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The Business of Boat Shoes

They’s in the same spots,
Me I’m dodging rain drops,
Meaning I’m on vacay,
Chillin’ on a big yacht,
Yeah I got on flip flops,
White Louis boat shoes.
Y’all should grow the fuck up,
Come here let me coach you.

—Jay-Z “On to the Next One”

Please remove your shoes, the Captain said. We looked at each other, blinking. Really? It’s the boat’s rule. No shoes, please—unless you brought proper footwear.

I did have proper footwear: boat shoes, with non-marking white soles. Unfortunately, I was also wearing them at the time. Off they went.

I bought boat shoes for this meeting, which I knew was going to take place on a yacht. And there they waited on the dock. There we went—to a business meeting barefoot, the type of situation that radically alters your sense of self and seriousness.  

For every other business meeting I’ve been to…ever…I’ve worn a suit and dress shoes, whether slip-ons or lace-ups. So this time, I was a bit excited about getting to dress down.

It wasn’t just that I got to, it was that I had to. You just can’t wear a suit on a boat. It goes against decorum, and with a lot of the business I do decorum and protocol are very important.

What you wear. Where you sit. What your title is. How you introduce yourself. All of this matters—especially when you’re abroad.

Here the rules were supposed to be: shorts, blazer, boat shoes.

Nope, not this time.

As my barefoot colleagues and I sat waiting in the plush interior of the yacht—which could easily have been a luxury hotel suite save for the gentle hum and vibration of the engines—I pondered how this would play out in, say, the Middle East, from where much of my over-sensitivity to etiquette is derived.

There, displaying the sole of your foot or touching somebody with your shoe is often considered rude. In meetings, you keep your feet on the floor. If you must cross your legs, you do a lazy leg over the knee. That way the sole of your foot is facing down.

The only time I’ve ever had to remove my shoes in a Middle East country was when entering a living room, so the occasion was informal. I’m pretty sure barefoot business meetings would not be tolerated. Maybe in Japan, but not in Baghdad.

In looking around at the smart, cream colored carpet, teak floors and leather and marble walls, I could understand the attention to excessive dirt. The crew—mostly young Americans and Brits—was ceaseless in washing and scrubbing, attending to every last detail…even us.

But all was for naught. When the meeting began, the self-imposed awkwardness quickly dissolved into discussion and Dom Pérignon—four hours of it. Anxiety turned to exhilaration.

Near midnight we departed, elevated by it all. The issue of having naked feet had little significance. It was, after all, a boat—the who, what and why of the meeting mattered more than the wear.

Pleased with how it all went, needing to regroup and being rather hungry, we went to Nobu—the only decent restaurant around. But it had closed, late as it was. So had everything else.

We ended up at the all-night bar at the Atlantis: a worn-out, second-hand smoke-saturated gambling den, filled with every sort of person in every sort of attire. Obese poker players with a plan, college spring-breakers looking for a hook-up, aged has-beens flitting away their last dime. We had gone from wear to worn—a world in which the only rule was no shirt, no shoes, no dice.

What’s up with who? That’s old news.
I’m in a speedboat, in my boat shoes.
Huh? I swear my whole collection’s so cool.
I might walk in Nobu with no shoes.
He just walked in Nobu like it was Whole Foods!
That n***a crazy, I told you!

—Kanye West “See Me Now”

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