I’m a walker. Yes, I own a car, but I much prefer to get around on my feet. Sure it’s slower, and this time of year the cold and bitter wind starts to remind me to be grateful for the amenities afforded to many of us in the United States in the 21st century; but given the choice between walking or driving — I’ll walk every time. It’s good exercise. It gives me time to think. It allows me to observe and discover the world as it unfolds and to find some mystery in the seemingly mundane mediocrity of modern existence. It feels good in that moment to not be contributing to climate change, Exxon’s unconscionable profits or wars for finite resources dressed up as anti-terrorism, democracy-spreading, liberty-defending endeavors. I walk because sometimes it’s the best thing I can think to do. Hey, it sure beats crack.

I find many things strewn haplessly on the sidewalk in my daily wanderings around Portland. Some are Instagram-worthy, such as the perfectly intact peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich I found perched on a snowbank last spring, balanced just-so as if someone had left it there to keep fresh to return to later. Most others are not: damp cigarette butts, plastic bags, litter, and people with no homes nestled on park benches or staircases with their tarps and wool blankets. Some things I find are useful: money, furniture, books, clothes, tools, pizza — yes pizza! Full boxes of it — you name it, it’s out there. It’s a veritable Walmart on the sidewalk! A bonanza of post-consumptive consumerism! You’re missing out! Get out there and walk, I’m telling you!!! 

There is one thing that I have been finding lately in increased numbers: boots. Nice boots. $200 new boots with Gore-Tex™ uppers and Vibram™ soles. Boots that can get you around and keep you warm. Boots you can get stuff done in. Boots that would have been some of the most coveted possessions someone of limited means could have owned three generations ago. Boots you can travel to the ends of the earth with. I’ve seen more than four separate pairs placed, obviously intentionally, on the sidewalk in and around Portland and environs in the last several weeks. Waiting for someone driven by something as desperate as need to claim them. I haven’t seen anyone giving away designer shoes. 

I guess I’ve been paying special attention because I recently donated a pair of such boots to a homeless shelter. My roommate also happened to be putting up a pair for sale on eBay at the same time. It being fall, I recently invested in a new pair of shoes to get me through until spring. I figured I could part with a set of footwear; someone else needs them more than I do. Many others must be doing the same.

I began reflecting on an economy where boots are left out to be claimed by anyone who can use them — the homeless usually, no doubt. An economy that is so productive it makes things that were once prized possessions in such excess that they become practically worthless after they are used even once. I thought about the bumper sticker that used to be popular before it became a cliched symbol of status and privilege feigning humility in a hyper-stratified society: “my other car is a pair of boots.” In a similar vein, if putting slogans on houses was a trend, these same people might say “my other home is a pair of boots.” It sure can feel that way when you’re out on the AT, or hoofin’ it through the Grand Canyon for a week or two. Boots are marvelous things, but they are no substitute for a home, and anyone without a home knows this. 

The manufacturing of boots and shoes used to be a trade that created homes for people. Stable sources of income and long-term employment in not horrendous conditions that allowed for a working middle class to burgeon and thrive in this country for several decades. These are just a few of the fabled blue-collar jobs of yesteryear that we have collectively forfeited to the juggernaut of globalization. The inevitability of progress. The triumph of capitalism. In the wake of the departed factories are hollowed out communities, shuttered storefronts, drugs, and homelessness. This is the America of 2015 from sea to shining sea, and you’ve got to be willfully blind not to see it. 

Those of us lucky enough to retain some measure of enfranchisement in the current system maybe feel some pang of guilt and responsibility for the woes of our not-so-fortunate neighbors — not neighbors with an address, mind you, but neighbors sleeping outside near where we live. We do prefer cheap stuff from China to expensive stuff made by unions here in the USA, after all. That’s one job gone. We’d rather hang on to our tax dollars than pay for more subsidized housing or rehabilitation programs. 

So what do we do to alleviate our guilt? We throw more disposable goods at the problem. Boots and more boots. Name-brand jackets. Cell phones, even! All the accoutrements of first-world living with none of the substance. We can give people free cell phones and free boots, but we can’t give them viable communities in which to make homes and lives for themselves. That must be the result of a collective effort which we so far have not been willing enough, or desperate enough, to make. 

Grayson Lookner grew up in Camden, now lives in Portland and writes oocasional columns for The Free Press