Mukluks Monsters

November 18, 2007
Before I launch into a narrative regarding the acquisition of mukluks, I must first describe these unique items of clothing. In essence, they are knit booties that reach about the mid-calf point and have soft leather soles. Besides being warm and comforting, these Afghanian socks present themselves in myriad combinations of colors, ranging from black and white to all manner of pinks, blues, greens, yellows, magentas, chartreuses…. The list spans all the colors of the rainbow.

These foot insulators were all the rage at the San Francisco Ballet School Summer 2006 program- hardly a man or woman could deny having at least two pairs stashed away in a closet or drawer. Aside from being uniquely stylish (despite the fact that nearly everybody wore a pair), these mukluks served to keep the dancer’s most valuable instrument, her feet, warm and “in tune” before a long day of classes or during a lunch break. On every hall of the ballet building, troops of dancers all ages and gender sported mukluks in a dizzying array of colors. They could be seen on the feet of almost every girl or boy while they sat and chatted, or contorted themselves into inhuman positions (a practice known only as “warming up”).

Yet almost as colorful as the actual mukluks was the process of attaining these booties. Naturally, in the whole of San Francisco, there was only one known dealer of these goods, and every day one heard stories of the misadventures of dancers who had traversed to a somewhat shady establishment known as “Afghan Treasures” to acquire their mukluks. Although this merchant was by no means located in the worst part of town, one most definitely would not wish to travel there unaccompanied, at night, or particularly unaccompanied at night. This lovely purveyor of Middle Eastern wares was sandwiched between a dodgy “theater” and some sort of “electronics” dealer; and a variety of unwashed hobos and more were lurking on the streets nearby. Fortunately, the Muni bus stop was right in front of Afghan Treasures, so our little group could hop off the bus, link arms, and make a bee line to the tiny shop. We battled our way through the thick clouds of incense filling the doorway and raced past the strange statues and tapestries lining the narrow hallway, until we reached a small alcove in the rear of the store, still able to see out the front door, mind you.

Once we’d taken roll and assured ourselves that none of our number had fallen prey to any vicious mukluks monsters, the proprietor of the store (a Middle Eastern looking man who had probably seen his share of terrorist bombings) inquired as to whether we needed assistance. We nervously muttered “Not right now; we’re just looking,” avoiding staring too much at the man’s scarred face. Clutching our purses tightly, we fanned out through the tiny store, browsing the wares on display. I sucked on my Starbucks frappaccino and almost gagged. The scent of incense was so strong that I could taste it. I peered at the statuettes on display. They appeared to be having a cultural fusion party- a six-armed Shiva was situated next to a meditative Buddha, who in turn was seated atop a carved giraffe that was most likely the icon of some unknown African religion.
After we had quietly looked around for a few moments, the bravest of our group piped up and asked for a selection of mukluks to be brought out for our perusal. Following our request, a young, dark-haired girl (presumably the proprietor’s daughter) disappeared behind a curtain and returned moments later with a neatly folded “bale” of mukluks, tied with thick twine. After the string holding the mukluks together had been cut, we set upon them like locusts upon a ripe field of wheat, picking up mukluks, examining the color, texture, and pulling them onto our feet. Once the first “bale” had been thoroughly ravaged, the girl brought out another bale, this one filled with even lovelier colors, and once again, we attacked the mukluks. By the time this process had been repeated four or five times, almost everyone in our party emerged with a bare minimum of two pairs in tow, ready to pay the $10.85 due for each set of the handcrafted footwear.

While waiting to pay, I observed a sticker on my mukluks informing me they had been made in Pakistan. I envisioned a team of underpaid, emaciated children slaving away over these lovely socks, while American planes threatened to annihilate them. For a moment, I saw beyond my little world and my “need” for these mukluks. But after hearing the manager’s lilting voice say “Ten eighty-five please,” I was jarred from my musings as I handed him my cash.

We left the store with our arms full of our new woolen wares that still faintly smelled of incense and something exotic. As we boarded the Number 5 bus to return to our dormitories, the aroma of the store trailed us and lingered in our hair and clothes for some time afterward.

Comfortably situated on the bus, we said a brief prayer of thanks for our survival of the ordeal of purchasing mukluks; but that was before the bus broke down…..

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