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Real Florida

Free sole

Moving to Florida did more than put sand in Jim Desorbo's shoes: It was the impetus to get his feet on the ground - literally.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published July 27, 2004


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BRADENTON - Probably the most sensible person in all of Florida at this moment is Jim Desorbo. Hot and miserable weather has put the rest of us in bad temper, but not him. He is calm and cool, dressed casually for the summer, careful to avoid a ridiculous coat and tie, and, whenever possible, shoes.

"No better place in the world than Florida to go barefoot," he says. "I love the feeling of the ground under my feet, and I love the sense of freedom. Freedom is what this country is all about."

A 45-year-old pharmacist, he wears tasseled loafers to his place of business in Sarasota. Then off they come. He reckons that 80 percent of his waking hours are spent with feet deliciously free of leather.

"I'm not a weirdo," he says. "In fact, I consider myself pretty normal from the ankles up."

Tell that to the shoe police. The shoe police include the high-heeled shopper in Publix who noticed his bare tootsies and announced her disgust, and the welcomer at a Wal-Mart who suggested he would be more welcome wearing something other than skin on his size 11s. Another shoe sheriff, it turns out, is his wife, Michelle, who requires that her husband wear shoes to church and other formal gatherings, at least when he accompanies her.

He complies, though he sometimes employs stealth footware: a pair of ragged boat shoes that boasts everything but a sole.

"When I wear them, it's a rush. I feel like I'm getting away with something," he says.

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to shoe.

A barefoot society

"A lot of people have closed minds," Jim Desorbo laments. When they think of bare feet, they think of flower children, Janis Joplin-hippie girls, long-haired Abbie Hoffman hippie guys with dirty feet. Pot smokers! Free-love advocates! Liberals!

"I'm not a radical," Desorbo says. "I'm not an exhibitionist. I don't have a foot fetish. I'm just a guy who enjoys going barefoot in Florida."

He grew up near Albany, in a New York valley named after an ancient Mohawk tribe whose members kept their moccasins handy autumn through spring. When Desorbo was a boy, barefoot season lasted two weeks in July, if he was lucky.

Of course, it was different in post-World War II Florida, where kids often spent entire summers with feet gloriously bare. With their calluses thick and yellow, shoeless children routinely crossed smoldering parking lots without flinching. Adventuresome youngsters scampered up coconut trees like monkeys, bare feet clinging to rough bark. Even more depressing than returning to school in September was returning to the habit of wearing shoes for even part of the day.

Modern Florida's kids are meticulously shod, wearing shoes everywhere but to bed and perhaps the swimming pool. Nervous parents fret about hot pavement, glass, sprinkler heads and what the neighbors might say.

It's enough to make Desorbo's feet weep. Migrating to Florida in 1984, he began making up for lost barefoot time five years ago. At first he did without shoes just around his house. Soon he was ambling sans shoes around his Manatee County subdivision. The outside world, with its scorpions, fire ants, rusty nails and pungi sticks, beckoned.

"The first time I walked across a parking lot during summer, I blistered the bottom of my feet," Desorbo says. "Then I learned the trick. Walk on the paint; it's cooler there. Roll your feet outward and walk on the edges. Of course, I have pretty thick calluses now. It's not that big of a problem."

For folks who consider bare feet their Nikes, public relations is a larger problem. Initially, Desorbo and his naked feet were self-conscious. A rude stare threw him for a loop. Then he discovered the Society for Barefoot Living.

The Society for Barefoot Living was established by a computer software writer named Paul Lucas in California in 1994. "I wanted to see if there were more people like me," Lucas says. There were.

The society claims more than 1,000 members. The Florida chapter, with 36 devotees, is among the largest in the United States. The main club benefit is information through its Web site. For example, club members learn that there is no law, in any state, specifically forbidding driving a motor vehicle with bare feet. In the glove compartment of his SUV, Desorbo carries a letter from the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle Department stating the facts, just in case. In his wallet he carries another letter, from Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation, explaining the law as it pertains to bare feet and businesses. Basically, there is no state law, though stores and restaurants can set their own rules.

"If I go into a restaurant and somebody says I can't because there's a law, they're wrong," Desorbo says. "But if that's the restaurant's policy, I'm polite and never make a scene."

He hasn't missed any meals. Back in his SUV are a pair of restaurant-friendly flip flops. If the restaurant is hoity toity, he wears his soleless shoes and tries not to giggle.

Strategies for all occasions

Barefoot men have many barefoot heroes. They include the philosopher Socrates, who walked around ancient Athens asking embarrassing questions until he was made to swallow poison. John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, traipsed across Ohio wearing a sack but no shoes. Abraham Lincoln relaxed in the White House by taking off his shoes and letting his tortured feet draw breath. In 1960, Abebe Bikila ran a marathon over Rome's cobblestone streets in bare feet and won the Olympics.

When Desorbo exercises, he wears shoes but only because his gym requires it. When he rides his bike out of his garage, the pedals are caressed by bare skin. During a hiking trip to the Georgia mountains last year, bare feet did nicely, thank you. "There were some sharp rocks under the leaves, so I had to go slower," he says. "But basically it was no sweat."

Bare feet sweat, by the way, but they seldom stink. Smelly feet are caused by hot, enclosing shoes. For the same reason, Desorbo never worries about athlete's foot.

A public bathroom? Look for a handicapped stall.

"They are cleaner. I figure most handicapped men or people sit more than stand when urinating."

A filthy gas station urinal? Not the end of the world to a barefooted man. Urine, Desorbo learned from the Society for Barefoot Living Web site, is not a toxic waste product: It is 95 percent water, 2.5 percent urea and 2.5 percent minerals, salt and enzymes. When a barefooted person steps in dog droppings, he knows immediately and doesn't drag it into the house.

"I haven't stepped on glass," Desorbo says. "My feet are so tough that sandspurs don't even bother me anymore. Worst thing that happened was I tore a nail off bumping a shopping cart wheel in Publix."

He waited until the parking lot to scream. Didn't want to hear somebody remark, "What did you expect, stupid?"

He wears shoes when he bowls and skates when he visits the ice rink down the block, but he refuses to wear socks. His sock drawer is spectacularly barren. He doesn't own a single pair.

Last time he had to fly out of town, he ambled around Tampa International Airport without shoes, and nobody complained. At the security gate, nobody had to instruct him to take off his shoes for inspection.

"But when I was I was walking on the plane, the flight attendant told me I needed shoes. I had my flip-flops ready. Took them off when I sat down. It was no big deal."

-- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or at klink@sptimes.com

Web browsing: Society for Barefoot Living: www.barefooters.org

[Last modified July 26, 2004, 17:59:06]


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