Alabama

Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige

Lots of my family and friends, my wife among them, have never understood why I wear boots all the year round. Especially in the summer when, in Alabama, it gets mighty hot and breaking out some running shoes or flip-flops might seem more appealing. But the explanation is simple, even if it is unacceptable.

 I’ve always worn boots. When I was five, I wore cowboy boots with my shorts. As a skinny, squirrelly boy, to me they felt tough and mannish . . . two things that I wasn’t at all. As a teenager, the rock bands I liked were all pictured in boots—from Guns N’ Roses to the Allman Brothers Band. As a young man, I wore boots when I worked in restaurants and bars, because it didn’t matter if I got grease and other mess on them. So, when I was finally a grown man, who had become a writer and a schoolteacher, I was set in my ways and had no desire to transfer my allegiances to English-teacher loafers or dress-for-success patent-leather or even old-dude cool Converse All-Stars. No, it was going to be boots, no matter whether lace-up steel toes or pull-on brogans— it was going to be boots.

Back during the Civil Rights movement, some activists mimicked the habit of rural black sharecroppers who would wear overalls and a white button-up shirt to go into town. The white shirt meant you were dressed up, but the overalls showed that you were still a working man. (Look at the old pictures of James Forman, Robert Moses, and Stokely Carmichael.) That’s what boots are for me: that one remaining connection to the working-class roots that I can never transcend, and don’t really want to. Even though I’m now a writer and teacher with a master’s degree and half-dozen books to my credit, even though I now read The New Yorker and watch PBS NewsHour, even though my daily work now involves presenting nuanced academic ideas and red-marking papers, I was raised by an ex-Marine father who fixed machinery for the phone company for 42 years and by a working mom who put up with no guff. Their many overtime hours gave me the opportunities I’ve had, and their steady, conservative ideas about how to live grounded me with a work ethic I’ve relied upon. I came from a family that didn’t allow for laziness, snobbery, pretension, or excuses. In our house, there was only one question, and Yes or No were its only possible answers: did you do what was expected of you? 

Though my education, career, and worldview have led me away from a traditional Southern working-class experience, I’ll never move completely beyond it. It would have been convenient, even expedient to go to college and walk away from the world of busted knuckles and blue jeans, but I can’t. For the first two decades of my life, that’s what I lived and understood, so I can’t pretend during the two-and-a-half decades since then that I didn’t. I’ve cleaned dog kennels and moved boxes around warehouses, I’ve peddled food and swept floors and laid sod, and all the Harold Bloom and St. Thomas Aquinas you could teach me won’t change that.

On their 1990 album Goo, Sonic Youth led off with the song “Dirty Boots.” I’ve listened to that song a thousand-million times, and though I still have no idea what it’s about, what I identify with is: when Thurston Moore rips into the energetic part of the song, he growls, “I got some dirty boots—baby!” and that I understand. In 1990, I was a high school kid in a single-parent household, too broke to be stylish, working tech-theater jobs for extra money, and dirty boots were what I had. More than “Kool Thing,” the feminist anthem that propelled the band beyond the noisy early days of Sonic Death and Sister, “Dirty Boots” was the song that turned me on. I didn’t care to be immersed in Karen Carpenter’s eating disorder; I cared that I, too, was wearing dirty boots, something no one around me was celebrating like Thurston Moore seemed to be.

Today, I wear dirty boots for the same reason that those folks from the movement wore overalls and white shirts. Maybe this symbolic gesture is lost on the people around me, but the truth is: I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it for me.


“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige” posts will be published regularly on Tuesday afternoons. This post is the first in the series.

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