One of my earliest memories is my first visit to the shoe store. Above the doorway hung a sign that read, “I had no shoes and I complained . . . until I met a man who had not feet.” In hindsight the shoe store seems an incongruous place for such a sign, as it counted neither the shoeless nor the footless among its clients. But it made an indelible impression on me. Perhaps the sign was simply aimed at telling kids like me to be grateful for what we had. But I read a deeper message, one that required me to think about my connection to others who had no shoes, or even no feet – and that demanded, not just gratitude for what I had, but compassion for those who had little or nothing.
I thought of that sign as I drove recently to Flint and Detroit, places where large numbers of people have so little and feel increasingly unconnected to the America in which I live. And when I drove back to Maine, where I write this, I was struck by how little we know of – or think about – the people in our crumbling cities.
When Ferdinand Marcos was deposed from the Philippines’ presidency in 1986, the enduring symbol of both his corruption and his detachment was the allegation that his wife, Imelda, owned 1,700 pairs of shoes in a country filled with shoeless people. And I fear for an America where those who have so much are increasingly insulated from those who have so little.