By Courtland Milloy
Friday, January 12, 2007
At the store where I buy running shoes, owner Phil Fenty ran a finger along the sides of my feet. Without taking measurements or asking what kind of shoe I wanted, he went into the storeroom and came back with three boxes of sneakers. Every pair fit -- and looked good, too. How did he know?
"I talked to the feet," Fenty said.
So there you have it. The District's First Dad -- father of the city's newly sworn-in mayor, Adrian Fenty -- is not just a shoe salesman. Call him the "foot whisperer," a man with an uncanny ability to communicate with toes, heels, arches, bunions and corns. And a dad who helped rear a son who used his feet in an amazing door-to-door campaign walkathon that won the race for mayor.
"Adrian used to work at the store," Phil Fenty said. "He understands feet."
And just what do those tarsals and metatarsals, phalanges and ligaments tell him about us?
"We don't respect our feet," the First Dad said. "If a fire alarm went off at the opera, you'd see a lot of barefoot women running around because those high-heel shoes hurt so bad they have to take them off as soon as they sit down."
But the foot whisperer can also be subject to aching feet, as Fenty learned on the night of his son's inaugural ball. "After walking around the dance floor all night, my feet were more than ready to come out of those dress shoes," he said.
His store -- Fleet Feet, at 1841 Columbia Rd. NW -- was packed during my recent visit. The unseasonably warm weather had certainly helped. But so had all the publicity that accrued from having a son become mayor of the nation's capital.
"People are always asking, 'What does the father of the mayor do?' " Fenty said. Only one other mayor in the city's history has had a father living in the city while he or she was in office. This dad would have to play the part by ear -- even though it was unlikely that he'd ever really look the part.
Fenty, 66, collects jewelry, and the African and Native American earrings, bracelets and necklaces that he wears give him a decidedly 1960s peace-and-love look. He doesn't plan on changing, either.
"I'm just trying to be me, trying to have fun with it," Fenty said. "That's what Adrian has instructed me and my wife to do. We asked him, 'What are we supposed to do?' And he said, 'Just have fun.' And I said, 'Now that's something I can do.' "
Phil Fenty's other hobbies include painting and drawing. He has an associate's degree in design from the University of the District of Columbia. He is also an amateur genealogist. (The Fenty name, by the way, has its origins in Aberdeen, Scotland.)
Phil and wife Jan, the daughter of immigrants from a small town near Rome, were born in Buffalo. They moved to the District in 1967 and spent much of the next decade working as human rights activists and organizing protests against the Vietnam War. They have owned Fleet Feet for 23 years.
I vaguely recall Adrian Fenty showing me some sneakers when he worked at the store. I do not recall, however, whether he possessed the skills of a foot whisperer. But there is no doubt that he can walk.
"He did wear out two pair of shoes campaigning for the D.C. Council" in 2000, Phil Fenty said. "For the mayor's race, he wised up and wore several pairs of shoes with thicker soles." (Nevertheless, as I can attest, Adrian Fenty still ended up campaigning with a hole in one of his shoes -- not something that a bona fide foot whisperer would do.)
Watching Phil Fenty at work, you'd think Fleet Feet was more of a podiatrist's office than a shoe store. He patiently examines customers' feet, often instructing them to stand, raise their pant legs and take a few steps so he can see their wheels in action.
"Feet are the first things that hit the floor in the morning when you wake up," he said. "Oh, how we take them for granted."
On weekends, Fenty sponsors a Sunday morning running group and helps train marathon runners. "Adrian and I do triathlons together -- swim-bike-and-run competitions -- and I don't think that will change just because he's the mayor."
If there is a job description for First Dad, then that's it: Spend time with the son. And as far as Phil Fenty is concerned, all it takes is healthy feet and a good pair of running shoes.