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The Great Read
Joseph DeRuvo Jr. has lived a mostly barefooted life for nearly two decades. The experience has given him a thick skin.
Credit...Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
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By Katherine Rosman
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NORWALK, Conn. — A few years back, Joseph DeRuvo Jr. made a quick stop at an upscale supermarket to buy eggs and was stopped in the dairy aisle by a store manager. “You’re not wearing shoes,” he recalled the manager saying to him.
He was right. Mr. DeRuvo wasn’t wearing shoes. He almost never does.
The employee cited health codes; Mr. DeRuvo disputed that he was in violation. The employee made vague references to insurance policies; Mr. DeRuvo replied, “More people break their necks with high heels than they ever do going barefoot.”
“A customer is complaining,” the manager finally said, as Mr. DeRuvo remembers it. “We’d like you to leave.”
Mr. DeRuvo initially decided to forgo shoes because of agonizing bunions, but he has stayed barefoot for reasons that transcend physical comfort. In that time, he has become a litmus test of people’s forbearance and their willingness to tolerate a stranger’s unconventional lifestyle and perhaps even try to understand it.
There are questions he is asked frequently that he is always happy to answer. How does he manage snow and ice? Doesn’t he get sharp objects stuck in his thick calluses? But that’s the simple stuff. “Navigating the terrain is easy,” Mr. DeRuvo said. “Navigating people is tricky.”
When asked to leave a shop or a restaurant, he normally does so without protest, said Mr. DeRuvo’s wife, Lini Ecker, a shoe-wearer who serves as a bridge between her husband and a world that generally asks for conformity.
“When someone has put on their ‘I’m in charge persona,’” she said, “once they start, they can never change their minds.”
On occasion, Mr. DeRuvo pushes back. “If I’m feeling feisty,” he said.
The egg excursion was one of those times. Mr. DeRuvo argued with the manager for a few moments and then walked away and bought his eggs.
For two decades, Mr. DeRuvo, 59, has lived an almost entirely barefooted life, one he has constructed, with Ms. Ecker’s help, to limit or avoid such confrontations. After years spent as a photographer and a photography teacher, he is still self-employed, now as a Pilates instructor, a particularly barefoot-friendly profession. And the couple stays close to home. When they go out, they gravitate toward mom-and-pop stores and restaurants where they can forge personal connections with owners and managers, and he can be seen as more than the guy with the feet.
Still, said Ms. Ecker, 61, “we get thrown out of a lot of places.”
Sympathy for Dogs
It was an unseasonably warm day in February when Mr. DeRuvo headed out for a short run. The weather was a welcome respite from the record-setting wind chill of the previous week. While hot days can be more challenging than cold ones, with the sun-baked pavement forcing him to run on the painted centerline or in the shadows cast by telephone poles, nothing is as painful underfoot as chemically treated, ice-melting salt. “It gives me a lot of sympathy for dogs,” he said.
Back at home, Ms. Ecker, a preschool teacher, prepared lunch, lightly grilling bagels in a cast iron pan, slicing avocados, tossing a salad. Mr. DeRuvo grabbed a pair of chop sticks, his preferred cutlery. This is among his “quirks,” as he calls them. He needs reggae music to play in the background at almost all times; the only numbers he can remember are of radio stations, which he uses for internet passwords.
“I clearly have one foot on the spectrum,” he said earlier (though he clarified that he has never undergone an autism evaluation).
Mr. DeRuvo’s lifestyle has given him reason to think a lot about bare feet, assessing their safety and hygiene and whether they threaten polite society. He can come up with no health risk. What germs can his feet carry that the bottom of someone’s shoes do not? (Connecticut has no regulations banning customers with bare feet at stores or restaurants, Christopher Boyle, a Department of Public Health spokesman, said, “but retail establishments can set their own rules.”)
Mr. DeRuvo assumes all risk of stubbed toes, or worse. He has performed a number of jobs all in his bare feet and all safely. He is a tinkerer and a maker, including of his own Pilates equipment that he fabricates in the elaborate workshop he built out of the garage behind his house, sometimes wearing safety goggles but rarely shoes. (He will wear moccasins while welding.)
In case he steps on something sharp, he carries a sunglasses case filled with tweezers to remove detritus, pulling his feet close to his face to spy metal splinters and shards of glass. He showers at night, scrubbing his feet clean before getting into bed with his wife.
And he knows when to capitulate, he said, keeping a pair of loosefitting sandals in the car in case there is an event where others would be inconvenienced by him getting refused entry, like when they go to dinner with friends.
But generally Mr. DeRuvo chooses the comfort of his feet over doing anything or going anywhere that forces him to force them into a pair of shoes.
‘People get skeeved’
Bare feet outside of the beach, the yoga studio or the pedicure chair tend to attract attention. “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was infamous for conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series, but legend has it, it was playing a game barefoot because of blisters that gave him his enduring nickname. Britney Spears’ visit to a gas station in 2004 became a global news event when paparazzi captured her leaving the bathroom in soles al fresco.
“People have a thing about feet,” Mr. DeRuvo conceded. “People get skeeved.”
Mr. DeRuvo’s look like they would hurt inside a pair of shoes: His big toes, with a protruding large bump at their bases, jut aggressively toward the pinkie toes on a diagonal.
The bumps are bunions. About 20 years ago, they had become painful — throbbing during long runs in tight sneakers and interfering with his life. Mr. DeRuvo saw a doctor who recommended surgery. As he awaited the scheduled procedure, he went without shoes because the pain was so intense. In the intervening days he learned that the screws that were to be implanted in his feet contained a metal he was allergic to. He also realized that he felt better since he quit shoes.
It did not take long before he came to see that going barefoot was enriching his life in ways he did not anticipate. There were physical benefits in addition to the relief for the bunions: He found comfort from the ground beneath him. “The tactile feedback just kind of makes everything else going on feel a little bit smoother,” he said.
There are spiritual benefits too, said Mr. DeRuvo, a religious man. “God says to Moses, ‘Take off your sandals, you know, this ground is holy,’” he said. “Well, I kind of like to take that as far as it can go.”
Shoelessness also provides him a mindful life, not rooted in the past, the future or the iPhone. “I pay attention to every single step I take.”
For these reasons, he said, he considers his lifestyle a gift, and, despite all the store managers who question his choices, a privilege. “A Black person going around shoelessly,” he said, “I just don’t think a Black person would have that freedom. The cops would be called.”
He explains all of this in a practiced manner. “When you always have to justify what you’re doing,” he said, “you find a context to put it in.”
‘People don’t like to be reminded that they’re animals’
Mr. DeRuvo was born in New York. His mother was a nurse at Bellevue Hospital. His father worked in the print shop at B. Altman, the department store, eventually overseeing the mail-order catalogs.
As a child, he struggled with language development, and only his sister could understand him. “My mother relied on me to translate for her what Joseph was saying until he was five,” said Alesa Cunningham, who is six years older.
The family moved to Greenwich, Conn., where he received special education services for dyslexia and a litany of other learning issues. From a young age, he liked to take apart and reassemble items, like doorknobs and rotary telephones. His mother gave him a camera when he was 16. “It combined the artistry of an image and the mechanics of how a camera works,” he said. “Everything clicked.”
In the mid-1980s, he enrolled at New England School of Photography in Boston. There, he met Ms. Ecker. They have been mostly inseparable since and married in 1987.
He does not remember exactly when he took off his shoes for the last time. “It was about five years before the iPhone,” he said (which would make it roughly 2002).
Mr. DeRuvo was nonetheless able to keep his former wedding-photographing career afloat for years, even after telling potential clients of his shoelessness.
Kate Lindsay recalled her sister’s 2009 wedding, which was photographed by Mr. DeRuvo and Ms. Ecker. At the backyard reception, she said, Mr. DeRuvo answered guests’ questions about his feet without becoming a sideshow.
“He was able, if you’ll forgive the pun, to walk that line,” said Ms. Lindsay, who hired him to photograph her own wedding reception in 2016.
His children don’t remember a big pronouncement that Dad would be abstaining from shoes, just that their father’s footwear grew increasingly minimal. “Somewhere along the way, something turned and he didn’t trust shoes anymore,” said Nate De Ruvo, 33, a barista in Boston.
As a child, Nate had a general awareness that his father was greeted with suspicion by strangers. “It was clear he violated a social contract, but it didn’t make any sense why that one in particular was so embedded into people,” he said.
He once asked his father why people got so upset. “People don’t like to be reminded that they’re animals,” he said his father told him. “They don’t like to admit we’re not that different from any of the other creatures walking around.”
Opal DeRuvo, too, grew up witnessing the often angry reaction to their father’s bare feet. Opal identifies as nonbinary transfeminine and has experienced society’s lack of acceptance. “People take such offense when someone tries to make the world easier to navigate for themselves,” said Opal, 31, an artist.
When dressed up, Opal wears stilettos, a shoe choice that provides an opportunity to reflect on their father’s experience. “When I cross a cobblestone street or a subway grate that has holes,” Opal said, “I have to be careful in a way that is not so dissimilar from my dad.” (“I find it humorous in the scope of things that I have a child that chooses to wear stilettos,” Mr. DeRuvo said.)
Ms. Ecker was unfazed when asked how her husband’s shoelessness has limited their life. “You take the whole package when you marry someone,” she said with a shrug as she ate lunch with him at the Norwalk Art Space cafe, her clogs nestled under the table next to his toes.
As for Mr. DeRuvo, he says that living without his shoes has let him be the person God wishes him to be. “Unless you see someone who is ‘different’ but is still able to cobble together a life,” he said, “you don’t know it’s possible.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.
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