I'm a vegetarian. And thanks to Whole Foods Market and Alfie's Caribbean Soul Food, I have not starved over the last couple years as most of my carnivorous friends insisted that I would. Nor, as my Ultimate Frisbee teammates feared, has my diet impinged on my ability to sprint around an Ultimate field for 16 hours on any given weekend.
I've had very little trouble living animal-free since I declared my vegetarian experiment a success and swore off meat over two years ago. Very little trouble, that is, until this winter. I tried to buy a new pair of shoes.
My misadventure began on a ridiculously cold January night at Union Square in Manhattan. I had a job interview the next morning (my first opportunity to dress up since swearing off leather) and was running from store to store--to save both time and body heat--looking for some casual shoes to wear.
By now I'm comfortable quizzing waiters on the contents of dishes at restaurants, so asking salesmen for non-leather shoes was no big deal. For the most part, they were mildly interested in the challenge, but increasingly annoyed as I repeatedly turned down kangaroo and deerskin shoes, which they guessed might be satisfactory substitutes for traditional leather.
Not one of the trendy shops that I visited along Broadway carried a single pair of synthetic or cloth shoes. So, as these shops locked their doors, I headed for the one place I knew would be too cheap to carry leather--Kmart. I was wrong. The shoe department reeked of leather and a thorough inspection revealed that every pair of casual shoes that Kmart sells is made of genuine cowhide.
Discouraged and disappointed I rode the escalator down three flights to the subway. I got on the N train and spent the long ride back to Queens thinking about how the shoe industry had destroyed my life and hoping that the cow whose skin I had just saved appreciated my sacrifice.
Unwilling to sport khakis with my blue Adidas running shoes, I arrived at my interview the next day in jeans. Finding myself surrounded by sharp looking men and women in business suits, I convinced myself that my cow-friendly ways had cost me my one chance at a successful and meaningful life.
Now, I don't consider myself a militant animal rights activist. I don't go out and picket make-up manufacturers or anything like that. When people ask why I don't eat meat, I sometimes attempt to influence their habits by describing depressed, drugged, caged livestock. But that's usually as far as I'll go.
I realize that other people have different moral standards, and I recognize and respect the rights of these people to consume the various forms of animal flesh available on the market (although I have to admit that vegetarian-hippie types who wouldn't give up their Birkenstocks to save the Amazon tend to annoy me).
That said, is it too much to ask for a pair of shoes that aren't made of the skin of a slaughtered animal? Apparently. All of the major shoe manufacturers think it is.
Luckily, I nailed the interview, and it seems the New York City Department of Education is not too picky about their applicants' ability to dress themselves because I got the job. But when I returned from New York, I was determined not to be caught shoeless again. The next weekend, I embarked on an unsuccessful, weekend-long search of Raleigh. I didn't expect high-end designers to have what I was looking for, so I stuck mostly to bargain shops like Rack Room Shoes and Payless. But even the $20 cheap-as-they-come shoes in these stores were "genuine leather."
Out of patience, and willing to concede comfort and fit for availability, I turned to the Internet.
My first stop was the site shoes.com, which claims to have more than 300,000 shoes. I meticulously clicked through the 480 men's casual shoes listed from 51 different manufacturers and, with one exception, every last shoe contained leather, suede, nubuck, or moose hide (the one exception was a wool pair that looked more like slippers than shoes).
At this point I gave up on Rockport, Dockers, Timberland and the other traditional brand names and turned to Google, which directed me to a British company named Vegetarian Shoes, apparently a leader in the production and distribution of "veggie shoes." They carried a good selection of synthetic leather shoes, some of which weren't bad looking. Unfortunately, trans-Atlantic shipping and currency conversion inflated the price of their least expensive shoe to $112.
Google did not yield an American equivalent to Vegetarian Shoes, so I was about to go sell some plasma to raise the needed cash when I recalled the ravings of a certain burnt-out (non-Birkenstock wearing) hippie I used to know. This hippie once informed me that in the future, everything from paper to pants to cars would be made of hemp.
At the time I was skeptical, especially about the cars. But now I was desperate and since I tend to pass out when the doctor draws a few milliliters of blood, I thought I'd look for some hemp shoes.
To my surprise and infinite relief, I happened across Ecolution, a German company that produces an affordable, high-quality line of organic hemp shoes. They had several designs of tan, brown and black casual and dress shoes to choose from. And thanks to the combined market of vegans and marijuana enthusiasts in America, several U.S.-based distributors carry them.
Relieved and reassured about the feasibility of my vegetarian lifestyle, I entered my order at www.dankforest.com and warily (the company uses a pot leaf for a logo) authorized a $54 credit card payment. A week later, I was the guilt free owner of a pair of organic hemp shoes. They might not be the most stylish shoes on the market--my friend Emily described them as "different"--but I couldn't care less. They're extremely light and comfortable, the perfect sockless summer shoe (as soon as I get rid of my freakish sock tan), and most importantly, not one sentient creature was harmed during their production.
Steven Carpenter graduated this month from North Carolina State University. In September, he will be teaching high school science in New York City.