In normal times, such a pedestrian concept; an unemotional staple along the lines of "cheese" or "blanket".
But stick "back-to-school" in front of "footwear" and the idea takes on sinister proportions, as if cats were suddenly endowed with telekinesis.
We're somewhere on the vast polished concrete cultural wasteland of our preferred factory outlet, up to our necks in the hunger games of securing a suitable collection of leather and laces and other sundries to be systematically destroyed by each of our three children over the next 12 months.
My wife talks of the fugue state after giving birth, how something inside sends women into an impenetrable fog where they forget the pain of labour so they'll go back and do it again.
Same goes for the horror of re-equipping kids for first term.
An American size five? Huh? UK, Euro and Canadian, too? We're buying shoes, not seeking asylum, although perhaps that's what this whole god-forsaken place is, a facility to house that special brand of lunatic, i.e. parents thinking this year, "we'll beat the rush". And by "rush" I'm not talking about the high one receives when handing over cash.
I'm waiting in line to buy the kids cardboard cups of alleged fruit juice; an expensive and impossibly sweet concoction, a single sip of which gives you a genuine rush, a hit that makes your toes curl and your brain shoot for that same place it went 32 years ago, when you had your first lusty, lung-busting drag from a durry on that Central Coast beach.
Give us another sip ... now.
I'm behind - I assume (and certainly hope) - a father and son wearing the same clothes; shirts with the garish livery of a foreign soccer club; matching team shorts, even the same sneakers. They look ridiculous, tacky, I think, before realising my entire family is wearing the same clothes too, at least variations on the same theme.
We're all in boots. Good quality, versatile boots built for the mowing and hiking and snake-vaulting necessities of life on the escarpment.
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"From the country, are you?" the prim owner of the holiday house asked minutes after we'd arrived for our stay far up the highway in that strange seaside land of hyper-humidity and unsettling contentment.
"How'd you know?" we asked.
"All your boots are at the front door."
Obviously, she knew exactly from where we hailed because she'd taken our booking months before, so I suppose the superfluous, if not a tad hoity, observation was more about identifying a subculture, parsing people different to her, pigeonholing them; an act I can scarcely criticise because I'm doing it myself, right now, casting judgment on this Premier League tragic and his indoctrinated progeny.
My superiority is further diminished when I remember how, years ago, from a shady little shop in Brunswick that sold bongs and sunglasses and sandals, I bought matching T-shirts for myself and my as-yet-unborn boy; 10-dollar homages to The Big Lebowski. "The Dude" they proclaimed drolly under an uncomfortable and undoubtedly toxic nylon transfer of Jeff Bridges in a dressing gown and holding a carton of milk.
Thankfully, we're both too big for those shirts now.
Looking around, this whole cathedral of consumerism is a crucible of subcultures. Tattoos and shoes and hairdos all signalling supposed individuality. From Gen-X couples, such as ourselves, still lost in the grunge of the '90s, to teenage girls wearing high-waisted, hip-hugging jeans last popular in, well, the '90s, we all want to be different.
For such a purportedly bland city, an extraordinary display of diversity is playing out under these kilometres of shimmering air-conditioning ducts and gaslighting walls, which seem to shift and rearrange, as if we've all been dropped into that 1999 sci-fi thriller, Cube, a film which appears (somewhat desperately) to have spawned a new Australian TV show coming this ratings season to be hosted (somewhat ambitiously) by Andy Lee.
But trying to change a family's viewing habits appears to be as difficult as locking down a pair of black, size four Redbacks (no, don't bother calling your other store).
For the better part of a decade, we've been dancing around the fact our current TV arrangement has become akin to an abusive relationship. Although paying a fortune for its inescapable black-hole gravity sucking the life out of our lounge room, we've allowed this bully to inflict more and more ads on us, we've accepted the fungal sprouting of repeats instead of once-fresh content and we've watched the diaspora of global talent to other services. So, belatedly (we are stuck in the '90s after all), the family is discussing new streaming options, yet I fear we're only setting ourselves up for more abuse and suspect the grass may not be greener on the other side of the satellite dish.
Without actually paying for telly, only two options remain; save ourselves some real money and go free-to-air or, as John Prine opined in Spanish Pipedream: "Blow up your TV" and go cold turkey (we already "eat a lot of peaches", as our septic will attest).
In my purer moments, I daydream about a life without TV and think about what intellectual liberation this would mean for the family. We'd play chess, discuss art and literature; draw, write, sing; we'd be more physically active, enjoy our scrappy yet beautiful part of the world a little more and maybe even find time to enjoy each other's company, as opposed to fight over the remote as we claim shock affection for latest low-rent contestant on I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!
My daydreaming tends to end when the quotidian realities of family hit home and it's generally while weeping over a bill or breaking up a fight, my mind wanders to the evening surrender of the flatscreen and the associated abandonment of all personal hope this white flag above the couch signifies.
Luckily, the pitter patter of all those little feet were worth it. Just.
- B. R. Doherty is a regular columnist.