Recently, my sister forwarded me a picture taken of me in the summer of 1986. I'm standing in front of my parents' pool, holding out a fish I had caught earlier that day. I have one hand on my hip and I'm leaning to the side so as to keep the fish up. What most struck me about the picture were my socks. They cover my entire calf, ending just below my knee. Later that evening, I would sell those same socks for $10 to a guy who lived around the corner.
Ours was your typical suburban New Jersey neighborhood—late '60s split-level houses only distinguishable from one another by their color. Most of the families were the original owners—couples who'd moved in thinking it would be a nice place to start a family. My parents bought on a dead-end that was built after the original development was completed. Except for Brian Werner, I was years younger than any of the other kids in the neighborhood. Brian was just two years older than me and split his time between hanging out with me and hanging out with the older boys. The older boys introduced Brian to the lucrative world of sock selling and he introduced me. I was twelve.
"Carl Mitchell will buy the socks off of your feet," he told me while we both straddled our bikes like cowboys in the middle of Laney Court. "They call him the Sockman. He'll give you $5 or $10 a pair. He'll probably give you $10 'cause you're young, but still."
"How do you know?"
"I sold mine the other day. Freddy DeStefano took me with him. Those guys have been doing it for years."
"What does he do with them?"
"Who knows? You wanna go?"
"I don't know."
"Don't be a wuss. He's not going to do anything to you. You just have to give him his socks and he gives you some money."
Brian was my connection to the older kids in the neighborhood. If I showed up with Brian I was allowed to play in the local baseball games. I was careful to stay in his good graces.
"Come on, let's go see if he's out," he said. He stepped up onto his pedal and pushed off towards the corner. I waited a few seconds and then followed him.
The Sockman was smoking a cigarette on his front steps. It was the middle of the day and the sun was directly overhead, casting no shadows. We made a few passes in front of the house. The Sockman ignored us at first, but then, after looking back at the house, he held his leg out. He was wearing shorts and flip-flops and he just sort of lifted his leg into the air. We stopped our bikes in front of his house.
"Hey, what's up, man?" Brian asked.
The Sockman sucked on his cigarette, then snubbed it out on the cement steps. I kind of suspected that they were both playing a joke on me, but I didn't have any choice but to sit there on my bike, next to Brian.
Finally the Sockman got up from the step and made his way down the front lawn. He was tall and fat and his OP shirt didn't quite cover his stomach. He stopped halfway down the lawn and lit another cigarette.
"What's up?" he asked, leaning against Brian's handlebars. He put his foot on Brian's tire.
"You looking to buy?" Brian asked.
The Sockman looked over at me and then down at my feet. I was wearing tube socks with red and blue stripes that came up to the middle of my calf. I felt weird sitting there with him looking at me. I laughed a little, but Brian shot me a look.
"Yeah," the Sockman said, "but not during the day. Come by once it gets dark."
"Cool," Brian said. "Like what time?"
"Can you come by between nine-thirty and ten?"
"See you then, man."
"Right on," the Sockman said. He turned to walk back up the lawn, but then he turned towards us again. "And don't change your socks. As long as there's no holes in them."
Brian and I both burst into laughter as we turned the corner. "Is that for real?" I said.
"Yeah, man. I made ten bucks the other night. I swear. Freddy and Jason and those guys do it all the time."
My dad had warned me about perverts who might try to lure me into their cars or approach me in public bathrooms, but he had never mentioned anything about guys wanting my socks.
"Does he try to get you to touch his dick or anything?"
"I'm telling you, he just takes your socks and gives you some cash. You gotta take the socks off of your feet in front of him, though."
In return for taking the garbage out and cutting the grass, my parents gave me five dollars a week. Ten dollars just for giving a guy my socks seemed like a great deal.
"I don't know if I'm going to be able to get out tonight," I said.
"You can. It's really quick, so just tell your mom you forgot your glove at my house or something and I'll meet you on the corner and we'll go sell. Or else just sneak out. You'll be back before she notices."
That night, after watching half of a baseball game on TV, I told my mom that I had forgotten my baseball glove at Brian's house and that I had to go get it immediately. She wanted to call Brian's mom to make sure that it was OK for me to come by, but I talked her out of it. I put my sneakers on over my blue-and-red striped socks and got my bike out of the garage.
Brian was waiting for me at the corner. "You ready?" he asked.
"I guess. This for real, right?"
"Look, don't do it if you don't want, pussy. I'm doing you a favor. Go home to your mom if you want." Brian pedaled off towards the Sockman's house.
I wanted to go home, but I followed him anyway. We passed by the house a couple of times, but there was no sign of the Sockman. A few cars passed by, splashing their lights across us. I looked down at Brian's feet as he coasted by me. He was wearing plain white socks that came up to just below his knee. They were different from the ones he had on earlier.
"Didn't he say to wear the same socks?" I asked.
"Yeah, but those had holes in the toes. No way he'd buy them."
Someone whistled down the street and then we saw him appear in the light beneath a streetlight. He was walking his dog and didn't seem to notice us. He stopped while his dog sniffed the telephone pole. He kept whistling, though, and I followed Brian down to where he was. The yellow streetlight made his hair look thinner and cast dark shadows where his eyes should have been.
"Gentlemen," he said.
"What's up?" Brian asked.
"Not much, just walking the puppy."
"Yeah, that's a good-looking dog," Brian said. "You buying?"
The Sockman looked up and down the street. We were in front of the Nelsons' house. All the lights were out and there was only the blue glow of a TV in an upstairs bedroom. I worried that someone was inside watching us.
"Yeah, go over behind the bushes on the side of the Williams' house."
I expected to find a bunch of older kids behind the bushes, waiting to laugh at me, but there was nobody. Brian and I waited, straddling our bikes. I was relieved to find that he seemed as nervous as I was. We stood there, listening to the crickets.
The Sockman had a tiny flashlight on his key chain that let out a dim yellow glow when it was squeezed. "Take off your shoes and hold out your feet," he said.
I waited for Brian to take off his sneaker and then I did the same. The Sockman leaned forward and directed the flashlight at Brian's feet and then at mine. Then he stood up straight and seemed to go into deep thought.
"I'll give you ten," he said, motioning towards me, "and you five."
"Why are you giving me less than him?" Brian said.
"Because I never bought his before. And yours are sort of cheap and thin looking."
Brian didn't argue. I pulled my socks off and draped them over my handlebars, then forced my bare foot back into my sneaker. I folded up the socks like my mother did after they came out of the wash and handed them to the Sockman. He put them down the front of his shorts and handed me a ten-dollar bill. He did the same with Brian's socks and then he walked off into the night.
Once he was gone I folded up the money and put it in my pocket. I could feel my foot sweating inside of my sneaker. It suddenly seemed very dark sitting there alone in back of the Williams' bushes, and I rushed to get home before my mother got worried.
From then on my baseball card collection grew exponentially; the only problem was my mother's concern about my socks getting lost all the time. During the summer, she was convinced that I was forgetting them when I got dressed after swimming in the Roberts' pool. During the winter, she would search the laundry room for strays and joke that the cliché about washing machines stealing socks must be a cliché for a reason. Brian and I started riding our bikes down Highway 35 to buy our own socks at Bradlee's. When my socks stopped disappearing, my mother didn't seem to notice.
We became more sophisticated in our knowledge of what socks would and would not sell and how to maximize profits by buying socks that were both cheap enough and of decent enough quality. The transaction always went down after dark and always behind the Williams' bushes, like a low-level drug deal.
Before we ever took an economics class, we learned about supply and demand. If you were out several times a week selling your socks, you'd be less likely to make a sale or you'd get five bucks instead of ten. We learned, too, the importance of diversification. If you had on a pair of knee-length Wigwams, you were pretty much guaranteed a sale. Wigwams were more expensive than your generic tube socks, but most of the time our parents were paying for them. Still, you had to be careful not to sell your Wigwams too quickly or your mom would definitely notice. There was money in sport socks. Soccer socks were particularly popular with the Sockman, though eventually the market got glutted with them, too. Sometimes the Sockman would make specific requests. "If you know anyone from Holmdel," he'd say, "I'm looking for their visiting soccer socks." We got him to give us a five-dollar finder's fee for each new customer we brought his way.
One day, when I was fourteen, I was pushing the shopping cart for my mother and we stopped at the deli counter for some cold cuts. I looked behind the counter, and there he was, holding a ham. The Sockman. He was wearing a white smock stained brown on the front and a white paper hat.
"I don't really want cold cuts," I said.
"What do you mean? You ate the last bunch in two days."
"Yeah, but I'm sick of them now."
"Daddy will eat them," she said.
"Look, I'm supposed to meet the guys to play baseball in a little bit and I'm probably going to be late. I can ride my bike up here later and get the stuff."
"That's silly," she said. "It'll take two seconds."
I looked over again and the Sockman was rearranging the display meats. I watched as his fat fingers moved from one item to the next.
"Look, mom, Carl Mitchell's working. Let's come back later. You don't want him handling your cold cuts."
"Don't be mean," she said, but she didn't buy any cold cuts that day. She started buying them at the deli down the highway.
We once asked the Sockman how he got interested in socks. He told us about how, while attending a Catholic high school, he took a janitorial job to help defray the cost of tuition. While sweeping up in the boy's locker room, he found the floor littered with the discarded socks of football players. To hear him tell it, the socks immediately aroused him. The rest was history. As an origin story, this seems simple, if strange enough. Still, if one were to subscribe to Sigmund Freud's theory on fetishes, there was something more complex going on there. Freud believed that a fetish developed when "some process has become suddenly interrupted and… what is possibly the last impression before the uncanny traumatic one is preserved as a fetish." So, a young boy peeking up a woman's skirt for the first time might seize on the image of her stockings, the resulting fetish forever linking him back to this moment of early sexual arousal. A young man in a conservative Catholic school, finding himself attracted to the boys around him, might seize on their socks. Freud would elsewhere theorize that the foot fetish was a result of the phallic imagery of the foot. In this light, the placing of a foot into a sock takes on obvious sexual implications.
There was never anything sexual in our dealings with him, though, never any hint that he had a fancy for anything other than our socks. At the time, it all seemed strangely normal, as if this was probably going on in every neighborhood. Today, a quick Google search confirms that others share his fetish, though even the most exhaustive of category listings in on-line sex sites, which read like a veritable laundry list of Freudian imagery, rarely include socks as an option.
I try to remember my last sale, but I can't. It's like trying to remember your last kiss with someone before they broke up with you. It didn't seem significant at the time. By my senior year of high school I was the last of the original kids remaining on the block. The Sockman still walked his dog religiously, but his clientele had changed. It wasn't kids on bikes who were selling anymore, it was teenagers in cars. Something about it all seemed more dangerous. I remember being worried that something bad was going to happen to the Sockman.
My parents had started to notice random cars of kids passing slowly through the neighborhood and idling on the corner. At the kitchen table one night, my father put down his newspaper and looked towards me. "Tell me the truth," he said. "Does Carl Mitchell really buy socks?"
"It's not just some story kids made up about him?"
"No, it's true."
"You realize that he's got a sickness and that by selling to him you're contributing to it, don't you?"
"I guess that's true," I said.
I never did sell after that, though the Sockman would still hike up the leg of his pants when I drove by. I'd either ignore him or wave, but I didn't stop anymore.
The Sockman moved away while I was at college. By that time, his story had spread. From time to time friends would call me from their colleges across the country and ask me corroborate the story for them to their skeptical friends. There always seemed something reductive that was a consequence of the constant retelling.
Today, I don't know how to feel about the Sockman. Was he a sexual deviant wandering around the neighborhood preying on kids, or was he a guy with an unusual fetish that he had no other way of satisfying? I would be horrified to find that my own children were interacting with someone like him, and yet when I find myself telling the story, it is with a peculiar kind of affection for him. Maybe it is just nostalgia for my youth, the unavoidable consequence of growing older. We all believe our childhoods to be somehow safer and more innocent than children enjoy today. If this is true and not just a lie we tell ourselves after we emerge at adulthood unscathed, then the story of the Sockman is a story of a harmless local outcast.
And yet experience tells us that these stories often end much more sinisterly. Those nervous boys on their bikes, waiting for a sale behind the neighbor's bushes with their socks pulled up to their knees, had no way of knowing how precarious their innocence was, had no way of conceiving that anything evil could come their way. Even now, I'm not sure whether we were the source of the fetish or whether we were the fetish itself. And so I come back to this story again and again, hoping to find an answer to that question. But I can't.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]