The Day My Grandfather Took Off His Patent Leather Pumps - Visitor's Story
As I look back on my life with great affection for certain people, of all the people I remember with gratitude, my grandfather stands out. He was a man of great dignity and reserve. He belonged to a world of formal manners and strict rules of behavior. He was handsome, debonair and dapper: always impeccably dressed and groomed. But that was only one part of my grandfather's character. He was also the kindest, most generous person I have ever known. He did not draw attention to himself. He did not boast of his generosity. But anyone who encountered him left with a wider view of life and a hope for the future. He had a gift for seeing the best in people's potential they could not see. I cannot thank him enough for what he did for me.
One anecdote returns to me again and again in memory. I was fourteen and appearing in an amateur school play. We had prepared for the play for several months; it was our annual event. If you were old enough to remember that time - the early 50s - you would recognize our teacher, Mr. Razin; he was a type that was common then. He was dedicated and committed to Art with a capital A and he took even a school play very seriously. All the parents, family and friends were scheduled to attend.
Mr. Razin had written our play himself and he was committed to making sure it would succeed. He had strong views on society and social justice and he had written a play about a group of people who encounter a bedraggled homeless tramp. That was the plot.
Then disaster struck. The man who had been cast as the elderly tramp called in and told the director/teacher/author that he would not appear. He did not give a reason. His decision stunned our teacher and the entire cast sat staring at each other in gloom. It was two hours before curtain time, and soon the auditorium would be full. Every cast member had at least two parts and the tramp was on stage the entire ninety minutes of the play. In addition, he was an old man, and we were all under twenty.
"Where can I find a mature actor at the last minute?" cried Mr. Razin. At that moment, I heard the familiar, sharp click of a man's shoes walking, and my grandfather walked in the back of the theatre.
My grandpa was an investment banker and a highly successful and respected man. He was on his way to a formal event that night and had come to promise me he would see most of the play but would have to leave early because of the event, as he had to make a speech. I took my grandfather aside and explained what had happened. We probably would not have a play that night. I then introduced him to my teacher.
The teacher stopped and stared. He looked at my grandpa, who looked back at him in bewilderment.
"Sir, you have saved our play!" cried Mr. Razin in rapturous tones. "You are our answer! You are the right age! You have almost no lines! Our play will go on!"
Nothing could have seemed more ridiculous.
My perfectly groomed grandfather was dressed in the full formal attire of a wealthy executive of that time, white tie and tails: formal tailcoat, satin-striped formal trousers, crisply starched white formal shirt with wing tip collar, monogrammed cufflinks, white grosgrain vest, black silk socks, and a pair of black patent leather pumps. That was a more formal time, and nobody was more formal than Grandfather.
I looked at Mr. Razin in astonishment. Grandfather looked at me. I can still remember the stunned look on his face.
I started to explain that my grandfather was a very important banker and he had to attend a very important event.
Mr. Razin became even more enthusiastic. "It is perfect! It will give your performance realism and pathos! Your transformation will be filled with symbolism!"
My grandfather merely stared at Mr. Razin. "My transformation?"
My grandfather merely stared at Mr. Razin. "I'm sorry," he said in his deep, courteous voice. "I don't understand."
Mr. Razin clapped his hands. "You are the STAR of our play!"
Grandfather then looked at me and said, "Will you really have to cancel the play after all this work?"
I nodded. My grandfather held out his hand to Mr. Razin and said quietly: "I will do the part." However, my grandfather had no idea what the part was.
Mr. Razin wasted no time with thanks. He took my grandfather's arm and propelled him into the costuming area. He circled him like a mangy cat circling an impeccably dapper mouse.
"Should I be learning lines?" said my grandfather.
"Take off your shoes and socks," snapped Mr. Razin.
Grandfather's mouth dropped open. Nobody ever spoke to my grandfather like this, and certainly no one had ever told him to do that.
I quickly explained that he was playing a homeless vagrant, a tramp, and that he would have to wear a costume. At that moment, Mr. Razin held up a pair of battered coveralls and a dirty tee shirt.
Grandfather looked stunned, but said quietly, "A tramp. I'm playing a vagrant? I have to wear those. I didn't realize. Is this really necessary? My shoes and socks?"
Mr. Razin moved into his Eccentric Artist persona.
"You are now a homeless derelict! I have an hour to turn you into a bum! Homeless bums do not wear fancy patent leather pumps and silk socks! The character is barefoot! He is not a banker, sir! He is a BUM!"
Grandfather sighed and nodded. He slipped his hand into the back of one shoe and slid his foot out of it. He sighed and then followed with the other shoe.
"Socks too!" snapped the inexorable Mr. Razin irritably. "We do not have much time!"
I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I can still see those shining pumps sitting discarded on the floor, gleaming in the dim light of the backstage area, with their red satin lining and the bows on the front, and the outline of Grandfathe's toes through his thin dress socks.
"Socks too! We are in a hurry!"
"Perhaps I might be allowed to keep my socks on?" said grandfather in his polite voice, as if he were making a business transaction. "I've already removed my pumps."
"And where would a vagrant find a pair of expensive silk socks? Besides, the REST of your fancy clothes are coming off too! I WANT YOU BAREFOOT!" cried Mr. Razin.
Grandfather sighed, unbuckled his garters and pulled off his silk socks. Mr. Razin took the socks and shoes and smiled approvingly. "Now I'll put a little greasepaint on your soles and then walk around in the dust back there. We need some dirt on those feet! They're too clean! Those are BANKER feet! We need TRAMP feet!"
My grandfather, still in his formal attire, lifted his bare feet one at a time as the clean white soles were coated with enough greasepaint to make the dust stick.
He sighed and walked into the dusty back room. There was no sharp, smart click now when he walked - just the noiseless tread of his bare feet.
Looking back, I did not realize what it meant for my beloved Grandfather to allow this eccentric teacher to transform him from his elegant, dignified, spit-and-polish, commanding self into a barefoot, homeless, beaten down tramp in front of many people in the audience who knew and respected him. To me, it was in character for him. He was always putting family and friends first. But the sacrifice he made that day would not become apparent until I was older and knew something about life.
He was then stripped off the rest of his beautiful clothes: the white tie, cufflinks, vest, shirt, trousers and tailcoat were all taken away and replaced by the vagrant's ludicrous outfit.
After an argument, Mr. Razin even forced him to surrender his wristwatch, his keys and his leather wallet; his business school ring was also taken away. Mr. Razin insisted that he 'become' the character he was playing.
Looking back I think Mr. Razin actually relished the process of transforming this 'capitalist banker' into his opposite. When he appeared before Mr. Razin dressed as a derelict he was greeted with a reprimand.
"You're much too clean. And that hair!" he pointed at Grandfather's head of thick silver-grey hair with the usual razor sharp part. "Maybe we should shave your head! That might do it".
Grandfather opened his eyes wide and was about to speak when Mr. Razin shook his head and said: "No, an old hat will do it."
A very dirty cloth cap was found and pulled down over his well-groomed head.
Then with some greasepaint, his clean-shaven face and manicured hands matched the soles of his hitherto spotless feet: they were now the face, hands and feet of a derelict. He was even given the hint of stubble. But all the make-up in the world could not touch my grandfather's inherent dignity and character.
He was given his few lines to read off a card and placed on the stage next to a garbage can filled with old clothes, with his dirty bare feet facing the audience. The theatre filled with people. The play began and grandfather played his part perfectly. Rumors that it was 'the' Mr. Wellington, investment banker, playing the tramp circulated through the theatre. Soon everyone must have known.
My role was over after the first half hour and I wandered into the costume area. There were my grandfather's clothes: the outfit neatly hung up, the formal shoes on a bench. In one shoe I found his wallet, wristwatch, shirt studs, keys and cuff links. In the other, his socks were neatly folded next to his white tie and his ring. His outer identity had been left behind here while the man himself was on the stage. He had done it for me, and it was the man himself who mattered. That was my grandfather.