Leilani Baylis-Washington/Daily

Once my housemates leave for the summer, I stop wearing socks altogether.

The wood making up the floor of my front porch, paint long faded, turns slowly to compost day by day. The floor sits damp beneath my bare feet, and all around, Church Street recovers from a summer storm. There’s no damage to count, but remnants rise for the eager observer. The pavement remains slick and dark and the city sun hides behind a low-hanging mist. Residents peek shyly from their front doors, peering upward every few minutes, as if succumbing to a delayed biological instinct: lightning inspires fear. I watch two men unload supplies from an unmarked white truck; they’ve patched the same twelve missing bricks in Weiser Hall for ages.

The natural goings-on of the city block reach out to me – not just through droll sights of the determined pedestrians on fading crosswalks, through ringing sounds of the fresh construction on another high-rise, through unfriendly scents in a nearby pile of neglected compost, but most often, through solid feel of the steady earth beneath my feet. The day we started wearing shoes, humankind abandoned our fifth sense.

Stepping gingerly down onto the sidewalk, I scan for broken glass. Shards of a long-discarded Budweiser bottle lie on my left. The newfound danger thrills, and I discover the safe path on my right. I traipse down the street, bound for Palmer Field, arches of my feet aching with every contact to the pavement’s unforgiving flatness.

Grass poses a new challenge. The squelch in the dirt screams, “you’ll have to shower immediately,” but I walk on anyway. The moisture reminds me of life, of hope, and just now, I realize I’ve been away from them too long.

Once, in middle school, my brother remarked that I had “Hobbit feet,” and thus, an aversion to exposing my bare feet was born.

The comment wasn’t malicious or personal. His remark that day was merely the punctuation mark on a sentence that had already been written. Long gone were the days of absent-minded flip flopping. I’d grown up, and the subsequent loss of tactile sensation in my feet was a price I’d gladly pay for maturity.

As young adulthood waxed and waned, my aversion to foot visibility only grew stronger, until eventually, the casual covering of feet became an undercurrent in my life: unheard, like the hum of an air conditioner I’d forgotten was running. Only with all the noise switched off and the housemates shuttled away was I finally made aware of how loud my fear had been.

The day my roommates moved out, I became acquainted with a new level of loneliness. I had friends in town, but my meal preparation, my laundry, my living room television consumption — the little whims and activities that comprised my life — took place largely alone. 

It felt nice. And my shoes were the first thing to go.

There were no spectators at home to comment, “Put those bad boys away” or “I see the dogs are out today” or even just “Woof.” In fact, I walked, shoe-free, straight out the front door to set my Norfolk Pine plant in the afternoon sun. 

In our little red house, otherwise teeming with the quirks and every-day amusements of communal living, the unwritten addition of, “Those with bare feet will be mocked” never made much sense to me. It’s not unique to us, is it?

Aversion to bare feet has been a long-lasting cultural trend in America. In 1969, the town of Youngstown, Ohio made it illegal to walk barefoot downtown, an ordinance which was eventually declared unconstitutional. On the University of Michigan’s campus, some dreaded combination of Ann Arbor snows, OnlyFans jokes and blowback from vestigial hippie trends have rendered the exposed foot a subject of friendly ridicule. Freshman year, a friend in Bursley walked barefoot down the hallway once and was thereafter known by all those present as “foot girl.”

While many vital cultural norms (and some health codes!) advocate for the necessity of shoes in appropriate situations, I still find appeal in shedding the burdens of an incessant work life and getting back to my anthropological roots. Pausing for a moment to simply feel the grass between your toes is a common, easy way to humble yourself, destress and connect with nature.

Promising research has surfaced in recent years about the health benefits of occasional barefoot walking. Gretchen Reynolds for The New York Times reports, “Shoes protect our feet and sop up some of the slight pounding during a walk, but they also alter our strides and could, over time, increase the pressure and wear on our leg joints.” Reporter John Rather lists childhood nostalgia, stronger calluses and liberated sensation among the merits of shoeless walking in his Long Island home. A few runners even used to argue for the benefits of “toe shoes,” a trend which, while said to take advantage of the foot’s natural technology, was mercifully very short-lasted.

In my own watered-down adherence to the flurry of information I’d just unearthed, I recently wondered aloud whether I should buy a pair of open-toed sandals. The step seemed trivial for most but would be my first pair in over a decade.

A friend got me the sandals as a gift some weeks later, and presently, I wear them everywhere. Though I’m more cautious around falling objects, and I’ve yet to make up my mind on wearing them with socks, the silent worries about my foot visibility have met a standstill. My hope is that my choice in footwear is a microcosm of adolescent insecurity, a fear to shed alongside my acne medication as I progress through adulthood.

In the time it’s taken for me to compile my innumerable thoughts on barefoot walking, fate, as well as a two-week gap between Ann Arbor leases, whisks me briefly back home to New York as summer comes to a close: a shift which I assumed would give me a place to recuperate in the weeks prior to fall semester. Upon my return to New York, however, I find the land itself grating. The soaring seagulls and grey-blue mountains, subjects of nineteenth century masterworks, present themselves to me, only to turn up flat and uninteresting.

I remove my sandals, looking for one last tactile inspiration, and wade into the Hudson River. It’s warm: bathwater, almost, where I expected a chill. The colors swirl together in a beautiful light — pale green, brown — like water used to clean a paintbrush or a well-crafted miso soup. Dragonflies flit about. Full immersion eludes me, held back as I am by fear, rumination on whatever radioactive creature surely stirs in the depths below.

Here, barefoot feels fine, but something’s amiss.

New York is a state of productivity. While its carefully constructed facade is one of relaxation, of liberal values and trendy electric cars, New York, the very land itself, has hidden tenets of structure, just like my little red house did before the housemates left.

Ann Arbor’s values are different, its people more accepting. I realize that I miss my block on Church Street, not for the construction workers and befuddled tourists, who may give me an odd look when I pass by shoeless, but for the freedom the larger community presents me: freedom to be myself, to live alone without judgement. I love my block, my college city, for nurturing the carefree attitude that lets me plod across the Washtenaw pedestrian bridge, my soles caked in mud from a summer storm, and bottle the feeling in writing, so that others might walk freely too. 

Statement Columnist John Jackson can be reached at writejpj@umich.edu.