Uggs for Gaza by Gordon Haber

Shortly after Mitch turned thirty-four, he was struck by the pointlessness of his life in New York. He had been with the same company for six years. He would rise no higher than marketing director. He was single and profoundly bored. He called a recruiter, and eight weeks later he had a job in Santa Monica and a furnished cottage on a street of tidy, proximate houses in Culver City that reminded him, improbably, of his childhood neighborhood in Queens.

There was further cause for disappointment. Despite some ancillary show-biz glamour—his new company made websites for movies—the work was remarkably similar to what he had done in New York. Also he had no social life. Angelenos were open but impenetrable, given to effusive pronouncements that came to nothing. In Los Angeles, Mitch was frequently hugged and frequently alone.

But he was determined to avoid lapsing into the usual single male triumvirate of pot, PlayStation, and porn. So when a work acquaintance, a project manager who seemed to be making friendship overtures, invited Mitch to a party, he said, “Sure, why not.”

That Saturday night, Mitch’s GPS led him to a vaguely Spanish-looking house in the Hollywood Hills. Inside, maybe thirty people stood around, their posture and clothing demonstrating the studied casualness that almost everyone affects in Los Angeles, including the homeless. Mitch felt a twinge of self-consciousness when he couldn’t see the project manager. As he fixed himself a vodka tonic, he wondered how, in the absence of said project manager, he might actually start a conversation with someone, like that slim brunette with uneven bangs. While he waited for inspiration, he checked out the books on the mantle, all of which were about acting, auditioning, and screenwriting. Mitch had zero interest in these pursuits; nevertheless, there he was, wearing an expression of anthropological curiosity as he leafed through Yoga for Actors.

“I love that book,” said an absurdly healthy looking guy who immediately starting talking about nerves and auditions and learning how to breathe, really breathe, and “fucking nailing it.” Meanwhile, Mitch nodded and pretended to be interested, until a girl came up and he actually became interested, because it was the girl with the bangs. His name was Rafe, and her name was Joey.

After a few drinks, Mitch gleaned that Rafe and Joey were “just friends,” which he found encouraging. Less encouraging—downright puzzling, really—was when the conversation turned to environmental concerns, or their version of them. Rafe was dating a girl who studied the effects of secondhand smoke on cats. Joey’s niece just had a particular kind of bat mitzvah.

“You’ll never guess the theme,” she said.

Mitch said, mildly, “Judaism?”

“Nope. Sustainability. They got hybrid buses
to take the kids from the synagogue to the reception and everything was super-organic. Even the plates and the forks were like this bamboo that’s really fair trade and environmentally friendly. Get this: the yarmulkes were made in Israel from recycled materials. Isn’t that awesome?”

In the coming weeks, Mitch would often cast his thoughts back to this moment, looking to understand his motivation for what he did next. Maybe it was the egregious cluelessness demonstrated by shipping religious headgear 7,500 miles. Or maybe it was just too many vodka tonics. Either way, he said something that he would later regret: when Joey asked Mitch what he did for a living, he lied. 

 

“I run a non-profit,” he said. His eyes caught Joey’s big beige boots, the ones with the funny name. “It’s called UGGs. For Gaza.”

Rafe said, “I’ve heard of you guys.”

“I haven’t,” Joey said. “What is it exactly?”

“It’s like this,” Mitch said, warming to the line of bullshit. “What do the Palestinian people need? Medicine, housing, jobs. Serious stuff. But what do they also need?”

Rafe said, “A homeland?”

“Well, yes, that,” Mitch said, “But think about all the tension they have to deal with. There’s like crazy unemployment and . . . sanctions and shit. And a place like that—you know the women have very tough lives. But what’s the one thing that makes a woman smile?”

“Oh my God,” Joey said, resting her hand on his arm. “Cute boots.”

“Exactly. So what we do is take boots donated by Americans, and we send them to Gaza.”

“That’s really beautiful,” Joey said, and she gave him her number.

Later, too drunk to sleep, Mitch lay in bed, thinking: UGGs? For Gaza? What did he know about Gaza? Occasionally he’d encounter the assumption that since he was Jewish he automatically had a deep interest in the Middle East. But in college, Mitch had realized that (a) politics bored him, and (b) most people are more interested in their own opinions about politics than in politics.

Mitch had visited Israel, years ago, on a teen tour. He remembered not liking it much. The heat had been outrageous, ridiculous, insulting, and the girls hadn’t given him the time of day—they were too busy flirting with Israeli soldiers. Also he recalled that the Israeli guides had talked a lot about how bad “the Arabs” were, how shifty and dangerous, but at the cafés and hotels and kibbutzim, the people with the shittiest jobs were invariably Arabs.

That had been almost twenty years ago, and he had barely thought about Israel since.

Now Mitch started to worry. What if Joey somehow looked into his claim? He was not above a little exaggeration if it helped him get laid, but this was a joke that had turned into a lie, and it would be very embarrassing if he got caught.

He got out of bed and poured himself a glass of water. Then he sat down at the kitchen table with his laptop. He sighed, and he shook his head, and he registered uggsforgaza.org. Then he threw up a web page with a few pictures (a bombed-out building, a pair of UGGs) and wrote a paragraph of largely meaningless copy and a tag line: Soles for souls in need. At the bottom of the page, he added, not affiliated with the UGGs Corporation.

It was now four in the morning. He tried to shuffle back to the bedroom but made it only as far as the couch. His second to last thought before sleep was to wonder what he had gotten himself into. His last thought was to wonder where he had left his car.

On Monday, when Mitch was heading out for lunch, he ran into the project manager in the parking lot.

“Dude,” he said. “I flaked on you. I’m sorry.”

“It’s cool,” Mitch said. “I had a good time.”

“Excellent.”

Mitch considered walking the twenty or so blocks to the ocean. Instead he took his brown bag to a picnic bench behind the building. He ate his sandwich with his sunglasses on, blankly staring at a line of succulents implanted between the patio and the parking lot. He couldn’t get over how everyone in Los Angeles reserved the right to flake at any moment, as if it were some version of Live Free or Die. At least he was learning not to take it personally.

He dug Joey’s number from his wallet.

“Hello?”

“Hi. This is Mitch? From the party the other night?”

“Right,” she said. “I saw your website. The UGGs one.”

“Yes,” Mitch said, with blooming fear and remorse. “What did you think?”

“I think it’s great. But there’s no address on it. I don’t know where to send my old UGGs.”

“You want to send me your old UGGs.”

“Uh huh.”

“Why don’t we meet for coffee and you can just give them to me?”

“Oh. Um. I don’t know. I’m not really dating right now? But if you could just give me your address . . .”

Three days later, he received a pair of UGGs. A second pair arrived soon after, with a note: Joey told me about this. I think it’s awesome. Would you please send me a receipt for my taxes.

Of course, all this was incredibly strange, and yet he kept forgetting about it. At least during the day, when his mental energy was focused on marketing a movie about a detective agency run by teen vampires. Then he’d get home at eight or nine at night and see the two largish boxes on the floor of his living room and wonder what to do with them. Then a third pair arrived with a note: Great idea! You are bringing light to Gaia and helping to heal the soul-wounds. I will sprinkle words of your doings like sparkles. Please send me a receipt for my taxes.

Mitch was suddenly very curious about something. He let the note drop to the floor and sat down with his laptop. When he got his answer he nearly spit his coffee all over the keyboard: the UGGs for Gaza website had received three hundred and twelve unique hits. Three hundred and twelve people had looked at his website, and he had only told two people about it. As a marketing man, Mitch was impressed: you couldn’t buy that kind of word of mouth.

He still had to figure out what to do with the UGGs. Probably it would be best if he just chucked them in a dumpster or left them with Goodwill, but he didn’t think he could do that with a clear conscience. He could return the stupid boots to their owners, but that would be a hassle, as well as requiring him to explain himself.

Or he could, you know, send the UGGs to Gaza.

Mitch googled “gaza charity los angeles.” He combed through the links and learned that there were a number of reputable organizations dedicated to helping the people of Gaza and the West Bank. And he knew that if he called them they’d think he was insane or a moron.

Mitch then googled “mosque Los Angeles.” Before he had time to talk himself out of it, he grabbed his phone and dialed the number of the first one that had come up.

A woman answered the phone. “Quran Center,” she said.

“Hi. Okay, this is going to sound strange. But I have some . . . shoes. For Gaza. I have shoes to donate to the people of Gaza.”

“I see,” the woman said, as if three or four times a day she fielded questions about footwear for the Palestinian people. “I’d like to help you, but we’re more of a school than a charity. You know, classes for kids, adult education, that kind of thing. And we have a mosque, of course. Have you tried Islamic Relief?”

“I did,” he said, lying. “They suggested I try someone local.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

A male voice could be heard. “Excuse me,” said the woman, and she put him on hold. Mitch waited in silence. It was disconcerting—these days you were never on hold without hearing talk radio or music. Maybe Muzak was against Islam.

“Hello,” a man said. “You have shoes for Gaza? You’re from where?”

His face burning, Mitch said, “UGGs for Gaza. Dot org.”

“Hold on,” the man said, and Mitch heard him tapping at a keyboard. “Huh. I see. You know, you really should have your snail mail address on there.”

“Sorry. I know. I’m new to this.”

“All right. Can you stop by this Thursday? At 8 p.m.? We’ll talk. Ask for me, Dr. Hassan. I’m the imam here.”

“Got it. Dr. Hassan.”

After Mitch put the phone down he looked up the word imam. Then he put his address on the  “UGGs for Gaza” website.

Dr. Hassan’s office was rather spare, with a wall of books, a desk, and a dying ficus in one corner, put there seemingly less for adornment than to emphasize the lack thereof. The imam himself was a man in late middle age wearing a white knitted skullcap and a long tunic. His beard was quite long, and he was kind of fat. His demeanor was businesslike as he directed Mitch to a chair.

“So you have shoes,” said Dr. Hassan.  “For Gaza.”

“UGGs, actually.”

“UGGs.”

“Yes, UGGs.” Mitch swallowed. “They’re suede boots. A lot of girls wear them.”

“Yes, I know what they are. But I’m confused. Shoes for Gaza, that strikes me as a nice thing. UGGs for Gaza—that’s a strange thing.”

Religious people are usually relaxed around clergy: you learn not to be intimidated when the rabbi has coached your synagogue’s softball team or the pastor has been by the house for dinner. Mitch, on the other hand, was usually intimidated, even if he had long ago decided that religion was a heap of bullshit. Maybe that was why he told Dr. Hassan the whole story—because he was afraid of him. Regardless, as Mitch spoke, he felt like an idiot of Biblical proportions. The sheer lameness of the tale was staggering. Even though Dr. Hassan sat poker-faced, listening without evident judgment, Mitch had never felt so stupid in his entire life. In sixth grade he had dropped a textbook, and when he bent down to pick it up, resonantly farted. In seventh grade he had been beaten up by a girl. Each of these episodes had been profoundly humiliating, and, yet, Mitch had been able to forgive himself, because neither was his fault. But now he was in a trap of his own making. Thus he threw himself on the mercy of Dr. Hassan.

As for the imam, he was at first irritated by the story, thinking, That’ll teach you to make light of Palestinian suffering, you little shit. At the same time he was assessing Mitch, estimating his capacity for goodness. He saw a youngish man clearly uncomfortable in the presence of a cleric and possibly equally uncomfortable in the presence of a Muslim. He also saw a man with a troubled conscience.

When the story was over, the imam drummed his fingers on his desk. Finally, he said, “What are UGGs made out of?”

“I don’t know. Sheepskin?”

“Find out for certain. You can’t give them to Muslims if they’re pigskin.”

“Oh. I see. Okay. So . . . can you help me?”

“Can I help you?” Dr. Hassan repeated. “The better question is, ‘Will I help you?’ Frankly, I’d rather send medicine to Gaza. Or nationhood. That would be a nice thing: nationhood for Palestine. But UGGs, why not? As long as they aren’t made of pigskin. And, as long as you stop lying. I won’t be involved if it’s a lie.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I am saying, call this Joey person and tell her the truth. And set up a 501c3. If you do that, I’ll help you get your UGGs to Gaza.”

The imam suddenly let out a bray of laughter.

“UGGs for Gaza,” he said, shaking his head. “What a schmuck.”

Mitch fully intended to do exactly what Dr. Hassan had suggested; really, he did. But work got busy again, this time with a movie about a precocious six-year-old with a detective agency. Meanwhile, four new pairs of UGGs had arrived, and a pair of men’s loafers, and a pair of women’s heels that Mitch believed were called “mules.” 

Then it was Thanksgiving (the holidays really crept up on you here, the calendar telling you it was fall, your senses spring), and he had seven boxes in his living room and nowhere to go for days. It was time to stop procrastinating. Mitch loaded up the fridge with beer and got down to it. He opened up a dedicated PayPal account and added the link to the website. He tackled the application for tax-exempt status and the articles of incorporation: The purpose of this corporation is to send UGGs boots to the Gaza Strip. He researched the shipping options from Los Angeles to the occupied territories. He started a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account. He rewrote the copy and tweaked the layout of the website.

As he did all this, there were moments when he felt a glimmer of self-satisfaction—maybe he was doing something that might, in some small way, actually help somebody. Mostly, though, he felt stupid.

He worked until the light waned on Sunday evening, when there was only one item left on his list: call Joey.

But why did he have to call Joey? Mitch wasn’t Muslim. Mitch was barely Jewish. He didn’t even believe in God. So he was under no obligation to come clean just because that imam had told him to. If Mitch really wanted to get into her pants with a lie, he would have told her he was a casting agent. Anyway, the point was that he didn’t want to call Joey, didn’t have to call Joey, wasn’t going to call Joey. Which was what he was thinking as he called Joey.

“Hi UGGs guy,” she said. “I’ve been telling everyone about you. I mean not about you as like a person? But about your UGGs thing?”

“Right, thanks.  Well, the thing is . . .”

Clutching at his forehead with his free hand, Mitch blurted out how he had made the whole thing up.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because people in L.A. are so, like, smug about the environment or politics or whatever. So I was being, I don’t know, mischievous. But also I think it was to impress you.”

“Oh, well, that’s nice.”

“Really? I’m glad. Because I met this imam . . .”

“You met this what?”

“This imam. It’s a Muslim cleric.”

“A Muslim what?”

“An imam is sort of like the Muslim version of a priest or rabbi,” Mitch said.

“Ohhhhhh.”

“Anyway, so I met this imam, and I asked him what I was supposed to do with all these UGGs. And he said he’d help me actually get them to Gaza if I told you the truth.”

“Mick, that is amazing. It’s like karma in action.”

“Mitch. My name is Mitch. Anyway, I hope you’re not mad at me.”

“Mad? Oh my God, no. This is the best conversation I’ve had in weeks.”

“So then maybe you do want to get a cup of coffee some time?”

“The thing is, Mike? I met somebody.”

“But you told me you weren’t dating.”

“Yeah. Hey, I guess lied to you, too. Isn’t that, like, ironic?”

Mitch learned about UGGs. He learned that they lacked arch support. He learned that the attractiveness or unattractiveness of said boots inspired as much Internet invective as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He learned that men sometimes wore UGGs, which inspired him to go to a shoe store and try a pair on, which, after looking in a full-length mirror, allowed him to conclude that men should never, ever wear UGGs.

Four months to the day after the idea had spilled from his mouth, Mitch got his tax-exempt status in the mail. It was a huge relief—now, finally, he could send out receipts. But this would be no easy task. At this point, in addition to the loafers and mules, he had forty-six pairs of UGGs and two pairs of Koolaburras. The boxes pretty much owned his living room, which smelled like a sheepherder’s hut.

There were developments. A number of small donations had brought the balance of the PayPal account to a hundred dollars, and he had received a similar number of emails. Some were hostile:

We should be bombing those terrorists, not sending shoes.

Where are the UGGs for Israel,
you self-hating Jew.

UGGs are so 2006, you stupid dick.

Most, however, were supportive—to the point where people were asking how they could help. Mitch usually told them to send a couple of bucks. But when some girl offered to refurbish the UGGs, he took her up on it. She came by one weekend, a DIY hipster in homemade clothes. While Mitch printed out receipts, she cleaned and patched and sewed. Melanie was the kind of person he once might have mocked—she wore a long-sleeved tie-dyed shirt and a crocheted Tibetan hat, even indoors. But he enjoyed her company. She was quiet and mellow, and there was something simultaneously cute and impressive about her work ethic.

“I wish I could pay you for this,” Mitch said.

Melanie held up a boot, its sole flapping like a tongue. “It’s not about money. How would you feel if somebody sent you this?”

After a month of such Sundays, the UGGs were as good as new. (Melanie brought a celebratory meal, vegetarian chili and a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.) Now all Mitch had to do was get all the moon boots out of his apartment. He sent an e-mail to Dr. Hassan outlining what the organization had been up to and asking what needed to be done next. Dr. Hassan wrote back almost immediately and told Mitch to come discuss it in person. One evening after work, Mitch returned to the mosque. The imam was again poker faced while Mitch caught him up, but this time the younger man was less intimidated. He told Dr. Hassan about the receipts and repairs; he made sure to add that any knockoffs made of pigskin—which he had learned to recognize by its tiny pores or holes—had been returned to their donors.

“And the girl?” asked Dr. Hassan.

For a moment Mitch was perplexed, wondering why the imam was asking about Melanie. But then he realized that the question was about Joey.

“I told her everything,” Mitch said. “Now you have to help me send these UGGs. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to get them to Gaza.”

“I’ll give you a few phone numbers,” Dr. Hassan said. He gave Mitch a measuring look. “Doesn’t it feel good, doing the right thing?”

Mitch would not allow for the change of subject. “I read that there’s a blockade?”

“On the Israeli side, yes. But the Egyptians have opened their border. We could get them in that way.”

“Okay. But there’s no, like, danger in asking someone to transport these things, is there? Because I don’t like the idea of putting anyone in danger.”

Dr. Hassan smiled. Maybe this guy had actually learned something. “No, I don’t think there will be danger. It’s simply a question of money. Speaking of which . . .” He slid a bulging envelope across his desk. “I made an announcement about your little plan after prayers last Friday. See Helen on your way out. She’s got some more UGGs for you.”

There was almost four hundred dollars in the envelope. And twenty pairs of UGGs in the storage closet.

reporter from L.A. Weekly came by with     a photographer. They took pictures of Mitch in his living room, the wall obscured by boxes, the floor by sheepskin boots. When they ran the piece, the caption said, Among the UGGs: Culver City resident Mitch Blum with donated footwear.

The article was embarrassing (Mitch got a lot of mocking e-mails from his friends back East), but it went modestly viral, which brought in more cash and more UGGs. He sent Melanie an apologetic text, asking her to work for free again; he looked forward to seeing her.

Dr. Hassan’s secretary e-mailed the name of a contact at some kind of quasi-governmental relief agency. When Mitch called, the guy sounded young, English, and smoothly professional. “That’s quite a tale,” he said. “Let’s see what we can do.”

Around this time something really strange started happening. Suddenly women—attractive women—were noticing Mitch. At work, a Web designer with a pierced tongue asked admiring questions about the project; he was recognized twice at Vons and once at a taco stand. It had never been so easy for him to get a date. And he had never been less interested. Certainly he enjoyed the attention, and (let’s face it) he wanted to get laid. But he felt a superstitious aversion to losing his focus. When Joey left him a voice mail—Hey, I saw your article; maybe we should get that coffee—he didn’t bother calling back.

Instead, Mitch dedicated his free time (and plenty of work time) to investigating how to get the UGGs to Gaza. This turned out to be paying a company to crate the UGGs and load them into a shipping container at the Port of Los Angeles whose eventual destination was El Arish, an Egyptian city on the Mediterranean. From there the crates could be trucked to Gaza City. The ludicrous bureaucracy was navigated with the help of Samir, an Israeli-Arab who worked for a relief agency—with the stipulation that its name be kept out of it: “No offense meant,” the English guy had said. “But it wouldn’t do for us to be associated with something that could be construed as . . . frivolous.”

Mitch supposed that he understood, even though to him it was the opposite of frivolous. For him, this shit was serious. For the first time in his life, Mitch was obsessed by the news. He barely noticed as the holidays came and went. The Arab world was imploding, with millions in the streets; in some countries, governments were slaughtering their own citizen protestors. Whenever he got together with Melanie—sometimes at his place, sometimes at her patchouli-scented loft in Lincoln Heights—they obsessed over these events and how they might affect the shipment. Meanwhile, it took seven weeks for the crate to arrive in El Arish. From there, it would take another week to reach the border between Egypt and Gaza, a distance of perhaps ten miles. This last bit was the most nerve-wracking, because the Egyptians or the Israelis could close the border at any time. And then the Gazans would have nothing. Well, even if they got the UGGs they had nothing. Regardless, Mitch desperately wanted the scheme to succeed. Although Samir’s e-mails were pessimistic—the Israeli government would find some way to ruin it, even if the shipment was arriving via Egypt—Mitch wanted to prove him wrong. Not for any political reason, nor out of some nascent sense of Jewish solidarity. It was more that somewhere along with way, the stupid UGGs had become a sacred trust.

Mitch arranged to stay home from work the day the shipment was due in Gaza. That morning he got up early, checked his e-mail, cleaned his house, checked his e-mail again. (As he showered, he imagined the crates arriving, the women searching through the boxes, trying on UGGs, showing them off to each other. Some older, some young, with head scarves and without; all of them smiling, all of them, temporarily, happy.) Melanie expected him for lunch, and Mitch looked forward to it, even to the vegetarian chili. They’d celebrate, and then they’d talk through some serious stuff, publicity and office space and future projects, like sending Doc Martens to Darfur or Wallabees to the West Bank.

Before heading out, Mitch checked his e-mail one last time. His heart jumped when he saw the message from Samir; after reading it, he felt like his heart had contracted. He didn’t know what to do with himself. For some reason he ended up outside, sitting in his driveway.

The crates had never made it out of El Arish. Samir had just found out. Unbeknownst to anyone, the UGGs had been shipped in the same container as a delivery of tear gas for the Egyptian army. Fearing that the gas would be used against the current round of protestors, the dockworkers had refused to unload the container. According to Samir’s contact, eventually troops arrived and trucked the entire container to a government warehouse. Samir was very sorry that he had no idea how to locate the UGGs. Nor could any of his contacts, at the relief agency or elsewhere, “involve themselves in such a way with the Egyptian Army.”

Mitch watched a few cars go by. It was winter in California, and the day was warm and sunny. In a minute he’d get himself together and call Dr. Hassan. Then he’d drive to Melanie’s house—after all her hard work, she deserved to be told in person. Mitch resolved to be upbeat when he broke the news. He’d insist that this was not the end but the beginning of UGGs for Gaza. And maybe, with Melanie, there could be the beginning of something else. In a minute or two, he would raise himself from the driveway, drive to the Eastside, and tell her all that. But first he had to stop crying.