One Left Clog
By the time you realize the shoe is gone, the party is over and there’s no sign of the three-legged man. Your friends are falling or leaning into one another, zipping their coats under the red-purple light of the borrowed projector. The pile of shoes is a shrinking hillock next to the bed. People pull on boots, tie up laces. Mine, yours, mine, yours. Mine? Walking home through the snow you pass a taco place and women in tiny dresses pulling on enormous puffy coats. Recruitment season or a party. Two people kissing next to a fancy tea shop. Cold.
Sunday morning the light splits your head like a picture frame and the clog is definitely missing. Your friends report they can’t find their boots either. The host, your friend, is sorry. ‘What kind of person,’ she asks, ‘needs three left shoes?’
‘Someone,’ you suggest, ‘with three left feet.’ It’s an idea that pleases nobody.
Especially not your mom, when you call a week afterwards to tell her so. The clog comes up between discussion of the old job (unbearably cold), new course-load (terrifying) and suspicion that your admission letter was a mistake (perennial). She’s not amused. ‘We can’t afford new shoes every time some kid wants to pull a prank.’ It’s true that in middle and high school your mom sewed most of her own clothes. Homecoming queen of Napa High and cut the shape of her body out of a bolt of sequined cloth, which she stretched tight as a sheet across the dining room table. It’s in the garage somewhere, this dress, in a mess of cardboard boxes labeled ‘KIM-HS.’ You tried it on once (out there looking for a bicycle pump) but the bust ran to zig-zags and the shoulder pads swallowed your arms. Lying on the bottom bed in your freshman-sized double you regret telling this story.
‘Is it really such a big deal?’
Your mom, it turns out, wore the clogs as well. Jalisco’s was the name of the restaurant where she worked for most of her teenagerdom. Aunts and uncles waited tables, your grandma managed the buying and ordering of all the foodstuffs, and your grandpa came in on weeknights to hear his friend Placido Garcia, sing. In those days Placido wore long black pantalones de charros, seeded with little silver coins, and played with two guitarists backing him in front of the large letter J. Like most of the seasonal farmworkers known as braceros, Placido would travel up and down the state, tracking the cycle of crops. Beets and oranges and cabbage in January; sweet onions and spinach in the Spring; apricots, peaches, berries in June. During the summers of 1965, Placido did grapes with Cesar Chavez and your grandpa, too, along the picket lines where your grandpa says the musicians played like war. At the funeral Placido is accompanied by a church organist, a thin blonde church-type with varicose veins. Wore his hair threaded along his back in a pony like your grandpa’s. Sang Ave Maria like it was an old rancheras. Warbling, and warm.
Before the funeral, the only time you talk about it, your mother says she is convinced her mother died from the same kind of picking and pulling and traveling. Mostly in the Fresno apricot groves, which, your mother says, seeded chemicals into the flesh of her own mother’s hands and face and arms. Pesticides that worked their way into her mother’s body like fingers through soft dough. Knead, kneading. Rise.
In the casket your grandmother’s arms are crossed and she is wearing violet lipstick.
Unlike your mother, you have not worked enough in high school to even begin to afford your own diploma. Financial aid, however, requires it. Before your Southwest flight has even left the California tarmac the Harvard jobs database is open on your phone, a tabulated lists of employers who all seem uninterested in your extremely meager skillset. Lucky a fellow Sacramentan, a football player whose face will soon be all over the front page of the local paper, is also on this flight. Be a Hahvard Tour Guide, is his counsel. Great gig. Plus - and this is the important bit - anyone can do it.
‘Fifteen dollars an hour?” You mom rips the shiny orange bag of peanuts. ‘Pretty good.’
Some of your friends make fun of you. They call your job as a “hat tour,” referring to the straw boater hats that all Hahvard guides must wear. These hats look like something out of Downtown Abby, or else. Most of them also work. Cafe jobs, or jobs scanning books in one of the college’s infinite libraries. Librarians are generally not asked about their SAT scores or what their father does for a living. But nobody is paid as well as you are. Which for a while, is enough a point of pride that you aren’t wounded by friends making fun of your job. Nor does it bother you that several times a professor you admire has passed by while you are giving tours and once, actually stopped to frown.
But then it is October, and classes have accelerated, and you almost slip on a rain-slimed step as lead a group of tourists past the bell-tower of Memorial Church. Steadying yourself, you can’t help looking around. A few students pass between the trees, their umbrellas looking like neon fungi between the grey lawns, little moving mushrooms. Nearly everyone is in class or avoiding the rain. Nobody has seen you fall. Nobody, that is, except the twenty or so strangers who have paid for you to guide them, duckling like, across a Harvard campus that is swiftly beginning to look like a swamp.
Valiantly, you recover. ‘Mother Teresa gave the graduation address right here in 1982.’ The rain is now a gentle monsoon. ‘Any questions?’
From Japan; Germany; and Texas; the tourists have none. Everyone, that is, except the Danish woman. This person is examining your lack of water-proofed shoes. Earlier she asked if you always walked backwards, or whether that was a particular tour-guide-type thing. It didn’t seem particularly snide, and neither does her question about the clogs, except that she sort of laughed when you almost fell.
‘In my country, gardeners wear those.’
Rain speckles your sweatshirt in a friendly manner.
‘Oh- ah- really?”
You try to think of a suitable reason why an eighteen year old person, American or otherwise, might be wearing gardener shoes. You feel compelled to essentialize, something along the lines of: “Well, actually, studies show that clogs facilitate greater retention of information!” Shouldn’t she know about clogs? Vaguely you recall those articles about hygge, which you think is vaguely Danish, in the sense that all Nordic countries at this point are represented by your mom’s friend Bob, who has skiied since childhood and wore Ugg boots long before any of your middle school friends ever did. Why do you need to explain your footwear to this woman?
“Yeah. I guess gardeners in the U.S wear them, too.’
At the end of the tour you find ten dollars from the man from Osaka, a shower of coins from the Texan, and one parking ticket from the Dane at the bottom of your flooded hat.
But apart from this the job is good. Not just good, but great. It’s well-paid with minimal amounts of shame. This is more than most adults you know can answer for. But then you wake up one morning to a wheezing radiator and the sound of your roommate’s exclamation. “Snow!” She is from Texas, and the cold makes the both of you gasp. Fat flakes of it sting your face all the way to the library. The statue of John Harvard wears an extra layer of white. This is extremely troubling for your long-term prospects as a tour-guide, particularly since you own zero appropriate winter coats. After some great agony you apply at the art museum. The specifics are unclear but there is central heating and the art students will definitely appreciate your shoes.
In her office on the third floor your potential employer takes a sip from her bottle of Aquafina. She wants to know about research experience. Specifically, have you done any?
There is a literary magazine. The interview happens over Skype, because the editor of this other magazine is living in Morocco right now. She asks you to go ahead and invent as many uses for a plastic water bottle as you possible can.
Fill a plastic bottle with soil and stick a plant in it. Cut the bottle in half, make some jewelry, a headband. ‘A dog collar!’ (Thirty seconds on the clock.) Braid the plastic into a lattice and make the lattice into a basket and carry that plastic basket to the Tuesday farmer’s market. ‘A back-scratcher!’
You get this job, although it will not pay you anything and makes you reflect that nobody really needs a back-scratcher, dog-collar, bangles. You do not tell your mother about this position, because you know what she will say. Winter coats are expensive.
Not two weeks after your shoe was stolen, study breaks are called and canceled. Theft is a serious problem, the Dean of the Ivy Yard writes in an essay-length address, one that Harvard takes seriously. You recognize the prose. In your mind’s eye you can just picture her typing with one hand and pulling a long line of thread through a piece of cloth with the other. And so you’re not surprised to learn that the Dean of Ivy Yard, the Dean of Student Life, and the Dean of Pretty Much Everything Else, has received a note from your mother. ‘Dear Sir,’ they begin, ‘Dear Madam.’
According to your principle of doing the exact opposite of everything your mother wants, you try not to care. But a strange thing starts to happen. You start to look. At people. An up-down, one-two gaze that can’t be disguised as anything more than it is, the eyeball equivalent of an X-ray scan, except you’re trying to determine the bone structure of a soul. Whether there’s any integrity there. Or whether the person is just a godless shoe-thief, after all. (The closet, like the heart, is a duplicitous thing.) Anyone could be guilty, until you’ve seen the contents of their shoe rack.
Which is when it really begins. You, peeking into dorm rooms, a habit which will eventually push you to sign up for a summer’s worth of investigation. A million places it could be. On a desk, behind a sofa, at the back of the couch. But you have to know. Because you fear it could be sitting on some kid’s fireplace, like the ghost-like arrangement that you spy one a.m, passing a floor-mate’s suite. The kid is brushing his teeth down the hall, with his door left open. On the fireplace, where some folks have put wine bottles or books or boxes of crackers, this kid has a string of empty shopping bags (Hermes, Prada, Balenciaga) that he’s arranged along the length of his shelf. It’s maddening to see them there. And some combination of the late hour, your exam the next morning, the Hermes, your missing shoe, makes you feel an approximation of the way your mom sounded on the phone. Down the hall, a faucet shuts off. You take a good long look at all those designer names. Nothing that you’d wear yourself, anyway.
It’s not like you went looking for the ultimate snoop job. Not like you meant to start rooting through the deepest, darkest secrets of the Harvard student body. But a friend gets tired of hearing you moan about the weather, your job, your lost shoe (‘there are other things you could lose, she says such as, ‘Friends who are tired of hearing about your stupid shoe’) and Dorm Crew, it seems, is a great way to make money.
In case you have never heard of it, Dorm Crew is a program in which some students are paid to clean up after other students. Paid, essentially, to snoop. There are no interviews. The application portal describes a ‘transformative’ and ‘rewarding experience’ and promises TERM TIME JOBS STARTING AT $16.75 AN HOUR. This is better than the amount you were paid to point at Memorial Hall. Stock photos of joyful 20-somethings, presumably celebrating their gainful employment, leap from piles of fall leaves. You’d like to be joyful, too. At this point in freshman year you are mostly sad. You apply for the summer time job.
The friend vouches for it. ‘Well-paid, easy work. A ton of free stuff.’ This is true. There is a ton of free stuff. Spring clean up happens mid-May, after exams have tipped the tired student body from the panic of deadlines into the hot pan of summer internships, travel plans, their parent’s couch. When classes finally cut, people leave belongings strewn across campus. Dorm crew workers arrive to comb through the detritus.
Some things that you will find, doing this job:
- Clothing. In Dunster, you open the closet of a second floor room to closet racks swollen with formal dresses. Silver with plunging bodice, black with sequins, heels. Heels with tiny bladelike points and thick platforms. A Fendi purse, a BCBG bag. Take a black slip-type one for yourself and put the rest on the donation pile. Desks’ full of untouched candy. Rose-flavored gummies and Pocky and Snickers bars, still in their gleaming wrappers, all uneaten.
- Alcohol. Enough of it to send you on an endless bender, if you were to try to drink it all. A $200 dollar bottle of scotch. In Eliot house, a fully stocked bar.
- Furniture. Two couches, and three buckets of protein powder. A box of cup-holders with ‘Avocados from Mexico!’ logo on them. A pink dildo. Some nude photographs. And way too many used condoms.
Other things, as well. In Dunster House you open the closet of an otherwise pristine room to find a note written on the mirror in red excel market. “YOU ARE BETTER THAN THE FINALS CLUBS, YOU DO NOT NEED THEM. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH.” In the reflection you wear a vacuum on your back like a jet pack and ten pounds of dust. You are sympathetic to this person, but the Excel marker takes extra scrubbing to get it off.
Probably the worst suite that your team cleaned is a senior quint that belonged to a group of football players. A quint is like one room, but actually it’s five. The place seems untouched, like the occupants might be down the hall, about to step right in. In the common room are long shag carpets, two grey suede couches, four mini-fridges, a TV. And a smell like something the sun never got to, powdery and rotting and weirdly sweet. Four bulging trash bags, pregnant with what seems to be the boys’ entire wardrobes. Dress shirts, still stiff in those creases the way they get after starching, five pairs of Levi’s, and several pairs of girls’ underwear, unwashed. Boxes of goldfish and also liters of coke, liters of Vodka, bottles of Heineken that a teammate breaks as she tries to put it into your trash-bag, beer running into the shag rug like a stream of piss.
There are five rooms like this.
From the next room over, somebody shouts. ‘Hey! There’s one of those Forbes-Thirty-Under-30 badges in here!’ One of the roommates, it turns out, does not play football, is actually a self-made millionaire, has left us a snowy mountain of used tissues next to his bed.
Last summer, a team of dorm crew workers pulled back a shower curtain to find a pile of turds in the bathtub of an Apley dorm room. Two summers ago, a bedroom brimming with June sunlight also held a number of red solo cups, filled with piss, that’d been carefully arranged around the bed.
It is a truism to say that the folks who work dorm crew are generally those who need a lot of money very quickly. Which is not to say that there's no pleasure involved. You will see people clean the same section of a chair or a wall or a wardrobe until there’s no way to call that perfectly gleaming corner exactly what it is. This is masochism, self-abasing and purifying at the same time. It is a different kind of self-strengthening than the school year, this process of ritualized, mindless labor, which is so different from the mental exercises which are required during the school term. And for whom the sight of a recently scrubbed desktop, freed of wax-drippings, or the little clumps of frozen gum, is positively soul-freeing, ten-pound vacuum cleaner roped to their back like the motor of a rocket ship. Some folks just like the excuse to pilfer, magpie- like, the spoils that are left at the end of the year.
It’s worth knowing: in an average year, American college students will spend $48.5 billion dollars on Back-to-College items. This includes a seven point five billion dollar snack budget and five point nine billion for twirly red and purple projectors and that rug you’ll ditch at the end of the year. This year the Nat’l Retail foundation estimates that a sweet $54.1 billion will be spent on all of the rugs, toasters, lamps, and disco-light projectors that the average college student will need to furnish their room. So much of this gets left over that that the job of dorm crew is something like being one of those little sucker fish on the back of an extremely forgetful shark. It is a reciprocal relationship and one familiar to most people, although in some other notable cases the shark might not be the university; it might be the consulting firm, the nonprofit; one’s spouse. In the case of dorm crew, the shark is the student body itself.
Although to be clear, the shark is nobody in particular. It is a large and multi-sided animal, it mostly harbors no malice in the general, it is you and me and everyone we know.
Your mother is happy for you to have a summer job, even if it is a few weeks long. She is glad you are working and that such jobs exist. This is still last year, and her mother has yet to show the cancer, the second one, which will bring you back home and end your mother’s mother’s life. So your mom is happy that you’re working. A friend of yours, on the same cleaning team, is not so lucky. The friend’s name is Marisol. Her family is from El Salvador. The difficulty, she explains (you are both sitting on the floor of a senior’s suite in Dunster House, scrubbing wine stains out of the walls with a bucket of Enzysan and tiny yellow sponges) is that her mother had spent much of her own life cleaning. Houses, mostly. Sinks, bathrooms, kitchens. Ladies’ toiletries, men’s razors, the backside of sofas where dark things get caught. Marisol is going to Europe at the end of the summer and had explained Dorm crew to her mother as a necessary way to pay for the trip. Nevertheless, she had been forbidden from working.
‘She didn’t want me cleaning up other people’s messes.’ Marisol never says as much but it is your private suspicion (emptying the Enzysan, you spill some on your shirt) is that her mother knows what she will find. Had your own mother known that you’d be scraping crusted alcohol from the door-jambs and ceilings of fellow students’ walls, she might not have wanted you to work, either.
Marisol is assigned to the bathroom team, but does not quit.
Some other people do. There are folks who get sick, and then are fired; folks who don’t like running up and down stairs; who don’t want to touch the toenail clippings behind an Apley Court bed-frame. Secretly, you will think that these people are weak. You’re slow, but it feels good to try to be faster. There are races. Hours of scrubbing floor landings pass in a way that’s not exactly enjoyable, but they go. When you reach down behind an Adams bed for a grey sock and discover it is a mouse, back broken but still soft, you have to put your broom and step outside the door. As another woman comes in to scoop it away, you sink to your knees and try not to lean your head on your hands. Think that after all, this is why the shark / sucker fish metaphor is inapt, maybe even offensive. Because you are all one group of students cleaning up after another group, but it’s one and the same species, after all.
So maybe forget the fish. The idea of dorm crew is more along the lines of having a friend wipe your ass after taking a shit.
On the night in the snow when the shoe is stolen, you’re going to curse the name of the mother of the son or daughter that decided to steal your clog. Somehow, you will make the mistake of telling this to your mother, your mother the homecoming queen and daughter of the restaurant-maker, about the missing clog. She will email the Dean; the head of the freshman dorms; and CC the president of the college. Her email will include shuddering words such as THEFT and PRIVATION and SPOILED KIDS THAT TAKE OTHER PEOPLE’S SHOES BECAUSE THEY THINK IT’S FUNNY. She does not use all-caps, she writes in very clear prose. On the phone, her voice is a shout. Sigh and laugh.
“Don’t worry, Mom. They were only $20.”
Before your mom was nominated for homecoming queen she played softball. You’ve seen her at bat only the one time, and that was to break up a cat fight. The purse was yellow: she went in swinging. After the cat fight, washing her hands in the kitchen sink, she puts peanut-butter on bread for the both of you to eat.
Say, “It’s fine, I’ve got one shoe left.”
“What good,” she answers, “is a left shoe without its mate?”
Consider the things you could do with one left shoe: plant a tiny garden; use it as a ladle; put secret things in the toe of it. Throw it at the neighbor’s cat. There’s only one reasonable answer to all of this, though, so you shrug, and say:
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll find it.”
You never do.