Unsure Footing

Removing one's shoes at the airport is a mudane act, yet it's also a profound symbol of a nation changed

September 11, 2006|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun reporter

What's strange is that it no longer seems strange, this spectacle. The empty loafers cruising down the conveyer belt. The flip-flops dumped in the plastic bin. The booties of a tiny boy, whipped off by his mother and loaded into the X-ray machine, alongside his baggie of cereal snacks.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," a harried woman says. She has forgotten to remove her shoes. She fumbles with the laces under the stare of a uniformed worker wearing regulation black sneakers. He oversees this security line at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where vacationers awkwardly pry off sandals, and practiced businessmen step out of their dress shoes almost without stopping.

The only travelers who openly protest this mass shedding of shoes, it seems, are the very old, who remember America as a different sort of place. A tiny, white-haired woman tries to scoot through the metal detector in a pair of canvas Keds.

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"I have to take my shoes off?" croaks an incredulous grandma in a wheelchair.

"Yes ma'am," Black Sneakers replies. Already, someone is tearing at the Velcro straps around her ankles.

Each day close to 2 million Americans shuffle through airport checkpoints, where -- in the wake of last month's foiled London bomb plot -- removing shoes is at last mandatory, though most of us have been doing it for years now, strongly "encouraged" by authorities. Five years after Sept. 11, 2001, in the midst of a war where most of the action happens overseas or in secret, the simple act of unlacing our sneakers is a mundane but tangible reminder of how this country has changed.

"It is a visible symbol of the stripping away of layers of privacy that has happened since 9/11, in all aspects of our lives," says Melissa Leventon, who teaches fashion history at the California College of the Arts. "We are forced to give away what used to be private."

The process doesn't bother everyone. Most people kick off their Reeboks without care. A few, though, seem to dread it. They carry spare socks in their purses, as protection for those few exposed moments. They are embarrassed to bare their feet to strangers, perhaps, or concerned about unsanitary airport floors. Maybe they resent the hassle. Or perhaps they are simply unnerved by the sight of grown people standing around in their bare feet, looking vulnerable and ill-at-ease. It seems somehow un-American.

Taking off shoes is routine in other cultures, particularly upon crossing a threshold. In Japan, shoes are removed before entering a home. In the Middle East, they are left at mosque entrances, when the devoted go inside to pray. The metal detector is also a threshold of sorts; it looks like a doorway, and leads to another realm, of planes and danger. Once on the other side, our shoes safely restored to our feet, it is easy to forget this. We are absorbed by boarding times and delays, not always mindful of those four flights that, five years ago, never arrived at all.

But those few barefoot moments at the metal detector jolt the senses, and not just because the tiled floor is cold. For many Americans, any separation from our shoes, particularly in public, feels peculiar. We're one of the world's most thoroughly shod cultures, a people prepared to die with our boots on.

The Bible occasionally promotes barefootedness (Jesus once commands his disciples to abandon their sandals, for instance), but the early Colonists to North America resolutely wore their Old World footwear. Their shoes were a symbol of civilization, a link to home, not to mention a useful accessory during the long New England winters.

Now that the wilderness of forests has given way to one of concrete, we still favor sturdy footwear. It is said to be unacceptable to meet our president in flip-flops (cowboy boots, tough-skinned and oh-so-American, seem to suit him fine). Our major contribution to international shoe fashion is the perfected sneaker, and Nike symbolizes America's economic imperialism at least as well as McDonald's or Microsoft.

In that sense, it's somehow fitting that the young Islamic convert Richard Reid chose sneakers as his weapon, packing a pair full of explosives and attempting to ignite them in the middle of a Miami-bound flight from Paris. That scare in the holiday season of 2001 started the emphasis on airport shoe inspections, though they were voluntary then, and sporadic.

Americans are an adaptable people; when our skies became more perilous, our footwear evolved. Manufacturers swapped the metal shanks in the soles for nylon ones, and companies marketed metal detector-friendly models. Some of these changes even preceded the shoe bomber's attempt, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. After the Sept. 11 hijackings, the designer Manolo Blahnik reportedly pulled a pair of titanium-heeled sandals from his fall collection, fearful that they could be used as a weapon.

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