Back in the early 1970s my sister Angela worked for a temp agency in the East London suburbs of Essex. Her first assignment was with a company named Downy Baby Shoes. She imagined an office where grandmotherly women sewed baby bootees while softly humming lullabies. A cosy place, perhaps decorated with Beatrix Potter prints. The reality was far different. On her first day she found a rather grungy office in an out of the way alley presided over by two Canadian men. The boss was a supremely ugly man with thick black hair like fur covering the visible parts of his skin. She shuddered to think what he looked like naked. He had overlarge, yellow teeth like a horse and seemed in a perpetual bad mood. His sidekick was a pale wraith of a man, silent and brooding. Both dressed in what she thought of as mobster suits. She recognized the style from the old Edward G. Robinson movies our father loved to watch. They certainly seemed an odd couple to be involved in the baby shoe business.
Mr. Hirsute spent his days talking incessantly on the phone with his office door closed. She could hear the booming agitated tone of his voice but not distinguish any words. The sidekick slunk about the place doing little more than smoking. The business involved recruiting women in rural Canada to work from home sewing baby shoes from kits. They placed adverts in small-town Canadian newspapers. Angela’s job was to handle the correspondence, replying to the women responding to the ads and sending them the baby shoe kits. The incoming post included packages from Canada presumably containing the assembled shoes. Sidekick removed these packages to a back room and they were never seen again. Significantly, Angela never saw any correspondence concerning the sale of the shoes. It was all a bit strange.
One morning she showed up to work to find the place locked up and surrounded by police tape. Alarmed, she reported to the temp office where she learned that the pair had been busted for money laundering. Downy Baby Shoes was just a front. One imagines a gang of mobsters sitting around a table brainstorming ideas for their fake company. What could sound more innocent than baby shoes? Well, add the word “downy” suggestive of sweet little chicks, and it sounds more innocent still. One of those mobsters was a marketing genius! The situation begs so many questions. What of the innocent Canadian women trying to earn a few extra dollars sewing baby shoes? Were they ever paid? What happened to the shoes? Were they ever worn by any babies? Or did the police find them gathering dust in the storage room and seize them as evidence?
During this episode of my sister’s life I was already living in America. I remember vaguely hearing of her job with a baby shoe company, which I found rather amusing, but I never heard the whole story until her recent visit. Now looking back I think she had a lucky escape. This was not long after the notorious Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, had terrorized East London with their organized crime gang, and they had many lesser imitators. What if Mr. Hirsute suspected his temp secretary of ratting him out to the police? She could have been rubbed out by one of his henchmen. Or the police could have mistaken her for a moll. With her long red hair and miniskirts she was out of central casting for the role. Or she could have ended up a witness in court, testifying on the secrets of the baby shoe business and facing bruising cross examination from the mobsters’ barrister. “May it please the court, I enter into evidence Exhibit A, one pair of blue baby shoes embellished with duckling appliqué, never worn.”
But none of that ever happened. Angela heard nothing more of Downy Baby Shoes and lived to tell the tale.