Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Sockiad

Socks, you understand, are a business investment for me. I take them seriously. I do in-home massage, and many of the homes I work in are shoeless: the first thing you do, when you come into the entryway, is take off your shoes. So there your socks are, part of your public work ensemble. And when you begin work – as every massage therapist knows – all your client can see, through that little hole in the face cradle, is your feet, as you move about. Your feet are very much on display. Your clients gaze at them and think about them. You don't want holey, ratty socks. You want something that looks sharp.

Being male, I'd never bought socks. I didn't really know where socks came from. For all I knew, wives and mothers plucked them from the secret potted sock trees in women's restrooms in shopping malls, when they fruited in November, and brought them home as auxiliary Christmas gifts. But reason told me this was unlikely, in late capitalist America. Anything that can be commercialized has been commercialized. They must be bought and sold on the open market.

So – I thought – how hard can buying socks be? They're pretty simple garments. I should be able to nip into any clothing store and come out with socks. I didn't really believe that women have innate clothes-acquiring abilities that men are incapable of learning. And I really did need socks.

So I went into one of the Fred Meyers that still sells clothes, and cautiously found my way to menswear. Not that hard, and I managed it unobserved. And there were socks! A whole wall of socks! No problem. There were two basic kinds, athletic and gentleman's. That was easy. I wanted gentleman's. There were a number of dignified socks, navy and black, with self-effacing patterns: nothing to offend Jeeves' sensibilities. My heart rose. I could do this. Even with a Y-chromosome, I could do this.

All I had to do was find the right size. There were a number of different brands and prices, an incredible variety, in fact. It was the motherload of socks. So... I started examining them more closely. This pair, with a tasteful, I suppose argyle pattern, what size were they? Well, too big for me, by an inch or two, clearly. I have smallish feet. Not freakishly small ones, just small. Size 8 or 9, in shoes. I puzzled over the sock package for a while. Eventually, with the aid of my reading glasses, I discovered the size. They claimed that these socks would fit shoe sizes from 6 to 12 ½.

Now even I, hampered as I am with a Y chromosome, knew that was silly. A size 6 shoe is three inches shorter than a size 12 ½. There must be some mistake. This must be a foreign brand of sock, made in some racially homogenous, large-footed land. I needed a domestic sock. So I moved on down the rows to another brand. These were too big too. I squinted at the sizing. 6 to 12 ½. Weird.

Bottom left: 6 to 12 ½. Top right: 6 to 12 ½. Random sampling, different brands, different spots: 6 to 12 1/2. I gradually became convinced of it: this entire wall consisted of socks that were exactly the same size. To wit, an inch and a half too big for me. And as I pored over the socks, a new conviction was borne in upon me. Despite the brands and patterns, every single sock on this wall was the same sock. Every one. One mind and hand had designed the machines on which all of them were made. One sock to rule them all...

I was shaken, and my confidence that this was something the gender-impaired could do began to ebb. Was there really only one men's sock produced in the world? Surely not. Maybe Fred Meyer was just the wrong place to look for socks. Or maybe – maybe socks would shrink? That seemed possible. Anyway, to go without buying something would be to admit defeat. I chose a package, more or less at random, and fled to the cashier. I'd wash them and try them out.

Well. They were, of course, an inch and a half too long, even after washing. Not a total loss, because they'd fit my son. But clearly I'd gone to the wrong place. For different sized socks, one would have to go upmarket. I'd go to Macy's next time.

Macy's. Past the glittery lights, a little loopy, within moments, from the perfumes. Second floor. Whoa! A young man with a predatory mien, looking to be about fourteen, short hair slicked up, all in black, wearing a badge... a store clerk! I dive into a further aisle and work my way around. I seem to have lost him.

Here at the heart of menswear is, again, a treasure house of socks. But I'm not the naïve, trusting shopper I was yesterday. I take to sampling right away. 6 to 12 ½. 6 to 12 ½. I recognize this sock now, in all its brand-names and all its muted patterns. It's the same damn sock.

But in my zeal I've forgotten my perimeter defenses. Damn! The young man has found me, and I'm trapped against the sock wall.

“Can I help you?”

Well, no, obviously. If your mother works here, she might help me. I may have a Y chromosome, but I know that the only person who can help me is a store lady, someone who's been here 30 years and has seen the socks come and go like the tides. But what the hell.

“I'm looking for socks, but these are all too big for me.” He squints at the back of the package. “It says shoe size 6 to 12 ½,” I concede, "and I'm right in that range, but these are too big. Do you have smaller sizes?”

Sizes? I might have been speaking a foreign language. The boy took a stab at restoring rational discourse. “Were you looking for Polo socks?”

What? Oh, the brand. The package we were looking at did, indeed, say “Polo” on it. “Oh, I don't care who makes them,” I said cheerfully. “I don't get out on my pony much.” The boy smiled weakly, recognizing from the tone that I believed myself to have said something humorous. He backed away a little bit.

“Would there be a smaller size of socks?,” I asked, determined to be as plain as I could. “These are all the same sock. I need something smaller.”

The boy made a show of looking about, but we had already lost all confidence in each other, and clearly the sooner the interaction ended, the happier we both would be. “I'll just have a look around, then!” I said, and he fled. Moments later, I fled as well, and managed to get out of the building, to the blessed outside, unperfumed air, which I gulped as my heart rate and blood pressure returned to normal.

That evening, I consulted with Martha. I still intended to buy socks. My blood was up. I'd give it a rest for a day or two, maybe, though. “I'm thinking maybe boys' socks? Or women's? Lots of women have feet my size. But the boys' are almost all athletic.”

Martha frowned. “Maybe ladies' trouser socks,” she mused. That second X chromosome kicking in and doing its stuff.

The following evening, I came home and found on the bed several pairs of socks to be tried. Ladies' trouser socks, indeed: but while they fitted the foot, they threatened to strangle my calves, which are a bit thick from bicycling. No. But the last sock: ugly as hell. It had “Dr Scholls” printed in big white letters on the soles, but that was okay. The visible body of the sock, the foot, was presentable. The ugliness was a weird mesh that ran up the calves. But they fit! And they were comfortable! And the ugly part was hidden under my jeans.

“What are these?” I asked. “I've seen something like them before.”

“Well,” said Martha, a little embarrassed. “They're, you know, special socks. I mean, they're diabetic-old-lady socks. I have to admit it makes me feel a little weird to know you're wearing them.”

Of course! I knew they had reminded me of hairnets. But they fit.

“Could you get some more for me?” I asked, humbly.


Kathleen said...

Now I want some.

marly youmans said...

Love the Sockiad, particularly the nightmare of the mysterious, endless sock wall and then you fleeing a second time after the joke... and the humility at the end.

Anne said...

That was fun to read, and it reminds me of my daughter's comment on Jerry's socks when we were first married and she visited us. "Mother," she said, in a tone of deepest scorn, "Your husband wears white socks."

rbarenblat said...

Oh, Dale, this is a marvelous essay.

(Our house too is shoe-free, generally -- in winter we don't want to track snow and mud in; we've gotten into the habit of just being sock-clad all the time, indoors -- and I am often chagrined to rediscover just how holey my socks tend to be...)

Beth said...

Oh dear. (but smiling)

J. is at the upper range of that ridiculous "fits sizes 6 - 12 1/2" and when he puts on a "normal" sock can barely stretch it over his foot and ankle. If it makes you feel any better, women's socks are sized the same way, and we of average feet never give it a thought.

Sabine said...

Wait till you start washing socks in a washing machine, the plot thickens, the mystery unravels and before you know they are gone!

Very enjoyable read!

Pica said...

And... this is why I knit my own socks. They fit me perfectly.

Loved this post, Dale.

Dana S. Whitney said...

May I suggest that you learn to knit? If you are detail oriented or an engineer, you will be delighted with the exactitude of sock knitting. Men who knit have a stellar reputation. Many actually make a living at it. Check this out:

Zhoen said...

So funny.

The other alternative is to get some soft slippers, or slipper socks to put on when you take your shoes off. Hiking socks are also better fitting, stretchier, and still colorful.

D didn't get when I got upset when my socks got lost in the wash. Until he went with me to replace them. Women's socks are not as cheap as mens white tube socks in packs of a dozen or more. The light went on, and I lost far fewer socks.

Murr Brewster said...

Just you wait until you have to buy tights. Tights come in three sizes, and you are guaranteed to be on the cusp of two of them. Worse, the third one is called "turbo," and you'd rather think of yourself as more of a two-stroke.

And one of my least favorite things is making a joke with a store clerk and getting a blank look in response. One of you will feel really stupid, and it won't be the right one.

Lucy said...

Yes, my feet are too small for the continental female size range 39-41 which seems to be the only one in existence

I'm a little intrigued by Murr's comment about 'just you wait till you have to buy tights'; does she know something about your future that others don't? In fact I bought some tights that are really way too big, and observed on the wrapper (which I had torn off thereby precluding the possibility of returning them) a remarkable chart with one's weight on one axis and one's height on the other, and the blocked-in areas shaded to indicate what size you'd need, so presumably the tights are able to stretch limitlessly in either direction, and a 4'6" woman of large girth could, in principle, wear the same size as an etiolated six-footer.

Still, as I can never remember my height in metres and centimetres it was no help, and anyway, the feet, which were shaped, would still be too long.

You may find that Scholl's support mesh, although an unfortunate turn-off for Martha, is very helpful for chilly calf muscles during winter cycling. Good luck!

Deb said...

Love The Sockiad. Such a fun read (I was giggling on the bus -- didn't care the looks I got).

(Confession: I wear those old ladies socks since I do not have delicate ankles and need their non-grip caress.)

Tom said...

I heard giggling from the direction of the computer. What in heavens name can Lucy be finding so amusing? Another giggle! So I discovered your blog, and a hilarious find it was.
I don't buy socks so cannot identify with this experience. I just poke around my sock drawer to discover those little wonders from time to time. Now buying trousers, that's the thing. In France they seem to be designed for 3 metre tall people whose bodies are no fatter than that which would fit into a 6 - 12½ sock. As they do not have hems or turn-ups, one simply cuts off the surplus and sells them as windsocks.

Dick said...

I love this saga of sock innocence.

Dale said...

Thanks, all! I just want to go on record: there are no tights in my future, not so far as I know. There's enough sadness in the world, without that.

Murr Brewster said...

So much for Hamlet.

Udge said...

Oh, wonderful! I laughed and cringed (in recognition) all the way. And for what it's worth, you are dead-on right about buying socks. I think I was in my late twenties before I first bought a pair. In those far-off days they were properly made (i.e. sized in the same way as shoes).

Dale said...

Udge, how nice to see you! I think I was partly inspired by your too-many-toothpastes screed, here :-)