A Very Tall Tale

By Michael Sokolove

From time to time people as if it bothers me that I'm bald, and I can honestly say it does not. Oddly nobody ever asks how I feel about being short, possibly because it is perceived that there is no remedy for shortness, no equivalent of toupees or hair weaves, no Height Club for Men.

The fact is, I hate being short. I wasn't meant to be short. I was on the tall side until about second grade, and by eighth grade I still had hopes of overtaking "Big Irv," my uncle and the family giant at five-foot-ten.

That, to my horror, was when I stopped growing. Twenty-five years later, I'm a shade under five-foot six. And bitter. I hate squeezing into an elevator with tall people. I hate having to recite my pathetic inseam when mail-ordering panes. (Sometimes, in deep denial, I overstate my length and suffer the additional humiliation of having to ask a tailor to hack 28 inches clown to 27½ inches.) The only close acquaintance I can look down on is my older brother, Bob who's an inch shorter.

I blame shortness for detonating my basketball career (hey, I was captain of my junior-high team), and I honestly believe that if God had granted me just another foot—is that so much to ask? —you'd know me from my Nike commercials. In my dreams I play above the rim and get whistled frequently for goaltending.

So you can imagine how I felt when I saw the magazine ad that said MEN: BE TALI.ER! I could have padded shoes—"Elevators" with hidden "innermolds." I was skeptical sure. Wouldn't you feel like a fool walking around all day in foot falsies?

Yet this company was selling shoes, maybe to men I knew, maybe even to famous men. Maybe everybody was wearing the damn things, and I was the last short sucker still playing it straight. I had to grasp the opportunity to correct an injustice.

The catalogue from Richlee Shoe Co., makers of Elevators, drops through the mail slot within days of my call. I lock myself in the bathroom and eagerly paw through it.

I am utterly amazed at the breadth of choices. They have golf shoes. Cowboy boots. Insulated boots. Boat shoes. Wingtips and classic oxfords for the successful short guy; the black wingtips are pictured with The Wall Street Journal on the floor next to them. Loafers. Sneakers called Sport Lites. There's even a pair of space shoes called Chukka Boot Lites that short astronauts might wear.

I call and order the boat shoes and the Sport Lites.

The delivery man pulls up one sunny Saturday with two boxes. I go into the bathroom and rip them open. That docksider is a smartlooking shoe, two-tone brown leather and blue suede, with the exclusive 1 1/8-inch innermold inside.

I put the shoes on and take a couple of uncertain steps, sort of pitching forward. First impression: they make me sick to my stomach. So I take out the exclusive innermold and investigate its properties. It looks like a miniature version of a ski jumper's ramp.

I lace the shoes back up and go tilt at my wife. I'm bothered by unsteadiness, but what really bugs me is, I'm still not tall enough. If I'm five-foot-six and these shoes are giving me more than an inch, why am I not taller than my five-foot-seven-inch wife? She says I look a little thinner. In my heart I know she's lying.

At work I feel self-conscious. I stand next to people I used to be shorter than. I'm still shorter.

I decide to call the shoe company for guidance. I tell the receptionist I am a writer with two new pairs of Elevators, and that I will be writing a story about my experience. Soon I am talking to company president Bob Martin.

I start off with some general questions, like what is the average height of Richlee's customers? Martin says most of them range from five-foot-seven to five-foot-11, although a six-foot-five-inch fellow once walked out of the Richlee showroom with a pair. "A lot of people buy the shoes because they want to be taller than their wives," he says. "That's probably the most common reason." That sixfoot-five-inch guy must have had a really tall wife.

But I want names. I've had it in my mind that Ross Perot wears Elevators, and I'd like that confirmed.

"Many famous people wear our shoes," says Martin. "A lot of Hollywood agents buy them for their clients. We see our shoes in the movies quite frequently. We've also had Senators and Congressmen purchase them."

Names? "We don't give out names," he says. "Some people are self-conscious."

I press him. There must be one famous customer who wouldn't mind having his name used.

Martin relents. "All right," he says. "Ferdinand Marcos used to buy a lot from us. He'd order a dozen at a time. And he always wanted a deal." I feel better now, knowing I'm walking in the footsteps of a cheapskate tin-pot dictator.

Having dispensed with the softball questions, I tell Martin, flat out, that I'm not happy with the product. His Elevators have not taken me high enough.

Martin has heard this whine before. "We've found," he says smoothly, "that the customer wants the height, but he doesn't want it to be obvious or uncomfortable. From the standpoint of being subtle and comfortable, an inch and an eighth is what works."

It doesn't work for me, so I cart my Elevators to a shoe-repair shop.

Loudly I explain my situation to the man behind the counter. "These shoes don't make me tall enough."

There are four businessmen sitting against a wall getting their wingtips shined. One of them peeks at me over his Wall Street Journal. They all look at me as if I'm a lunatic.

The man behind the counter pulls the innermold out of one shoe and holds it aloft. "Already have lift in shoes!" he observes in broken English. "Already making you bigger."

When I tell the man I want more lift, he reaches into a drawer and pulls out a crude thing that looks like a thin piece of plywood. Do I want one of these in each shoe?

No, I reply. Hammer two of them in. And layer the exclusive innermold over them.

The guy behind the shoe-repair counter has carried out my instructions with great expertise. I feel like a really big guy now.

For starters I am taller than my wife. I soon develop the creepy habit of loitering next to her—being taller.

My wife doesn't like what the shoes do to my posture. The ski jumper's ramp is very high now, and I walk as if I'm wearing pumps. It follows that my back and knees ache most of the time. Doctoring the Elevators was orthopedically not a sound idea.

I wear the shoes to work and notice that there are five-foot-eight-inch people everywhere. I like looking at them eye to eye, but not one of them seems to notice.

I go to a party. Fifty people I know well are eating, drinking, talking. Not one of them stops by and says, "Mike, you're looking really tall this evening."

I call my best friend, a guy I've known since I was 12. I figure he knows how tall I'm supposed to be. I tell him he's gotta take a short walk with me. He says okay, and as we walk, I look him in the eye and ask, "Notice anything different?"

He ponders. His eyes fall on my two-tone docksiders. He shrugs and says, "You're wearing funny shoes."

So, after two weeks, I'm done with the shoes. Nothing exciting happened in them because I kept thinking about how tall I was. It took me a while to figure out where to unload them. Then it came to me: my brother.

Sure, Bob has everything—a big fancy house, a pool, more than one luxury car, hair. He's even been to a baseball fantasy camp. But he's not as tall as I am, poor guy.

The shoes are in the mail.