By Meredith Betz
Alfred Lutkins almost missed the 8am M train from Astoria to Manhattan. He had anticipated a shorter line at Dunkin Donuts. A large number of Astorian spent the weekends, watching their kids’ soccer games. They zoned out on college football. They’d slosh down a lot of booze. Morning Joe’s bolstered their resolve to start yet another slogging week. He had forgotten.
He took his chances and made a swift leap just as the doors were closing. His small coffee with extra cream splashed onto his favorite and only coat. Thus, he avoided the disaster of disrupting his morning ritual. Thank goodness. It would have ruined everything.
Sucking in the acrid air of the car, he made his way to his favorite seat, the two-seater farthest from the door. Alfred was a comical figure in his Sherlock Holmes plaid coat and its distinctive cape. Years ago, Alfred had passed a “going –out- of -business” sign in an Astoria thrift shop window on Broadway. The coat called to him. That’s how Queens commuters called him “Sherlock.”
That’s not the only thing that was unusual about Alfred. His gawky 6’2” frame supported a ridiculous looking head. He had a parrot-beak nose. His mouth was lopped sided. It seemed to tip toward his left ear pulling his face toward the snap on his lapel. He had popping eyes that gave him the look of perpetual surprise.
Clenched in Alfred’s hand was his iPhone. He held it with two fingers on each side of the phone and a thumb over its bottom. He was ready for work. He cocked the phone toward the floor and clicked the camera’s home button taking a popgun of shots… of people’s feet.
Contrary to any rider’s interpretation of the scene, Alfred did not have a shoe fetish. He wanted to record images for what he would call his “tour de force.” A commissioned montage, “Other People’s Shoes” would bring him fame and success.
Alfred was a master of artistic voyeurism. Manhattan art collectors had given his former works disappointing reviews. Critics called his documentation of the fabric of humanity pedantic and mundane: “Plaid Manifesto,” “Bartered Velvet” and “Toile in Turmoil. ” were flops.
He was misunderstood. He predicted that someday zillionaires would vie for those masterpieces. “Other People’s Shoes” would confirm his artistic genius.
He decided to start the project on January 2015 and at end of October, 2015. That day it was March 23.
While Alfred’s train was leaving Astoria, Dorothy Lutkins drank her Chock-Full of Nuts. On weekdays, she tried to stay in bed long enough to avoid her brother. At 7:50, she would put on her pink chenille house coat, and go downstairs and out to the porch. She’d step onto the porch to pick up her Daily News andtake it into the kitchen. There she would sip her coffee at the red vintage Formica table and eat dry toast. She’d voraciously devour what Alfred referred to as the Daily Ruse.
When their mother died, Alfred became Dorothy’s ward. The obligation became an unadulterated sacrifice for Dorothy. She often exclaimed to her friends, “I’d be married if it weren’t for Alfred. Who’d want to live with that lunatic?” Neither Alfred’s absence nor presence would have tipped the scale in her favor. As crazy as Alfred was, to most people Dorothy was obese, boring and stupid. Knowing Dorothy for many years, as I did, she was not as boring and people thought.
Dorothy had a black terrier puppy that she had rescued from an animal shelter. Predictfully, she named him “Toto.” The dog’s high-pitched bark was omnipresent in the Lutkin’s house. You could say that Toto provided her with the only love and devotion she had ever received.
She was a good housekeeper. After breakfast, she dusted the furniture and vacuumed the rugs every day in every room. Well, that’s not quite right. There was one room on the third floor that was off limits to her. To insure that it stayed that way, Alfred had padlocked the door. It would be just like Dorothy to meddle with his stuff. The padlock made him confident enough the studio would not be violated by his sister, that he could continue his quest.
The small dark studio was ten feet by ten feet. A small leaded window provided the only natural light in the room. Track lighting spanned the ceiling. A massive oak table stood in the center of the room. On it were jars of pens, brushes and pencils. An assortment of scissors, pinking shears, and manicure scissors filled a basket. A twenty-four-inch monitor and computer dominated the table. Alfred stored an LED projector and printer under the table.
He stored stacks of papers of variety of colors and textures in an old wood file in one corner of the room. In a corner of the room, stood a mannequin wearing a red sequined cocktail dress and Crocs. The costume served as inspiration to Alfred. He redressed the mannequin once a week. A 7’x5’ piece of black matte board was suspended from the ceiling. Paper feet were pinned to the board like dead bugs. Alfred’s studio was his haven.
There was nothing nefarious taking place in the studio, I can assure you. Alfred was not a serial killer who cut off women’s legs and ate them for dinner. The truth is, he felt he had to protect his work from Dorothy’s inevitable ridicule.
Alfred always got off the train at Penn Station. There he could document a remarkable spectrum of shoes: sandals, boots, stilettos, pumps and sneakers. He could get another vantage point on his knees. There he could take split second snapshots of the footwear. He risked being trampled on for the sake of his art.
If the weather was good, he would meet me on our traditional bench in Washington Square. We met at NYU years ago. Professionally, Alfred chose poorly. He took the safe route, working as a wedding photographer in Queens.
I made the right choice in becoming a photojournalist. In 1994 I won awards for my documentation of spelunkers in Mexican caves and Watusi Women in Uganda.
Despite the polarity of lives we had chosen, Alfred and I were steadfast friends.
Sitting on our favorite bench at Washington Park, we talked about our projects. “I’m halfway through “Other People’s Shoes,” Alfred reported. “But now I’m thinking I’m on the wrong track. What am I to do with all these feet? I thought I was on to something. I thought that it would be ironic to cut out photos of people and sew them onto other people’s feet . Now I think it’s just plain facile.”
“Now listen,” I said. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. But what I’ve observed is that you get so far…and you rush to finish. Let’s be honest, you knew Toile in Turmoil was crap. Make this a different piece.”
“Maybe those pieces were not thought through. Maybe there’s more to “Other People’s Shoes” than you think. What is the story or stories behind the work?”
Alfred pondered the Harry’s question, “I have no idea in hell what you’re talking about. But, since I seem to be on the track toward another flop, I will consider your suggestion.”
“Maybe I’ll take photos of the homeless?” He mused. “It seems as though there are many people in New York who have no shoes at all.”
We said goodbye going in opposite directions. Alfred walked uptown to Bergdorf’s and then to the Plaza.
“Maybe I should photograph rich people,” he thought. “They have plenty of shoes.”
He took the 4:35 M home, stopping pick up take-out sushi and a Snapple.
Entering the house, he high-tailed it for his studio hoping to ignore his sister. You could say that their disregard for each other was mutual.
That night, Alfred mulled over his conversation with Henry. Did the story exist somewhere in the photos? He poured over the files of photos downloaded from his iPhone to his computer and projected him on the screen. He had created folders for each place he had photographed. Train 8:00am, Train 4:45 PM, Library; Grand Central 8:42 . . .
He began with M train photos. There were thousands of them. It took him a week to inspect them all. He repeated scrolls down the folder. With a sigh, he concluded that there was nothing exceptional in them.
He moved on to the Bergdorff photos. “Hmmm hoity-toity snobs and the homeless? Derivative at best,” Alfred concluded. He discarded them.
Then he began to tackle the Penn Station file. It would take him almost 3 weeks to finish the task. On his fifth go-round…he saw it. An ankle wearing a red t-strap 4 -inch high-heeled shoe.
What was remarkable about it was a Belgian lace heart tattoo four inches above the ankle. He was transfixed by the intricacy of image. The design wrapped halfway around a rather large ankle.
Perhaps in the tattoo he had found a story to tell that was truly worthy of his brilliance.
It could be a fascinating story,” Alfred said to himself as he imagined the shoe’s owner. Perhaps she was a ballroom dance teacher. Maybe she was a hooker. He hoped not. “God forbid it if the tattooed leg belonged to a drag queen! Yet it would make an excellent story,” Alfred mused.
Of course, he had to do more than sort through all the red shoes. Red t-strap shoes were far less common than other styles. Still, he had observed that many women wore them this season. “Better to look for the tattoo first,” Alfred thought to himself.
Finding the tattoo would present a difficult problem. He would have had to take many shots from many vantage points to capture it.
Every so often, he would document the site and anchor the shoe photos with a picture of a station landmark. Alfred began to examine the image, expanding it in Photoshop. In the anchor shot, there was something he hadn’t seen before. Blurred in the background, was a logo. It was tangerine and hot pink. He was familiar with it. He saw it up close every day on his way to work. Dunkin’ Donuts.
Hundreds bought Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in the terminal. The line-up began at 5am and then after 4pm. Though the shop provided a clue, it was an infinitesimal one. Even so, Alfred came up with a plan. “Penn Station it is.”
It was summer now. Birkenstocks. He had an epiphany when he realized in photographing other people’s shoes, that he, the creator, must become an element in the creation. Thus his shoes had to be carefully chosen. Alfred had exchanged his Sherlock Holmes get up for cut off jeans, a seventy’s style, white Nehu jacket two sizes too small and brown Birkenstocks with black and grey argyle socks.
He decided that his routine would be to leave 2 hours earlier than usual. He would creep out the front door, past the Daily Ruse and then to the train station. He had determined to stake out at the Penn Station’s Dunkin Donuts each and every day.
Toto would hear him leave and let out high pitched shrieks to signal to Dorothy that her brother was leaving. This went on for a week before Evelyn got suspicious. She said to herself, “Oh, no, not another ridiculous piece of crap.”
That evening when Alfred came home, Dorothy was waiting on the sofa in the living room with Toto on her lap. Before he could reach the stairs, his sister beckoned him. “Oh, hell,” Alfred sighed to himself.
Dorothy, obsequiously said, “Do you have a minute for your sister? It seems that you have been working on another one of your projects again. It’s bound to be better than Toile in Turmoil.”
“Here we go again”, Alfred seethed. “I may have. What’s it to you?”
“Oh, nothing” Dorothy goaded. “Actually, I’ve always thought that you were quite an excellent photographer. The pictures you took of the Mackenzie’ dogs dressed up in kilts and Yankee t-shirts was hysterical. You could make real money taking pictures of people’s dogs.
“What the hell, Dorothy.” Alfred muttered as he retreated to the stairs.
“You’re not the only who loves art, you know!” Dorothy yelled.
Alfred’s Penn Station’s espionage was not going well. It had been 4 weeks since he started staking out at the Dunkin Donut’s and still no sighting of the shoe and tattoo.
But…there were some positives. He made friends with the subway performers. They had regular schedules and he loved hearing and recording their stories.
On Monday, Tony Lorenzo attempted to croon like Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, “New York, New York” wasn’t well received. Nobody was very happy to be in New York, New York on Mondays. Tony’s tips were meager at best. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” did not help. …He got his big break with “My Way” even if it was a lie. Tony was a distant cousin of Frank’s and was fortunate enough to have acquired Frank’s hand made brown Berluti shoes…or at least that was the story he was telling.
Julius came on Tuesdays. People called him the “Hamilton”of the subway. He was an amazing black rapper who wore black Converse sneakers without the laces. “Hey, are you in the play?” passersby would ask. In fact, he was that good that he could have been in the play if he had wanted to. But history wasn’t his thing. In school he sucked at it. Just didn’t get the point. Still, he’d nod to the crowd a convincing “yes.”
Jessica was Wednesday’s entertainment. She graduated from the Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz’s Academy for Saw Playing. Her signature song was “Another Earth.” The eerie sounds she created by her saw made me think the song should have really been titled, “Another Planet Far Far Away.” Hump Day commuters were happy to be transported to another earth. When it came to tips, Jessica, in her hot pink socks and periwinkle Crocs pocketed some pretty impressive change. Alfred thought she was pretty hot.
Oscar did his best on Thursdays imitating Louis Armstrong. Ever see an old white guy wearing two-toned cap shoes singing “Hello Dolly”? He should have just stuck to playing the trumpet. He was an excellent trumpeter. Let me just say that pity and guilt can generate tips especially from female commuters. Oscar was orphaned at 5 years old. A Harlem black couple who worshiped with his hippie parents at St. John the Divine adopted him. For all intents and purposes, he “sort of” grew up black. He preferred Harlem to the Upper East Side.
Friday’s performer was Bernie, the“Boss” wannabe in his tight jeans, leather jacket and cowboy boots. He hit the jackpot with “Born to Run.” He would sing, “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream” playing his blue electric guitar with its semi-functional auxiliary power. He left out the second line for obvious reasons: “ At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines.” He sang instead, “At night we’d ride through the mansions of glory on a magic carpet ride.”
In high school, Bernie, wearing a black bandana and electric guitar, sneaked on stage of an East Street Band concert. I suppose that the audience just thought that Bruce had brought on another musician. At the break, though, Steve Vanzant blew his cover. “Nobody’s going to rip off my brand, you scum bag.” Security guards grabbed Bernie and escorted him through the crowd and tossed him onto the street. He was okay with it. He had his fifteen minutes of fame.
These street performers became Alfred’s close friends. Alfred loved their stories. He documented them and, of course, photographed their shoes.
Then, one afternoon, as he was chatting it up with Oscar, he saw it. The red t-strap…the lace heart. The tattoo was different than when he last saw it. On top of the heart was a D in perfect script. Below the heart was a T. He scanned its wearer’s body, beginning with the shoe, the ankle, the red polka-dotted chiffon dress, the ample breasts, the face…munching on a French cruller. When he saw his sister he broke into laughter. “Dorothy, heart, Toto. I didn’t see that coming!”
Dorothy didn’t get the joke. When she saw her brother taking another look at her tattoo and laughing, she exploded, ”You’re not the only one who loves art, you know!” ” Alfred chuckled, “You may be right!”
All of December, The Brooklyn Museum was decked out in its finest holiday attire. There were more museum goers than at any other time of the year. This was great for Alfred, whose art installation opened on the first Saturday of Advent. The Christmas season ensured that many more people would go to the gallery to see his work.
Upon entering the gallery, they would be struck by each of the four walls. On them was a panoramic view of the subway station in black and white with shoes occasionally and randomly placed on the photos. The photo was blurred as though the whole room was moving to the sea of commuters making their way through the subterranean cave of a station. They would see a Stonehenge of seven 4ft square columns. On top of each rested a shoe: a Berluti, black converse sneakers, periwinkle crocs, two-toned cap, cowboy boot and Birkenstocks with argyle. Wrapped around each column was a printed story of its owner. One column was bare to represent all the people in New York who had no shoes. A seven foot column stood in the middle of the ring . On it,a single pinlight suspended from the ceiling illuminated a red t-strapped high-heeled shoe. All four sides of the column read “D heart-T” With the most magnificent Battenberg lace tattoo that one could ever imagine.
“Other People’s Shoes” truly was Alfred’s magnum opus.
Meredith Betz is a former high school Communications / English teacher whose avocation is coaching students of all ages in writing and delivering presentations. Currently she writes for the Nonprofit Quarterly. Her vocation is executive coaching and organizational consulting to for profit and nonprofit organizations.