Boots on the Ground
Anything can become ordinary. Moving through the small city of Palma de Mallorca these days, I see oodles of women and girls in boots like my own. I get a pair every handful of years and wear them until the soles are ground down and cracking. I love to pull on a pair of bad-ass boots. Thick and sturdy, with heavy black-soled teeth to grip and propel me forward to wherever I might be going. My stature changes. In these, I am tall and firm. I think back on when wearing chunky military-style boots held the potential of a symbolic upgrade for me. I hoped to graduate from the suffragette style lace-up ankle boots of a high school aesthete to the steel-toed variety I walked amongst in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 80s. I coveted the ever-lasting ones with waxen stitching around the perimeter of the durable rubber bottoms, but couldn't bring myself to make the purchase. It was probably because I reserved my cash for electricity or pricey tubes of ultramarine blue oil paint from Pearl Paint down on Canal Street. I chose not to invest in the big black boots that formed part of the uniform of the sexy-fierce art school girls from other cities. Instead, one Sunday I went to the 25th street flea market on the West Side and bought some Frye cowboy boots for twenty bucks, instead of my usual pickings of broken vintage jewelry and pillboxes. Those stacked wooden heels felt good, until one day when I was crossing 3rd ave at St. Marks Place, more or less alone on the crosswalk. A man shouted to me from the side I was facing, just as the traffic paused in a sudden silent hum at the red light, 'Hey Red - Nice hooves'. Just then the crosswalk became a catwalk and, although I didn't look down, all my attention went to the second-hand cowboy boots on my feet and then to the heads turning.
Eyes on me. I smiled because it was funny. Who doesn't want to feel like a minotaur for a moment?
There are only two people in the world I tolerate being called Red from, this doesn't mean I like it, I just love them more than I dislike the moniker. There have been others. They were usually strangers or fathers or husbands of people I knew, who decided that what I am called fell under their jurisdiction, and who used the nickname like a code word to see if I might pull back the curtain in recognition. Even as I child, I wouldn't say anything in protest, but I would always correct them in my mind thinking 'my hair isn't red, it's orange, stupid'. As far as the ubiquitous street heckling I absorbed in New York at the time went, this was a good one. Nice hooves - still objectively funny. I let him see my smile. Eyes on me. Then he said as I got closer and without lowering his voice, 'Yeah! Come 'ere, Red! I wouldn't mind eatin' fire again'. My smile dropped first, before my brain could take on the meaning of the second cat-call. Oh. Undressed, just like that.
I fixed my gaze at an imaginary safe point in the distance, kept walking and let the eyes follow me out of sight.
Boots on the ground is a military term. Art school kids wearing army boots began as a statement of anarchy a la the Sex Pistols and Vivienne Westwood and so on. I mean, I was a stone's throw from CBGBs, of course I wanted to walk the walk and be a bonafide tough chick. The androgyny of unisex footwear had its appeal as well. Still, a pair of those boots would cost me a lot of round trips home on the Chinatown to Chinatown bus, so I waited 'til grad school to get some steel-toed boots. I didn't go for the black ones, but chose a dusted burgundy, just like another cool chick I admired in my night courses. They were from the men's department and fantastic for digging my car out of the snow. My feet perpetually dry, the boots buffered me from the cold and any real contact with the pavement. The heels elevated me a few inches and affected my posture for the better - sternum out, shoulders back. Here I come. I kind of wish I still had them now, but I have the tendency to purge my wardrobe every seven years or so, deleting evidence of the previous phase. Someone else got those for a good steal at a second-hand shop or flea market.
Much of fashion is recycling anyway. That's one thing you see if you live past age thirty, listening to the charming declaration of the newest generation that they are the first. There can only be so many first firsts. The infectious Fast-Fashion industry ensures that you can get these boots, or an awkward substitute, pretty easily now. I see women and girls of all ages and presumed mindsets wearing these bad-ass boots. No one appears to care about the statement they used to make, what it says about obedience or disobedience. Like when, also in grad school, I got second and third holes punched into my earlobes. My mother and sister-in-law scoffed at me, Now, why did you go and do that? A few years later they both got their second holes pierced with the rationale that they could always have their diamond studs in and still be able to interchange the jewelry hanging from hole number one. I got a fourth hole on just one side, just to stay in the lead. Neither wear the buckled and studded black boots on offer at any mall today, though.
For a moment, on the bus and on the street today in Palma, I want to fantasize that it still means something, like a wink from a secret army at the ready to fight, to run, to rush a barricade. A sea of readiness, their status elevated in numbers. The resistance. Boots on the ground. Now the term has been usurped by pundits and applied to any situation on either side of the barricade. I get caught up in idioms. To the point of annoyance, I like the hashtag poetry that can be made under a social media post to tease out an idea or assumption. It's fun to be figurative, but I confess to plunking idioms down where and as I see fit, gratuitously. Isn't it careless to take the variability of the meaning behind catch-phrases for granted? Is it done just to be subversive, or to hide out in the multiplicity? Or, is the freedom to provoke in my job description as an artist? Either way, I also know the sloppy use of language can be irresponsible and hurtful. As an agitated pacifist, I want to appropriate the military term, if just for a minute in my imagination as I make the daily commute. I want to visualize droves of forward-leaning bodies, regardless of identity, all moving towards a common goal in a growing tide, sure on their feet. I want to feel fortified as I fall into step with an all-terrain Avante Garde torrent lapping at the heals of the old guard. Conscientious objectors standing their ground, persistent in the fight to be free, in boots or bare feet. Today, let me imagine this.