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.