As It Happens5:57‘People get skeeved,’ says man who’s been living barefoot for 20 years

Joseph DeRuvo Jr. is well aware that a lot of people don’t like the way he lives his life — because they let him know.

The Norwalk, Conn., man has been living an almost entirely barefoot existence for 20 years. That means no shoes at home, no shoes on the streets — even in winter — and no shoes in stores or other public venues.

“People get skeeved,” DeRuvo told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

“They look at it and they kind of go, ‘That’s not right.’ But, you know, you go to the beach and there are food stands [where] you eat and you’re barefoot and, you know, you’re practically naked [and] people seem OK with that.

“But, yeah, somehow they don’t think it’s polite society.”

Why does he do it?

But DeRuvo has his reasons — three of them, to be specific — and he’s more than happy to explain them to anyone who’s uncomfortable by the sight of his unencumbered tootsies.

The first reason is medical. DeRuvo has bunions. Really bad ones. And he can’t get surgery because he’s allergic to metal.

There are, of course, other ways to adjust to a life with bunions. Toe separators, for example, or more comfortable footwear. But DeRuvo has other motivations as well.

You have to be conscious where you’re stepping.– Joseph DeRuvo, intentionally shoeless man

He says he has learning disabilities, which come with sensory issues, and going shoeless helps him cope. 

“When I don’t feel the ground, I just get a little bit edgier than I normally am — and that’s a little bit edgy,” he said. “So being able to feel the ground really just kind of helps literally ground me. It kind of gives me a calm.”

And the third reason, he says, is spiritual.

“There is a meditative … prayerful process about it. And if anyone takes pleasure in the Old Testament story of God speaking to Moses from the bush, you know, God says, ‘This ground is holy,'” he said.

“I hold to that and I try to push it as far as possible.”

A barefoot man walks down the street carrying a chair and smiles for the camera. A woman walks behind him.
DeRuvo says going barefoot means being mindful of how you move through the world. (Submitted by Joseph DeRuvo Jr.)

Sometimes people push back, he says. He’s had store clerks ask him to leave. But he remains calm and explains that “No shirt, no shoes, no service” isn’t an actual law in Connecticut, and they can’t discriminate against him.

If another customer is uncomfortable, he says he’s happy to talk to them.

“I feel a responsibility to be accepting, to be inviting of those questions, to engage in such a way that I can possibly take the opportunity to have someone look at it a little bit differently,” he said.

Is it safe?

Not all obstacles are social ones, however. What about, say, the snow and ice in the Connecticut winter? 

You get used to that, DeRuvo said. 

“When I go for my doctor’s checkup, he takes the pulse at the wrist, but also at the ankle. And he’s always dumbfounded that my pulse at my ankle is stronger than most peoples at their wrists. The body adapts.”

A barefoot man sits at a patio table at a restaurant.
DeRuvo says he’d rather accommodate his needs in a way that doesn’t hide his problems, and he’s not embarrassed about it. (Submitted by Joseph DeRuvo Jr.)

And the dangers of rough terrain and sharp objects?

“Everyone has a story of their son, nephew [or] themselves, when they’re 10, running, they got a splinter on their foot, whatever the case,” he said.

“But it’s disciplined movement. I mean, it doesn’t allow you to be absent minded when you’re walking around. You have to be conscious where you’re stepping and where you’re placing your foot and how you’re rolling off your foot.”

He does, he says, have a couple of exceptions for which he’ll don some temporary footwear. When he’s welding in his workshop, he’ll slip on some moccasins. 

He also wears sneakers to the gym — the kind that fit around each toe like a glove — and says he can manage them for about 45 minutes. 

“And as I’m walking out the door, I take off my shoes, and I’m walking barefoot to the car,” he said. “Once the shoes are off, I really don’t want to have to put them back on for anything.”

A barefoot man helps adjust a woman's bridal gown.
DeRuvo says being barefoot helps him feel grounded and calm. (Submitted by Joseph DeRuvo Jr.)

For him, it’s all about accommodation, self-acceptance and a little bit of boundary-pushing. 

“My singular purpose is to say for anyone who is struggling with an obstacle — a disability, whatever hurdles someone might come across in their life — that there might be a way to step back, evaluate it … and come up with a creative enough solution that allows you to get on with things,” he said.

“And it’s not a solution that makes … the problem invisible. More than likely, the solution is something that kind of brings out whatever that is into the daylight and lets you say: ‘OK, this is what it is, and I don’t have to be embarrassed about it.'”

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