It was an early June morning, the sun was still working its way into the eastern sky, and there I was, heading up Quincy Street, on the final stretch of my morning walk with my dogs, Sadie and Chuy. I followed their jaunty, swinging behinds left onto First Street, NE, and as I turned the corner, I saw something at the end of the block, lying by the curb, a small swatch of black and white blinking in the shadows. I assumed was a piece of trash. an empty sports drink bottle, or maybe a plastic shopping bag. A few steps more and I decided it wasn’t a bag, but could be a flyer for a garage sale or a menu from a cafe. As I closed the distance between me and this thing, a pattern emerged in the black and white, rows of triangles hanging from thick lines that ran in different directions. Is it a piece of pottery? The shade of a big maple tree made it hard to see the edges. Not until I was standing right over it, did I realise I was looking at a shoe. But this wasn’t just any shoe, this was a six-inch, spiked heel with a three inch spiked platform. The upper part was the crazy thick lines and triangles was patten leather that wrapped around the toe, over the heel, and up to the ankle. It was fantastic!
Questions rolled through my mind in rapid succession as my dogs gave the shoe a sniff. Where did it come from? How did it end up here, on this quiet little street? Who was the owner? Was it left by a messy drag queen on the way home? Or did it drop out of a pole dancer’s bag on her way to work? What store sold something like this? I pulled the dogs away from the shoe wonering, “Where was the other one?”
Later on that day I took the dogs by that same spot for their lunchtime pee. Someone had moved the shoe from the street onto the gray roots of the maple tree. She was nestled into a thick knuckle of gray bark like some kind of underground queen. I was shocked to find her still on there on her throne the next morning, holding court by herself. The dogs looked at me I walked past and said aloud, “She’s got staying power.” And she did. In fact, I thought about that shoe for the next hour. In my mind, variations of her story played out to Annie Lennox singing “Love is a Stranger” as I walked the dogs up into Capitol Hill and back. What were the songs did that shoe dance to? What kind of people did she meet? Oh, the stories she could tell… I couldn’t wait to see her again.
From three blocks away, I heard her laughing, calling me, wondering what took me so long. As I turned onto First Street, I squinted into the morning shadows at the end of the block. My eyes searched for those familiar black and white lines, ready to see her ruling above the corner, waving at her subjects as they passed. But she was gone! Missing! Dethroned in less than an hour! How was that possible?
I quicked my pace, and the dogs, confused by such a sudden shift in energy, resisted for a second until I gave their leashes a little tug, leaned forward and growled, “C’mon!” I found her, lying in the street again, the sad, fallen queen she always was. Was it wrong that I took out my phone, opened up my camera app and snapped a few pictures? Like some weird papparazo, I leaned into her and clicked the shutter over and over. I had to! How often does the universe offer such a gift?
Then, I posted one of her pictures on Instagram (and Facebook) with the note, “Found on the curb… some drag queen had a rough walk home.” A few hours later, when I checked into Instagram, I found a message from one of my friends that said something along the lines of, “You know, I always wanted to do a photo exhibition of all the shoes I found lying in the streets of Boston… call it “Lost Soles.” That was June 15, 2020. And by the wave of some unseen wand, her wish became my unexpected command.
It took less than a week, but on another morning dog walk, in a different part of town, I caught them out of the corner of my eye: a pair of little red sneakers sitting in the middle of an alley, laughing and chasing each other towards a driveway. There was a man at the other end of the block watching me frome behind a chain link fence, as I stepped into the alley. I stopped before the sneakers, told my dogs to stay and took a few pictures from differet angles. Then I quick-stepped back out to the sidewalk, my dogs tripping over themselves as I waited for a shout that never came, afraid of a man who’d already forgotten about me before I turned the corner.
The next day, on R Street, just a few blocks from my house, I found a pair of white Adidas with red stripes sitting askew in the grass. I’m sure they fell out of some young kid’s bag as he scooped himself into the back seat of his friend’s car. They must have waited all night for him to come back, bring them home. They were gone by the time I returned with the dogs an hour later. A few days after that, I was standing above two black, satin bows riding a deflated pair of Steve Madden sandals. This was in front of a brownstone over on P Street, NW. You know the owner was not happy that these two escaped from her bag. I could tell they were her favorite summer shoe.
Next came a single woman’s black flat, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk in front of an apartment building near the NOMA subway stop. I liked the little, gold bow on top. It made me think the owner has a sense of humor and a big laugh. Then, there was the men’s boot on Florida Avenue, lying on its side under a streetlight and not happy about it. I imagined a young man cursing as he looked under his bed and found nothing, cursing again after he pulled out everything on the floor of his closet only to come up empty handed. He knew it had to be somewhere.
After the boot, there were the three soles down past H Street, not far from Whole Foods. At first I didn’t see them, I was busy watching – and waiting – for my dogs as they sniffed and marked a tree. When I looked up, I was surprised to see a pair of women’s black, suede ankle boots with a brass zipper and a single, black wedge heel hanging on the stoop, looking at me looking at them. All attitude and no time for my being so late, they knew what it meant to stand for someone, stand with someone.
Did anyone else in this city see these them as they walked to work or the market? Did these lost shoes grab other people’s attention on the way to yoga class? Or was I the only one who saw them and felt the need to stop and take their pictures? These poor soles were once someone’s. Now, they could be anyone’s. Or no one’s. They fascinated me and made me sad in equal measure.
I started looking for them as I made my way through the city each morning with my pups, my eyes squinting at strange shapes from a block away. There was both a sense of relief, and disappointment, when the strange lump on the sidewalk turned into a shopping bag or some other piece of trash. I scanned the gutters as I walked, my head swiveling left and right, searching under car tires, by sewer grates, in the weeds of a long stretch of fence. I knew that sooner or later one or more lost soul would appear. And he did, on a patch of grass down by Dunbar High School. A pair of black, laceless sneakers, one in front of the other as if they were running at me, tongues out, mouths wide open. I stopped in my tracks and stared at them, unable to move. Who left these two voiceless screams for me to find? Where was the man who’d worn these sneakers? How did they land in this position? Was he being chased? Or was he was running toward something? His story disturbed me, it still does.
Every week, more and more lost soles showed up, each with a story or two they’d like to share as squatted to take their pictures. I’ve found lots of sandals and sneakers, several pairs of boots, a couple of slippers. Men’s, and women’s, a few kids’. They sat by the trash bin or hid behind a bench. Sometimes, they appeared right under foot, wedged into the curb at broken angles, ignored by the cars and foot traffic, dismissed as just another piece of garbage. Lost soles could be sneaky too, and blend into what’s around them, wondering if they’d be seen at all.
I rarely found them in the afternoon or evenings. And if I did, I might take a few pictures, but they looked too exposed, and somehow vacant. So I’d go look for them again the next morning and snap a few more when it was still dark. The shadows give them a little cover, made them seem less vulnerable. One morning, I swear I heard one calling me from an alley that I’d passed a thousand times. It was subtle, almost a whisper that I would have ignored, except that I heard it again.
“Over here!” I stopped midstep and looked left, listening. I called the dogs back to me and stared into the alley, my ears reaching for something in the quiet. “Hey! I’m right here!” I heard from somewhere behind the overflowing trash bins that lined a brickwall. When I found him, he was sitting in a pile of egg shells and other garbage, stained and covered in flies; a white canvas sneaker wondering how he got there, and where his mate was.
But not all soles on the D.C. streete were lost. In fact, some I met were waiting to be found. There was the pair of men’s black dress shoes sitting on top of a trash barrel, laces tied, heel still good, obviously placed there with the hope of being claimed by someone else. A passed a pair of Dolce and Gabana winter boots resting on a stone wall next to a small, cardboard sign annoucing in red hand-written letters, “FREE!” I thought the three pairs of children’s shoes someone left in a little row in front of a house on Quincy Street was very sweet. I also liked the bag of shoes sitting next to a homeless person’s tent, under the subway bridge. And something about the pair of bright green slippers left next to a pile of black trashbags touched me. It was such a simple offer of comfort, a strange woman sharing what little she had with another stranger. These shoes, and many others balanced out the equation for me. They offered hope in the middle of a city filled with endless loss.
For three months now, the lost soles have been a part of my morning. So far, I’ve photographed more than a hundred of them. They lie in middle of empty parking lots, and on the median strip on North Capital Street, across from the iron gates of Saint Aloyisius Church. They sleep in the gutter on Eckington Street and hide under public trash cans for countless hours in the rain. Most of the time, they’ree gone within a day or two, ghosts who leave only a memory, an empty shadow. There is one, though, who is having a hard time leaving. A Michael Korr’s sandal sits at the intersection of Fourth and G for over two months, now, the poor thing. Flattened into the street by more than one car, abused and refused by all kinds of people. And still, she won’t leave. Day after day, she watches the same traffic light turn from green to red, red to green, no one to keep her company.
I was talking to my sister about the appearance of all of these lost soles. She wondered, quite seriously, if I’d developed a shoe fetish in my later years. My friend Lisa sent a message on Facebook asking, “What does it mean?” after scrolling through another series of pictures on Instagram. I’d found fifteen on this particular walk, but only posted nine of them. Fifteen shoes in the space of an hour. I literally shouted, “Awe! Come on!” when I came upon the final three. A black, dress shoe, a tired old flip flop and a green sneaker were hanging out on the sidewalk by the Mobile Station on P and Florida, looking for trouble.
My twin brother got a bit Gestalt on me and suggested I explore the meaning of it – what did the shoes represent to me? “What do you think the shoes are trying to tell you?”
For the first few weeks, I tried to understand what was going on. Was there some little genie waving a wand at me, some spirit guide playing up my little joke to my friend Diane? Did I have something to learn from the parade of lost soles that crossed my path almost daily? What did they want from me? And why me? But the more it happened, the less I questioned it. I didn’t matter what reasons I created for their presence. They certainly didn’t care what my thoughts were.
I have to admit, though, I feel this responsibilty when I see them, a need to bear witness. So I stop and take a few pictures, and think about the people they carried, the stories I’ll never hear. By posting their images on Instagram, I offer these lost spirits a place to rest, a space to claim, and a chance for others to remember the people we don’t know.
Terry Connell: In the past ten years, I have written and self-published two books. The first, an AIDS memoir (Slaves to the Rhythm), was a 2012 Cowley Literary Award Nominee, and a chapter was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine. From Kirkus Reviews, “An engrossing and unsparing look at a grueling journey of commitment and acceptance.” My second book, a collection of short stories (A Little Chatter), was published November, 2019 and won the 2020 IndieReader Discovery Award for Best Short Story Collection and Silver Prize for Best Cover at the 2020 Independent Book Publisher Awards. From Kirkus Reviews, “A Little Chatter is a powerful, thought-provoking selection of fiction from a talented author.”