Heather Van Deest lives and writes in Bangkok, Thailand. She recently received an MA in creative writing from Antioch
University, Yellow Springs.
Now What About Socks?
Growing up, I did not think much about socks; they were something merely to warm your feet during cold Ohio winters, a layer
of cotton worn between skin and shoe, as necessary and mundane as Q-tips or deodorant.
The socks of my youth were thin, threadbare things, the kind in which you could feel the grit in your shoe rub against your heel
with each step, the kind in which your pinky toe, shoe bound, continually escaped through a small hole in the scratchy seam.
Utilitarian knee-high socks, black and white, brown and navy, along with a few misshapen pairs of athletic anklets for gym class,
littered my sock drawer. I had plenty of socks to choose from on any given day, but only a few pairs that did not bunch up in
the toes or slouch toward my ankles as soon as I put them on, stretched a few years beyond use. Worse than both socks
inching from knee to shin to ankle was a single sock shrugging southward, leaving me yanking at one pant leg throughout the
school day, one sock up, one down, feeling off kilter like a dog with an injured paw, limping its way through the world.
My socks were not fun, bright colored affairs; no rainbow stripes or purple argyle or lace-trimmed pairs here. No miniature
leprechauns in March or pumpkin-printed anklets for Halloween. In my family, with two teachers for parents, socks were like
meals; we always had what we needed, with plenty of tuna noodle casseroles and Johnny Marzetti to go around, but trips to
places like McDonald's, with the promise of a Happy Meal and the plastic toy prize hidden underneath the crispy fries, were rare
treats. My brother and I never begged for fast food, but we never said no when my father pulled the Chevy Citation into the lot
with the golden arches. It was the same with socks, I didn't ask my parents for new socks because it never occurred to me that
In my teenage years, half way through the school week, after wearing the few pairs of socks that didn't fall down or chafe
against my feet, after rotating my best pairs, giving them a break and then sprinkling them with baby powder before sliding
them on again a couple days later, I'd pad down the hallway to my parents' room before school. In the blue morning light, I'd
rummage through my mother's dresser drawers, searching for a pair of socks to wear. My mother had lots of socks and not
one sock drawer, but two - one for lights and one for darks. Given all those socks, you'd think there would have been plenty to
choose from: cotton dress socks that hugged your shin close all day; thick, wool socks especially for chilly nights; a whole
plethora of socks for every occasion, their seams not yet bearing the beginning of pesky holes. But my mother's sock drawers
were merely a larger version of my own. If I was lucky, nestled among the ratty, faded pairs that passed for white knee socks,
some of which she'd probably had since college, might be a pair I knew would not slouch until at least afternoon, or perhaps, a
pair in black cotton with the heel fibers still intact.
My mother never objected when I snagged socks from her drawer. She'd wear the leftovers without complaint, dashing the baby
powder into her shoes some days, until the weekend came and it was time to do laundry.
Almost all of the socks in my drawer, and many from my mother's, came from one place, from the time I was in fifth grade to
my post-college years - the Fleamasters flea market off Interstate 75 in Fort Myers, Florida. In the early '80s, my mother's
parents started "wintering" down south, driving the twenty-plus hours straight from our small Ohio town to Vanderbilt Beach,
near Naples. Come Christmas, when the two-week school vacation arrived, my parents, brother, cousins, aunt, and uncle would
caravan to the Sunshine State and crash at my grandparents' rented condo.
One of the highlights of our almost annual treks to Florida was a visit to the flea market, a behemoth of stalls and makeshift
shops spanning the length of several football fields, seemingly sprung out of dust and sand in the middle of Lee County, like
some sort of tacky mirage in the desert.
We'd split up and roam the stalls, us kids with the men - my dad, grandpa, and uncle - searching for cheap trinkets, off-brand
pocketknives for the boys, T-shirts and animal figurines made of coconut shell for the girls, while my mom, aunt, and
grandmother scouted fresh vegetables for the week's dinners and fingered fat, plastic-mesh bags of oranges - Florida's finest.
"Now what about socks?" my grandmother would say, when we'd all meet up an hour or so later. Grandma, looking like so many
of the snowbird shoppers populating south Florida that time of year, in her tan leather loafers and gray hair curled at the sides,
would lead the way to the sock stall, weaving through the countless shops with the instinct of a bird nabbing worms from wet
At the turn of the corner, you could see it there, just ahead of you, the tables positioned end to end, atop which rested stacks
and stacks of socks in every imaginable color and style. Cotton socks in darks, whites and neutrals for men and women; white
footies and anklets and tube socks; women's nylon knee-highs in a range of work-day hues; puffy socks of the '80s era that
slouched on purpose, in neon orange, yellow and green; striped socks, argyle socks, socks with stars, candy canes,
horseshoes, snowflakes, footballs and Easter bunnies; thick piles of leg warmers, socks in camouflage prints, and dainty rows of
children's sizes in pastels and all the primary shades.
The boys, the men, would find some nearby stall suddenly in need of exploring, removing themselves from the perceived torture
of shopping for socks, leaving the women to make their selections for them. Studying the array of choices before me, I'd run
my hands over the throngs of neon slouchies, imagining how cool I'd look at school wearing the lime green ones with my Keds,
but at $2.99 a pair, I didn't bother to ask my mother if I could buy them. The slouchies weren't part of the special sale,
advertised from cardboard signs hanging from the front of the table: "5 pairs for $6, 10 pairs for $10". The thing is, my mother
probably would have said yes to the lime green slouchies if I'd asked, but I knew that meant less money for something else
later, something I really wanted, like a trendy Limited brand Forenza sweatshirt from the Coastland Mall or more shell rings to
flaunt the fact that I'd vacationed in Florida.
It was like that most years. I'd anticipate a trip to the flea market, to the sock stall, remembering the endless ocean of socks,
imagining the lime green slouchies, or maybe another year, leg warmers if that was the trend, but my practicality, my view of the
world, the one I'd inherited from my parents - you must always get the most bang for your buck - triumphed. In the end, I'd
always pick four or five pairs of the same dark, knee-high socks that qualified for the special 10-for deal, the same socks waiting
in my dresser at home, the scratchy, less-than-fifty-percent-cotton pairs that would spring a hole like a leaky faucet almost as
soon as I put them on seven days later, back home in Ohio. My four or five new pairs of socks, combined with a handful of pairs
for my mom, and the same number she'd selected for my brother and father, altogether equaled twenty pairs of socks for
about twenty dollars. The ultimate bargain, no one could deny.
Only years later, after my family had stopped going to Florida for Christmas, after my grandfather's emphysema worsened and
we grandkids had become adults, did I begin to learn that entire chasms existed in the world of socks, that my flea market
socks were, as suspected, cheap and hole-prone. That the opposite end of the spectrum offered comfortable, top-quality socks
some people swore they could not live without. My first clue came in 1997. I was living on my own in Columbus, working my first
post-college job as a P.R. officer for a state agency. Many of my friends worked in the same office, and at one of our frequent
dinners, that week at my apartment, my friend Andrew plopped his foot over his wife Sarah's knee on the couch next to him.
"Sarah just bought me these great socks, what's the name?" he asked her.
"Smart Wool," she replied. "But they're made with cotton, too, so they're nice and comfy." I plucked at the thick olive-colored
band circling Andrew's shin, nodding my head in agreement, imagining what the socks would feel like on my own feet, a woven
wonder of wool and cotton in just the right proportions, so that the wool warmed your feet, but did not scratch, so that the
soft, premium cotton evoked goose down with each step.
Sure, I could imagine myself in those socks, but I could not imagine paying the price the socks demanded, something probably
close to ten dollars per pair. Not much had changed since my flea market years. My sock purchases were still slim, still an
afterthought, usually bought on clearance from Target. I knew my friends probably got their Smart Wools at Galyn's or
Benchmark or some other high-end sporting goods chain, but I couldn't fathom spending more than a week's worth of gas for
my drive to work on a single pair of socks.
Chalk it up to age or maturity, boldness or insanity. Call it what you will. But eventually, a few years after I learned about Smart
Wools, I bought my first pair of quality socks, a two-tone navy and gray pair of Bridgedales with contrasted stitching for $7.99
plus shipping, from a discount sporting goods catalogue. The purchase was an experiment, a testing-of-the-waters, after a
hiking incident that left me with sore, blistered feet and questions about what exactly I was accomplishing with my supposedly
practical, penny-pinching ways.
It was the summer I worked in Las Vegas as an editorial consultant, this time for a different government agency. Steve, a friend
of a friend from Ohio, was passing through Sin City for a bachelor party, and phoned late one morning to fit in a quick hike at
Red Rock Canyon, just outside town.
We'd gotten a late start and by the time we hit the trail, the sun was high overhead. I wiped sweat from my temple with the
back of my hand, felt the scratch of my ankle socks, made of cheap synthetics, inside my tennis shoes.
As we wound through the canyon trail, Steve shared the odd bit or two about his life, about his marketing job back in Ohio,
about his love of hiking - a relatively new pursuit. "Uh-huh," I said, following behind him in the heat, trying to sound interested,
as my socks, stiff and itchy against the skin of my feet, sunk slowly into the depths of my tennis shoes with each step.
Attempting to keep pace with Steve, I grabbed at one sock and tried yanking it back toward my ankle without being too
obvious, without slowing us down.
Stop, start, stop, start. I wrangled with my socks under the hot Nevada sun, convinced that one last tug would somehow make
them stay up around my ankles, where they belonged.
At the bottom of an incline, Steve paused and unscrewed the cap to the water bottle he'd been carrying. A red bandana dangled
from his back pocket. "I'll tell you something I learned - makes or breaks your hike," he said. He threw his head back and took a
big slug of water. "Socks. Changes everything. I swear."
"Yeah?" I said. The soles of my feet burned from the constant chafing and the back of my heels, blistered and raw, throbbed like
a bad sunburn.
Soon after that hiking trip, when the Brigdedales arrived in the mail, I slid them over my bare feet and never looked back.
Padding across the hardwood floor in my apartment, I could have sworn I was wearing slippers, soft and thick, except these
babies could breathe. I could even go the whole day without once having to pull the socks up toward my shins. No more
mornings spent wrestling toes out of holes in the seams, no more grit rubbing the soles of my feet, no more slouching socks
that left my heels exposed like skin against rock.
Today I never pay full price for socks, but I don't buy them on the clearance rack either. I look for a good sale, usually online, or
I buy in bulk. I know my mom would say I still spend too much, but I've decided socks are something I'm willing to pay more for,
the way you decide you're worth the occasional bunch of organic bananas instead of the cheaper ones sprayed with pesticides.
The way you don't scrimp when you have to buy new contact lenses or tires for your car.
Someday, though, I'd like to take my husband, and maybe a son or daughter if such a blessing should come, to Florida for
Christmas. We'd go to the Shell Factory on Route 41 and the Mucky Duck for overpriced sandwiches and fries on the beach at
Sanibel Island. We'd visit the Naples Pier and Vanderbilt Beach, where my cousin and I bought shell rings from the gift shop at
the Ramada Inn all those years before. And for sure, I'd take my family to the Fleamasters flea market. We'd buy oversized bags
of fresh oranges, a few tacky trinkets made of coconut shell, and a T-shirt or two. And we'd make sure not to miss the sock
stall. Together, we'd ooh and aah over the stacks of socks piled high on the table, at the rainbow stripes and the snowflake
prints and the retro tube socks. And even though we'd each have our own drawer full of soft, comfy socks back home, we'd buy
a few pairs, maybe even the lime green slouchies, just for fun.
Heather Van Deest