Homelessness and High Heels at the 7-11


I've never really cared too much about shoes.

It's true. I don't get the whole shoe obsession that most women seem to have. Sure, I can appreciate the architecture, the wild plumage that decorates a Louboutin or the glorious excess of a bedazzled Valentino sandal, but in The World According to My Feet they are to be admired, never tried. And being of Danish decent, I default to the national shoe—The Clog.

Kevin and I were recently in Las Vegas celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. I had found The Dress. You know the one. The one you slip on in those department store change rooms—that despite the lighting-and-mirror combo that pushes you to the brink of suicide—makes you feel like a million bucks. It was gold and black and really, really sparkly. It hugged my body in such a way that my small boobs looked bigger and made my "muscularly-challenged" butt pop. I loved it.

But I did not have any shoes. I barely have anything that qualifies as a shoe outside of a gym shoe and the shoe ubiquitous to all Danes. (That is to say—the clog. It bears repeating.)

So, I tried on a whole lotta shoes. On the hunt, we trudged up and down the harshly-lit florescent Fashion Square Mall on Las Vegas Blvd. (a.k.a The Strip.) We duly dodged the perfume-sprayers and the free-standing stalls with shellacked salesgirls, asking, no insisting that I get extensions. And we strolled though The Shops at the Forum at Caesar's Palace. We met a bright-eyed couple from England inside the Louboutin store. (She was in shock over her recent engagement and he was in shock over her pre-dress purchase of super-sparkly, silver Louboutins.) But, despite traipsing up and down the shoe spectrum from plastic cheapies to Gucci's I could not find a pair. The Pair.

Finally, Kevin did. Through The Steve Madden store window he spotted them. They were not particularly expensive. But they are particularly green. A shade somewhere between lime green and leaf green. They have a slightly closed toe. And the heel is high. The highest I have ever worn. They make me about 5' 7'', which was the height I was supposed to grow to if my kidneys hadn't failed at age 13. I strutted around the store and finally felt the flutter felt by million of women world-wide when they slide a eager foot into a open and willing high heel. My skin tingled. My neck flushed hot. I loved them. I had to have them.

And I did.

On Thursday night, I was honored with The Allegra Johnson Prize in Memoir Writing through UCLA Extension Writers' Program. This blog is not about that evening, but it was thrilling. To be honored with a $5000 prize as a show of faith in my writing talent, as encouragement to complete my in-progress memoir. And it was humbling. I met the parents of Allegra Johnson, in whose honor the prize was established. Allegra was a classmate of mine in my 2013 Introduction to Memoir class and her talent, intelligence and defiance resonated with me. The evening now resides on my Top Ten List of Unforgettable Nights.

Now, I'm a good eater. I don't pick if presented with 5-star dining, but I had been nervous and barely touched my gourmet Italian meal.  As I drove home, well, raced home—my veins surging with adrenaline from the evening and Brandon Flowers' new album blasting inside the car)—I realized I was starving. There is never anything sweet to eat in my house because if I start, I cannot stop.  (Kevin once brought home 20 specialty chocolate bars from Scotland and stuck them in the freezer. And I cried.) So I thought, "Ah, what the heck. A wee treat for myself."

It was about 11:00 pm when I pulled into the parking lot at the 7-11 near my house. We live in a funny little pocket of Los Angeles called Shadow Hills—all horse ranches and acreage. It borders a less affluent area called Sunland, and the 7-11 is right across the street from Sunland Park. In the park, a small government building hosts kindergarten classes and AA meetings that I attend.

I saw her tearing through the garbage can. Digging, digging for her version of gold. Plastic bottles she could recycle for money or a half-eaten sub from the Giamela's next door. She was emaciated, with matted gray hair, or was it just a dirty, dirty-blond? It was hard to tell under the glaring store lights that blew out her face. But I could see eyes like black marbles, wrinkles run wild across her face. I am sure if I had drawn near I would have gagged. She wore a white t-shirt and shorts that hung loosely from her body, ill-fitting, like hand-me-downs most would hand back. The clothes were filthy, stained with dirt and desperation.

I have made it a personal policy to never give money to those who beg. There exists the endless argument as to whether giving money enables the homeless, as so many of them struggle with addiction. I have ever known in my heart if this decision is right or wrong.

I emerged from the car in yet another fabulous dress—a bright aqua color with an angular red-and-black design. And those shoes. The shoes I had to have. I clipped the short distance from my car to the door of the 7-11 and braced for the question I knew she'd fire at me like a targeted missile.

"HEY! Can you help me out with... OH! I LOVE YOUR SHOES!"

"I'm sorry." came my reflexive response as I walked through the door.

The bell on the door rang as it closed behind me. I walked over and grabbed an iced tea from the cooler and a bag of Snap Peas from the shelf. I placed my items on the counter and smiled at the cashier. These things I did on auto-pilot, not thinking. Because all I could think about was her. That I was her. And that she was me. And at one time, not too long ago, my active addiction took me to a place of such desperation that I thought I would die if I did not have drugs. I thought about the people in my life who had helped me. Who had loved me through it all. And I wondered if she had anyone who loved her?

Was it the little bell above the store that triggered this thought process? No, it was The Shoes. In her admiration of my shoes, with those four little words, we became just two women, two chicks really, having a fashion moment. She was humanized. And I was reminded. Of how far I have come. And how easily I could lose it all again.

I thought about the $5000 check lying on the front seat that I had just been honored with for writing my tale of addiction. Addiction she was living, and that I am free from today. I took a $5 bill out of purse and rolled it up. I went outside and turned left, walking over to the garbage can where she was still digging.

"Here you go." I croaked.

When she saw it was a $5 bill, she screamed with joy,

"OH MY GOD! Thank YOU! You have NO IDEA! You just SAVED MY LIFE!"

I sat in my car for a few minutes watching her. She had run towards the park after I'd given her the money. Sunland Park where you can find AA meetings and exchanges of the less spiritual kind—sex, drugs and demoralization. I thought, "Well, she's probably going to score." But suddenly, she turned around and walked into the 7-11. And I watched her talking to the cashier as I pulled away. And I thought, "Maybe she bought some water, or a sandwich. Maybe, maybe I helped."

My skin tingled. My neck flushed hot.

I lowered my Steve Madden high heel onto the gas pedal and drove home

Makes me cry. You’re such a good writer, Henny!! — Lisa Olafson
I love your writing, and I love that you shared with the woman. — Kathy Butts Labossiere
Great read, Henriette. And great shoes too! —Wendy Beatty