Mary Wagner

Of Shoes and Strategy

They were “death on a staircase” shoes, and they stopped me dead in my tracks.

Sleek leopard print brocade, with pointy toes, squared-off vamps, delicate sling backs, and spike heels that added a good three and a half inches to my height, these were definitely trophy shoes.

I tried them on, but the questions I purported to be seriously asking myself as I strode back and forth in the shoe department glancing at the mirror from various angles—could I really wear them into a courtroom; what suit and accessories would they possibly go with; if I didn’t think I’d wear them to work where on earth would I ever wear them—were as ritualized and formulaic as Kabuki theater.

Of course I was going to buy them, it was a foregone conclusion. They were gorgeous, and sexy, and the fact I had no place in particular to wear them yet had not deterred me from buying any of their predecessors now sitting in my closet. My working theory that the occasion would follow the shoes was still working just fine, thank you very much. It’s a variation on the movie “Field of Dreams.” The shoes came home with me.

I bought my first set of stilettos not when I was a lithe and lissome young twenty-something, but when I was…oh, never mind. The fresh-faced and skinny days as a journalism student in college had been lived quite naturally in jeans and sneakers. Marriage and motherhood followed closely on the heels of my graduation and brand-new career as a newspaper reporter. And as every mother knows, rounding up energetic toddlers is a lot like herding cats. You have the best chance of success when you’re in running shoes.   

Even law school and then a job as a prosecutor didn’t reverse the tide. I had already gotten too used to comfort in the interval, conducting transatlantic phone interviews as a freelance writer in my shorts and bare feet and occasionally my pajamas; taking the kids to the beach in flip-flops; racing through the grocery store and leading Brownie troops through adventures in the woods in scuffed Reeboks. Sensible shoes did just fine.

The turning point came, as they usually do, during a time of high stress. One of my children had a mysterious health crisis, and I was killing time between driving her around campus by reading cases in an overstuffed chair by the fireside at Starbucks. Ever the multi-tasker, I was researching drunk driving law for an upcoming argument in court when I had one of those “eureka” moments that Archimedes made famous. Unlike Archimedes, I did not then get up and run wet and naked down the street. I went shoe shopping.

For the record, I was looking for some sensible brown shoes. But for some whimsical reason I decided to try on a drop-dead-dangerous pair of faux brown alligator sling-backs with three-inch spike heels. I was timid, and asked the salesperson to put them on hold. I picked my daughter up from class and brought her back to the mall with me. It took her about five seconds to size me up as I teetered in the shoes, and then she delivered a verdict. “Mom, those are really cute. You should buy them.” She’d been voted “best dressed” two or three times at her high school. Who was I to argue?

The alligator spikes came home with me and I wore them to work the next day. Another male attorney took one look at them, laughed self-consciously, and said “My God, Mary, those are the sexiest shoes I’ve ever seen!” It was one of those “light bulb” moments, and I immediately realized that I was on to something.

Spike heels get a bum rap from a lot of quarters. They have been likened to Chinese foot-binding. They have been branded a male conspiracy to keep us helpless and off balance. Described as something that channels the pain of the wearer into the suffering and domination of someone else. An article in National Geographic Magazine, “Every Shoe Tells a Story,” quoted British photographer David Bailey as having a fondness for high heels because “[i]t means girls can’t run away from me.”

If that’s what Mr. Bailey really said, I don’t think he was grasping the whole picture.

Doesn’t anyone remember what Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character did to Bridget Fonda’s boyfriend with a stiletto heel in the movie “Single White Female”? (Spoiler alert: he died!) Or the way Rachel McAdams slowed down a terrorist toward the end of the thriller “Red Eye”? I laughed when I watched her sink her sling-back stiletto into Cillian Murphy’s thigh, thinking I have the same shoes!! And we’ve all seen what Jack Bauer is capable of doing with his bare hands week after week in “24.” Just imagine what he could do armed with a pair of Manolo Blahniks. Well, okay…maybe we really don’t want to go there.

I like to break down some of my own fondness for “limousine shoes” as an exercise in courtroom strategy, since nearly every pair I bring home in a shopping bag finds its way into court with me at some point.

First, there is the height advantage, which is always a good thing in an authority figure. At five-foot-ten in heels, I am easy to spot in a crowd. Then, of course, there’s that delightfully authoritative snap of spike heels on a marble floor, an audible warning that indeed, trouble is just around the corner and closing fast. A cop I worked with almost every day for years said he could tell when I was approaching a particular courtroom from behind closed doors just by the rapping of my footsteps in the corridor beyond.

And last—aside from the whole “armed and dangerous” aspect of wearing something that could literally put somebody’s eye out—is what I call the “mother-in-law” advantage. It is hard to really pinpoint this, except to say that on some level, if a defendant’s mother, or sister, or aunt suddenly stops our group problem-solving discussion to tell me that I’ve got great shoes, I’ve gained, well...something.

I’m not sure exactly what that is, but it’s still something that none of my male colleagues in wing-tips or oxfords will ever experience a glimpse of.

This brings me to one of my favorite stories about just why I keep wearing these death-defying shoes to court, and waiting for the single, aging elevator instead of risking my life on the stairs. One afternoon some time ago, criminal traffic court—involving the traffic violations that can actually land you in jail—was about to start. The defendants’ names are usually called in alphabetical order, but sometimes they are called in whatever order a judge feels like just to keep things interesting.

A middle-aged woman came up to me and asked if I could do her a favor by getting her case called early on. Her husband had cancer, she explained, and was home alone. She needed to get back soon to help him with his medications. Was there anything I could possibly do? She was nervous and clearly out of her element in this courtroom, not one of our more regular customers who take their repeat appearances in stride, the “not guilty” plea as reflexive as breathing.

I remember I was wearing a pair of show-stopping plaid stilettos that day, with tiny black patent bows, and I absolutely towered over her in them. She barely came past my chin.

I assured her that I would do what I could, and passed word in advance to the judge that this particular woman could really use a break. We got her in and out of there in a hurry, and she was gracious and effusive in her thanks to all for letting her be on her way quickly under such difficult circumstances.

As she was leaving, she passed me where I was sat at the prosecution table and smiled. Then she caught herself in mid-stride and turned toward me. In front of a room full of defendants, attorneys, courtroom staff and the judge, she breached courtroom decorum, order and dignified routine, stopped, and announced “oh, and I love your shoes!!”

The prosecution rests.

This essay first appeared on my "Running with Stilettos" blog. It is reprinted from my latest book, When the Shoe Fits...Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances

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