking about expensive gifts for yourself. I also read an article once about the very rich feeling too guilty about being rich to enjoy what they have, which seems to me to be terminally pathological--scrabbling to the top of wealth’s gross dogpile, just to find that being on top makes you anxious. The solution seems obvious to me: don’t get that wealthy, or if you do, give it away as generously as possible, so you can go back to relishing the particular joy of delayed gratification. I went to high school with a girl who told me that she had sweaters hanging in her closet with the price tags still on them, which seemed to me like saying that she didn’t know what she wanted, or how to get it.
The woman who haunts the street corner near the building I work in wears no socks with her one black New Balance and one white Nike. She and the girl with too many sweaters are intimately linked; the woman in the mismatched sneakers could have what she needs if we knew what adequacy looks like, if we knew when we’d had enough. I don’t have a solution for how to help her, other than to urge anyone who is feeling a little too full, including myself, to ask her what her shoe size is.