Bare Toes Closing In … Feel Faint

The hot summer of 2005 is looking a lot like the hot summer of 2002–that’s when Observer society reporter George Gurley could barely leave his Central Park West duplex because of being stalked by female feet. This summer, he’s again refused to leave the house. Here’s why ….

Girls, ladies, women of the city: I know you love your open-toe shoes, and so do I. They’re very sexy! Sex-y! I love everything about you: the hair, the eyes, the lips, the shoulders, the arms–and you know I’m fond of the breasts, not to mention the belly, the curves, the hips, the rump, the Brazilian bikini wax, the buttery thighs, all the way down to the ankles, and oh–it is all good. Except for one thing. There’s just one little problem, something you haven’t quite picked up on: Your feet, your toes, displayed so proudly, stuffed into $500 strappies or $10 flip-flops as if on a pedestal for all to behold and admire: Here they are! Here’s the prize! And look at my toe ring!

Well, they ain’t so cute.

You may not know it, but in the male mind they can ruin the rest of your physical charms. Yes, your huge, bony, milky-white feet, with enormous, mangled, red-toenail-painted toes–those frightening, E.T.-shaped, elongated toes, those Alien-like talons (toeclaws!) spreading out and creeping over the edge of your black slides, slithering out like sea monsters to snatch innocents up off the sidewalk, or like the claws of prehistoric birds, ready to grab us by the neck and carry us aloft and dash us against the rocks …. Ladies whom I love, we’re talking dread–primal fear–much more harrowing than Mr. Freud’s vagina dentata.

But women in New York City seem to be blissfully unaware of this fact. Why else would 98 percent of them be wearing open-toe shoes, not knowing (or caring) that only 10 percent of those exposed feet and toes are appetizing, while 25 percent are merely tolerable? Which leaves an awful lot that are … scary!

I submit to you: Spend an afternoon walking around Manhattan’s verdant park land, and you will see legions of women who have kicked off their flip-flops in order to show off grubby, filthy feet slimed with bacteria–and worse–after a day traipsing around midtown, in the grimy subway, in fetid cabs, in anonymous bathrooms …. And now check out these same dogs laid out on the soft green grass or a chair, being offered up for all to see, gnarly toes wriggling around, cooking in the sun, like crabs crawling toward me ….

Have mercy!

Don’t they know what men are thinking as they check a woman out from head to toe?

“I’ve seen some ugly feet,” said Golden Baker, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Columbia University who was in Bryant Park taking the sun on a recent afternoon. “And bony. They got this big ol’ knob–it looks like it could be a sixth toe or something. Weird toenails. And veiny on the arch of the foot–that’s not cool.”

Nearby, Matt Daniels, a 27-year-old actor, was smoking a pipe and playing with his Palm Pilot. “Toe breakage,” he said. “The toe was broken years ago and now it’s kind of some crazy, bent … thing. You see that a lot. Sometimes you see a couple of nice toes and then you see a toe that has some sort of fungal growth, or a toenail that has a mind of its own and comes wrapped around the side of the big toe or something crazy like that.

“I’m all for comfort and everything, but just wear a pair of sneakers,” he said imploringly. “Keep it inside!”

“I think toes are cool,” said Stephanie Lukas, a 25-year-old schoolteacher who was eating yogurt. “You don’t see toes all year–it’s a limited amount of time–so even if they’re not so cute, you know they’re going to go away.”

And thanks be to God: Ms. Lukas was wearing mules that covered her toes.

“I’m not going to be a foot model,” she said, adding that when she sees unappealing female feet, she simply wonders what made them that way.

“Are they a dancer, or were they raised someplace where they had to bind their feet?” she said. “It doesn’t gross me out; it makes me more curious than anything.”

Couldn’t bad feet spoil an otherwise fetching appearance?

“I think if somebody was that superficial, that they’re not somebody you’d really want to talk to,” she said.

But what about the hygiene issues around open-toe shoes and sandals and flip-flops?

“O.K., that grosses me out,” she said. “People who wear Manolo Blahnik $300 shoes that are like a piece of paper, or whenever I see people with those very, very thin flip-flops, I think they’re either very brave or very stupid–or they just put fashion before everything else. There are some dresses that make you look pretty because it looks like you’re barefoot, and it’s a real sensual look. But then once you think of what’s going on down there … I think it loses its sensuality.”

Around the corner I espied two more pretty women, laughing and eating yogurt as well, not a care in the world! They said they were students at Syracuse University, interning at a fashion firm. I looked down and noticed their feet had unfortunately been liberated from their flip-flops.

“I think if women have ugly feet, that doesn’t mean they should wear close-toe shoes,” said one of them, Tanya Ngangan, whose feet were crying out for a bubble bath.

“I’ve never been offended by someone having ugly feet or showing them in public,” said her friend, Melissa Lukach. “Women can express themselves however they want to. If they choose to squeeze into size-5 shoes and they’re 7, it’s their loss. I live for open-toes shoes. If I could wear them all year round, I would.”

Yikes! I made my excuses and scurried away.

And ran right smack into a very large man named Nolan Merritt, who was making deliveries for his trucking company.

“If you have bad feet or ingrown toenails–things of that nature–I don’t think you should be wearing open-toe shoes,” he said. “My advice is, ‘Please cover them up!’ ’Cause you messed up the whole package. I mean, you could be a gorgeous young lady, but if your feet are jacked up, then cover them bad boys up!”

It was only about two years ago that I became like this. Before then, I could actually attend a summer cocktail party in the Hamptons without vomit making it to the back of my throat several times.

Take, for instance, a party thrown in East Hampton on July 26 for Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund. It was held at the home of Jaci Reid, a 40-year-old philanthropist, and her husband Morris, a 31-year-old business strategist and lobbyist in Washington, D.C. The party had actually been promoted as a “barefoot” cocktail party. I went with the grim, masochistic fascination that drives men to test themselves against the absolute worst.

I wisely kept on my loafers and argyle socks. My date’s feet were exposed.

She volunteered that the shiny white stuff on them was wart medicine.

“It’s becoming,” I said.

“I have Barney Rubble feet,” New York Times writer Abby Ellin told me, removing her sandals and scraping the ground. “Haven’t you ever watched The Flintstones? I’m totally ready for the car. Those are what my feet are like: short, squat, stubby. C’mon, Dino!”

I must have looked aghast.

“We have so many other things to worry about–now you want us to worry about our feet?” she said. “I have Linda Hamilton arms, so I’m not going to worry about my feet.”

Ms. Reid, the hostess, said she had nothing to worry about. “I have nice feet,” she said, lifting up her Prada sandals and showing off toes with lilac-colored nail polish. “See that? They’re narrow.”

Had she ever seen ugly feet?

“Yes …. I keep moving. I see gross feet everywhere I go, but being a woman, you can’t get away with not wearing sandals,” she said. “I would never say ‘Cover the toes,’ but it does make you look at the people a little differently. It just takes me to another reference point, like I’m thinking, ‘Hmmm, the whole package is not a good, solid package. There’s an issue.’”

Over by the pool, Monica Schaffer, a 30-year-old publicist, said she had a bunion developing. Other than that, she’d earned the right to go barefoot.

“I have a foot fetish, absolutely,” she said, adding that she notices bunion-plagued feet at the gym. “It’s disgusting. I saw this woman yesterday morning in the locker room, and I could not stop staring at her feet. They were gross! I was looking at this bunion; it was like she had some medieval torture done to her. I kept thinking, ‘If you go to a podiatrist, they can do a little surgery where they cut it off and that’s the end of it. If it’s six weeks of recuperation, big fucking deal–go to the Hamptons and hang out for six weeks.’ But then I start thinking, ‘I got a bunion, too,’ and I start freaking out about that.

“What do you think I’m doing when I’m on the street?” she continued. “I’m looking at peoples’ feet. Not only do I want to see where they buy their sandals, I want to see what their feet look like. Do they have a better toe color than me? Do they have bigger veins? Are their toes funky and long?

“I don’t know if men really think that way,” she said. “I think men are more impressed with boobs and a rear end and a well-sculpted body than feet.”

She was surprised to learn this wasn’t the case. “Oh, no! Do they judge the feet themselves, or the choice of shoes? Oh, I didn’t know that. I didn’t think men really got that far–I thought they stopped at the knees.”

Wearing a white dress and black cowboy boots was L. Marilyn Crawford, the boss of Primetime Omnimedia, a marketing firm.

“Men love feet,” she said. “What is it? Everywhere I go, it’s, ‘Oh my God, your feet are so beautiful.’ Like, hello–I do have a face.”

She, too, had encountered frightening feet in unexpected places. “My Pilates teacher today, she has an absolutely gorgeous, long, beautiful, slim body, a gorgeous face,” she said. “I looked at her feet, I was like, ‘Oh my God, she has the nerve to go barefoot?’ Oh my God–it was frightening!”

I knew exactly what she meant. I complimented her on her cowboy boots.

The next evening, I attended a benefit for the Watermill Center, a Hamptons arts workshop run by the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson. There was lots of spooky stuff–a woman on a pedestal singing eerie songs, arty people wearing masks which made me think of Eyes Wide Shut.

Those I could handle–but soon enough I was experiencing a very bad trip, freaked out by the sight of hundreds, even thousands of toes surrounding me. I got a whiskey soda and sat down with a real-estate broker who said he was a former foot doctor.

“I happen to have a beautiful wife who has very sexy feet,” said Richard Steinberg, 50, managing director of Ashforth Warburg Associates. “But there are women who sometimes have chubby toes that gross you out. Chubby, wide feet are the kiss of death.

“Feet are tough,” he continued. “They’re ugly by the nature of the anatomy of a foot and a toe. Intrinsically, they are not attractive things. But some women have sexy feet. I think the problem is that shoe designers have really focused women on those really unbelievable shoes that are open-toed and very sexy. So it puts women in a very bad position, because they have no choice.”

I refilled my drink and made the rounds.

“I think that women should cover their feet in the city because of the germs,” said photographer Jonathan Becker, who took the pictures of the young socialites for the book Bright Young Things. He said he thought it possible that a woman exposing her feet in midtown could pick up E. coli in her Jimmy Choos.

“I have absolutely gorgeous feet,” said socialite Bettina Zilkha. “I love my feet, I know it. I have been asked be a toe model, a foot model.”

“There’s what you do with your feet sexually, and what you do with feet in terms of grooming,” said socialite Nina Griscom, who was having her picture taken with Calvin Klein.

Aha, I thought–a world-famous fashion designer I could ask about female feet!

Mr. Klein laughed and said, “The truth is, it’s all about sex. I have a thing about footwear–I design shoes, and it’s total sex. You’re a man; you have no idea. Shoes, it’s all totally sex.”

“They’re all, ‘Knock me down and fuck me?’” asked Ms. Griscom.

“No, but truly you cannot imagine,” Mr. Klein said. “Doing footwear for women is like sculpting; it’s actually the most interesting thing you could do for a woman. It’s the same thing with clothes: You can cut clothes to make a woman be the most beautiful. You can do the same thing with shoes. I can make any woman’s foot look hot and sexy, and the guys would die.”

Back in Manhattan, I thought I’d be safe. I was wrong. More terrifying than the movie Signs was the party after the premiere, held at the Metropolitan Club. It was over 90 degrees outside, and inside was an open-toe-shoe horror show.

“My wife has beautiful feet, that’s all I got to say,” said Spike Lee. “One other thing: Men should not wear sandals.”

There was socialite actor Matthew Modine, wearing sideburns, a pinstripe suit and Birkenstock-like evening sandals. How were his wife’s feet?

“Well, she has dancer’s feet, which I think are beautiful,” he said.

Joni Wilkins, a 37-year-old woman wearing Gucci open-toe shoes, approached and said what a great actor Mr. Modine was. How did she feel about his feet?

“They’re nice feet–needs a little bit of a pedicure, but nice feet,” she said.

Had she ever seen gross feet?

“Absolutely,” she said. “Wiggy toes. Wiggy toes don’t line up straight. Nasty. You can cram them into a Manolo, but they’re still wiggy toes. Wiggy toes are not cool.”

Mr. Modine looked at me. “You are really hung up on this gross-feet thing,” he said. “When you were a little boy, did you have a grandma kick you around the house that had nasty feet?”

I didn’t care for his jokes, so I went to talk to his wife Cari Modine, who was sitting by Mel Gibson, who is the star of the picture.

“Feet are magnets; they’re meant to be looked at,” Ms. Modine said. “And women make them even more interesting by putting really beautiful lacquer on them. This summer is especially great for toe-showing, because now the fashion is exotic sandals with jewels on them, and lots of anklets are being worn, so it’s a great time for showing feet.”

I felt woozy.

Ms. Modine said her own feet were “destroyed.”

“I would definitely describe my feet as those with character,” she said. “I think when you have ugly feet and you show them anyway, it’s indicative of something in you, I think it’s pretty brave.”

She started to bring her feet out from under the table. I braced myself: flip-flops. But her size-10-and-a-half feet were … fine! And I told her so.

“It’s the lighting, honey,” she said.

On the way out, I passed Mr. Modine again. I told him his wife had beautiful feet.

“You’re a sick man,” he said. Bare Toes Closing In … Feel Faint