Between a Foot Fetish and a Shoe

By Jerald Matters


My first job out of college was so exciting I never once felt I was just going into work. I feared I was being dropped daily by helicopter behind enemy lines. It didn’t have to be so challenging. The job description was simple. My clients were adult residents at a facility for the mentally challenged and severely disturbed who needed help and supervision to perform their daily tasks. They could not leave the premises without an escort, which was good for the neighborhood. At best they functioned at the level of young children. They exhibited distinctive personalities influenced by good days and bad days. Some were usually friendly and some were usually awful. Many of the awful ones were quite dangerous and required special handling.

I never did handle Ben correctly. Ben was a huge, severely disturbed middle-aged man with the mentality of a five-year old and a lust for the shoes of his neighbors. Confined to a wheelchair, but powerful and enraged, we learned to handle Ben with humor and respect. When Bill got mad, Bill tended to attack, and Bill kept his anger burning for a very long time. Truth be told, Bill could have been the easiest client to work with had I just let him do his thing trolling the dormitory like the Frankenstein monster on wheels. All he wanted, after all, was a finely scented shoe. He didn’t seem to care who owned the shoes. It was the little things, I supposed, that made Bill happy. But for some reason, I had a problem with all that. Whenever I caught him in or just coming out of some other client’s room, clutching his prize with that frightful smile on his face, I’d become instantly and equally insane. He’d notice and growl me off like a beast with a kill. He couldn’t understand why I was always denying him his constitutional rights.

Now, common sense was enough to inform me not to stand between an enraged foot fetishist and his shoes. But somehow I had convinced myself that my intervention would improve his social skills. So every time I saw a shoe in his grasp, I’d yank it, with predictable results.

One evening I found a nightcap –high heels with black leather strap – lying seductively on his pillow and I just couldn’t take it anymore. It seemed to me the only way to stop this foolishness was to stuff this shoe as far as possible up his butt and twist until a light came on. And about then Ben came rolling into his bedroom, propelled by a young, brawny caseworker named Sam. Ben saw that shoe and didn’t look to the left or to the right but went for it with all the glorious inhibition of a tuna. Sam had put that shoe on his pillow. Sam had been deliberately exploiting the man’s proclivities to suit his own ends. And Sam was completely successful in getting Ben to do what he wanted. I stood there fuming, knowing it was wrong.

But even I could see the beauty in bribery. Everyone knows it’s better to bribe than to bang heads. I resolved to put away the reform-school act and bring in an old shoe. Make friends. But the next day, I was yanking Ben around again. Mentally, I may have known better. But my emotions were not in agreement with my common sense. My emotions had me on the fast track toward a nervous breakdown.

At the cafeteria some weeks later, Sam told me Bill wanted to talk. I thought this unusual as Bill was a man of few words – about forty, I should think. But I went over to see about this. Bill held out his hand. Sam told me as he left the emptying cafeteria that Bill wanted to make friends. So we shook then, Bill and I, man to man. But just as soon as Sam was gone, Bill’s smile turned and his handshake became a death grip. He was growling out words that I couldn’t understand but assumed were not friendly words. I now knew this was payback for the other night when Bill had been bad and I had to push his head down into his lap. And prompted memory of the other week when he was incontinent and had gone into the shower with all his clothes on and I was so mad I had to smack him. He counterattacked with a swinging gorilla punch and spittle. I ordered him to get his sorry self out of that shower now before I had to get serious. He couldn’t touch me. I was too fast. Besides, he couldn’t move his legs. I punished him later by denying him even his own shoes for the night.

Now Bill’s contorted face was turning purple as he tried to crush the bones in my hand.

“I’m sorry I was mean to you, Mister Bill,” I lied. “We’re cool now. Next time, I’ll gonna bring you a shoe that’ll blow your mind.”

But Bill’s passion had moved on from stroking shoes to killing me softly. His grip was inhumanly powerful and as he rolled us out of the cafeteria sideways, I was dragged behind his wheelchair for twenty yards. I thought we were doing about thirty-five. Somewhere past the soda machine face-down on the carpet, I formulated a new strategy of crisis management in four easy rules:

Rule One: Try not to stand between a foot fetish and his shoes. That would be first.

Legend has it that humans defeated fire-breathing dragons and lizards by waiting for them to cool down with the night. Let the foot fetish have his shoe in the heat of the moment. Later you can devise plans for prevention or reward-punishment. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 85% of problems are avoided by not showing up. It’s like they say: “When the going gets tough, the tough get out of the way and let someone else do the dying.” Better that than carpet fibers up the nose.

Rule Two: (Formulated as I was being dragged through the New Wing where a client was pounding endlessly on the piano using only two of the most depressing keys possible). Time is the ally of the rational. If we wish to be the rational player in a confrontation, we should first avoid escalation by overreacting. As we usually err on the side of doing and saying too much, we need to allow ourselves time to consider our role in the conflict before we can go about trying to solve it. Our controlled bodies are much more eloquent than our running mouths.

Good one, I thought, rereading Rule Two while prostrate on the tiled floor of the main aisle. I heard other staff members running to help me but not before several clients jumped me and took all my money. I scratched Rule Three into the baseboard with a toenail file.

Rule Three: Only the owner of a problem can solve the problem. Desire restrained is the heart of the problem. More than one side of a confrontation may be feeling their desires throttled at the same time. But we can only solve our side of the problem. I can solve overreaction on my part. I cannot expect to solve Ben’s problem. What this means, of course, is that a given problem may never be solved. Sometimes we just have to make the best of it.

Rule Four: The successful party in any conflict is always the one least conflicted.

In my insanity, I had a high chance of success if my goal was to defeat Ben at all costs. Unfortunately, I was not getting paid to crush Bill on the battlefield. Now it was payback, Bill was saying without having to say.

I couldn’t avoid my responsibility to Ben’s care or fail to notice a problem when Ben hunted for shoes in closets where he did not belong. It made sense to attempt to change Ben’s behavior. It did not have to be my goal alone to be solved immediately by any means necessary. And when I ask myself, “Did I do anything to cause this to happen?” I must conclude that I did. Nobody told me it was my job to yank the shoes out of his grasp. That was on me. Failing to analyze out and, through avoidance, quickly solve the problem that was my own, made remedies for Ben’s behavior all but impossible to consider. My own problem might be solved only with great difficulty, but it could actually be solved. This would have made it possible to focus on Ben’s behavior.

Ben would continue to covet people’s shoes and I may feel a huge emotional need to deprive him of his pleasures, even if only in my dreams. But at least I would know that what I was doing was unnecessary and unwise.

The staff rescued me out of the dumpster. The boss blamed me. I quit that job the next day and never came back to even peep through the windows.

But sometimes I still dream of chasing Bill down and fighting him for those shoes.