I Bought New Cowboy Boots

Happy early birthday to me.

I visited the O.K. Boot Corral in Vancouver for the first time after TED2015, when I was still a contractor at TED making around $40,000 a year and had just moved out of my mom’s house in Connecticut into my first apartment in Brooklyn. The store was intimidating in both its pricing and its masculine presence: the men who worked there were expert salesmen, older gentlemen who looked straight out of central casting for Pacific Northwest grizzled cowboys. I was small and nervous, and the shelves of boots were tall and full of glistening leather. I wanted them, all of them, and panicked when the salesmen asked if I wanted help. I felt like a tourist, a young girl with sticker shock who didn’t know yet who she was. My boss, Nadia, gave me a compassionate look, and we left for the restaurant for all-staff dinner.

It was easier to go to the same store now, four years later, after TED2019. My salary has doubled, my job title gained “senior,” and I have less fear navigating unfamiliar social situations. The salesmen haven’t changed, two older gentlemen with impressive facial hair who helped me find a pair that fit my tiny feet. Tony encouraged me to yank the boots on even went they felt too small, and I worried I might tear them. When the dusty red Boulet boots finally settled around my feet, I realized I’d never properly worn cowboy boots before. With only one exception, none of my boots have been new. I buy them in second hand stores, on consignment, or inherit them from my mother and her much wider feet. These boots have never been worn before, handcrafted Canadian leather, tight and firm but ready to stretch around every curve and trick of my feet. Tony urged me to walk around, feel them expand, asked if they were too close to my toes. They’ll adjust to me, become even more mine every time I wear them.

I wanted a pair of black boots with some silver or gold stitching, something I could wear every day that would match any outfit but still stand on their own as a statement. But the dusty red pair, almost pink, are unlike any shoe I’ve seen before. They are feminine but subtle, eye-catching but strong. If I take care of them well, they will last me years. Tony showed me how to apply mink oil to the seams and tend to the leather; he talked me through how to waterproof them and wear them in any weather. Canadian boots, he said, won’t crease at the ankle or crack at the back. You don’t know how to make boots in the US, he told me, not unkindly. Now that I’m back in New York, I need to find a cobbler and put proper soles on them, something sturdy.

Tony and the other salesman flirted with me as I paid in that harmless way some older men do. They complimented my eyes, my smile, said that I am present. I am learning how to interact with strangers with more grace, make small talk and ask questions. I am learning to manage my fear of the unknown and try to meet people where they are. Girls are raised to be polite but protective, an impossible dance of accommodating and worry. But I do not need to be afraid in cowboy boot stores on bright Friday afternoons, I do not need to be afraid of kind women I know from the Internet who give me hugs when we meet in person and tread a path for me to follow. I don’t need to confuse the hostility of people who do not know me with the curiosity of people who would like to know me.

My birthday is in two weeks: twenty-seven years. Since last year I’ve lost two friends to early deaths, one friend to sleeping with my ex after my last birthday party (it’s a long and petty story), and several others to that mid-twenties drift that comes for us all. I feel like I’m on the verge of making positive, intentional changes instead of being jerked around by negative ones. I really want a dog but that isn’t in the cards yet.

I am trying to be present. I am trying to break in my new shoes.


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