Scanning an office decorated with a shoe-shaped planter, a giant, boot-shaped piata and a picture of actor Daniel Day-Lewis as he appeared in My Left Foot, Jeanne Sallman smiles beatifically before offering a rather startling description of her occupation: "You might say I'm running a dating service for the feet."
Sorry--shoe fetishists and foot freaks need not apply.
Despite Sallman's somewhat kinky-sounding explanation of her life's work, the director of the Phoenix-based National Odd Shoe Exchange (NOSE) is basically playing matchmaker for thousands of Americans who happen to wear two different shoe sizes.
When a new member joins the 50-year-old organization, Sallman combs a file of 16,000-plus index cards and comes up with the name (or, ideally, the names) of that person's "mismate"--an individual who has exactly the opposite shoe-size problem.
Through correspondence and phone calls, the mismates then correlate shoe purchases, saving members the expense of buying two different-size pairs of shoes to come up with one wearable pair. In a similar manner, Sallman pairs up amputees who have lost opposite legs. The organization also solicits tax-deductible donations from shoe manufacturers such as Nike, Reebok, New Balance and Rockport; that footwear is eventually juggled into mismatched pairs available to members at low or no cost. (Memberships currently cost $25, with annual dues of $15; Sallman offers senior discounts and waives all fees in hardship cases.)
"If it wasn't for our mismates, we'd wind up throwing those shoes away," says 51-year-old Sallman, who currently swaps shoes with three "sole sisters." "And what a waste! Who wants to buy two pair of shoes, just to toss one pair in the garbage?"
But that was exactly what Sallman herself was forced to do until she joined the group in 1953, after her mother saw an interview with NOSE founder Ruth Feldman on Art Linkletter's House Party.
Born with a congenital foot defect (her right foot is now two sizes smaller than her size 6 1/2 left), Sallman claims that learning she was not alone in her problem was nothing short of a revelation.
"The National Odd Shoe Exchange was a godsend," she recalls.
Some 40 years later, Sallman says she still harbors vivid memories of the day a thoughtless schoolmate interrupted her gym class to announce, "Look, everybody! We have a web-footed freak among us!"
"My famous saying is, 'Those who are really handicapped in this world are those who do not know how to love,'" reports Sallman, who counts herself among the more fortunate members of her organization. Unlike many NOSE members, her own mismatched dogs are not the result of disease, surgery or crippling deformity.
"Other than size, I have no problem with my feet," says Sallman, whose feet currently sport white pumps emblazoned with gold Playboy bunny accents. "They get me where I want to go."
Others have not been as lucky. "A lot of our members have mismatched shoe sizes because of polio, cancer and diabetes," she continues. "Some may have had a stroke, and the leg brace they're forced to wear makes it impossible for them to wear same-sized shoes." Sallman took over the organization in 1983, when founder Ruth Feldman's advanced age and health problems made it necessary for her to pass the torch. After a touch-and-go period of operating the service out of her home in her spare time (20,000 new shoes were once lost to mildew when rain leaked into a backyard storage shed), Sallman finally quit a nursing job four years ago to devote all of her energies to NOSE. The service's only salaried employee (perks include first crack at donated shoes), Sallman and a handful of volunteers now run NOSE out of a 2,000-square-foot suite of offices at 7102 North 35th Avenue. The group is currently struggling with the task of computerizing the organization's cumbersome records.
According to Sallman, there is no such thing as a typical NOSE member; her roster of the foot-challenged ranges in age from three months old to nearly 100 years. If there is any commonality among members from the ankles up, Sallman claims that it is gender-related.
"We hear from far more women than men," she says, sounding a mite disgusted. "Even if it's the man who has the foot problem, we'll hear from the wife. A lot of men simply don't want to mess with something like this. As ridiculous as it sounds today, a lot of men still leave stuff like this up to the women."
Although Sallman thought she'd seen and heard everything related to odd-size feet, even she wasn't prepared for last year's supermarket-tabloid story about a woman born with the proverbial two left feet.
"They had a picture of her and everything," reports the astounded Sallman, who immediately mailed a NOSE information packet to the woman in care of the tabloid. So far, however, Sallman has not received an answer, and in all likelihood, she probably never will. The source of the story was the outlandish Weekly World News, a tabloid notorious for its preposterous stories and doctored photos (Magic Toilet Brings Good Luck to All Who Use It" screamed a recent headline documenting a mass pilgrimage to a mystical public rest room in a Los Angeles park).
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But even if the left-footed lady does exist, she'll be sure to find something in Sallman's shoe stockpile. Guiding guests through a warren where the shoes are subdivided by age- and gender-specific footwear, Sallman outlines the rather mind-numbing process by which shoes travel from one room to another as matched pairs are separated and mated with new mismatches. Finally, shoes with no mates wind up at the end of the line in a chamber Sallman cheerily calls "the Amputee Room."
"I quit nursing because this is nursing," explains the indefatigable Sallman, who's been called "the Helen Keller of shoes" and "the Ann Landers of feet." "I'm helping people here."
And while it's probably too late to do anything about it, the director of the National Odd Shoe Exchange concedes that the name of her organization could use some help itself.
"It is misleading," says Sallman, who frequently gets calls from people who mistakenly believe she's running some sort of exotic-footwear boutique. "People always want to know, 'What kind of odd shoe?'"
Explaining that the late founder, Ruth Feldman, was fond of punnish mottos (When odd shoes are left, to trade them is right") and cute acronyms, Sallman says, "She was always telling people, 'Look to the NOSE to help the feet.' I think she originally tried to work 'Feet' into the name of the organization. But think about it--you can't get anything out of 'Feet' in terms of an acronym."
As Ruth Feldman might have said, "You bet your booties.