I have problems. Bad problems. A storm is on the way and my feet are in serious pain. I need relief. Word on the street is I can find it at Cosmo's.
I walk into a cram-packed shop off the main drag in Tahoe City plastered with posters and enough odd-looking machinery to rival an inventor's lab. Cosmo looks like a doctor from the Starship Enterprise, wearing a full face shield and toting a mean-looking injection gun.
Facing a guy standing in a pair of ski boots with tubes protruding out the tops, Cosmo asks him, “You need a beer? It's the only anesthetic we offer here, and you're gonna be in a semi-painful situation in about a minute.” The guy shakes his head and Cosmo begins injecting. The victim's facial expressions pain even me–he's hurting.
“I told you so,” says the doctor.
I slip into one of a half-dozen tall boot-fitting recliners and try not to watch the torture. I stare out at Lake Tahoe, then at the aquariums on either side of the room, and then at some of the autographs signed by virtually every name-skier I've ever heard of and dozens of snowboarders: “Tight 'n' Right,” signed Mark Fawcett. Tom Burt's autograph says, “I'd be nowhere without my footbeds.” Scot Schmidt: “The power is in the strap.”
In the presence of greatness, I settle in for the experience. I'd heard you don't go into Cosmo's for an hour, you go in for an afternoon. And his afternoons are usually booked. Somehow I squeezed in on a referral, with one small caveat: “Nothing domestic.” As in beer.
After foaming the skier's boots, he approaches my bare feet–face shield up–and peeks inside the paper sack I'd brought along. Mexican. A six pack. He grins and walks to a refrigerator, returning with a cold one.
“Anybody else?” he queries. No takers. It's not a traditional beer trade. More of a right of passage. It gets you in the door, but in reality it's BYOB; you might be there long enough to drink all six. It's a barbershop atmosphere with Betty, the hardest working dog in retail, sleeping by the door or panhandling for scratches behind her ears.
As one of his apprentices handles various tasks, Cosmo slides from one customer to the next, working through the pain-to-pleasure process he's prided himself on for over 25 years. Suddenly he lifts one of my feet, like a nurse might hold a baby or a chiropractor might cradle a neck–knowingly.
“You've got a monstrous arch going here,” Cosmo states. He pulls on my toes. Flexes my arch. Smacks my heel. Rolls my ankle. Finally, he flips on an oven under my seat.
“I'll be back.”
Later, he's working a hot ball of cork like a sculptor. Then my feet are in a vacuum bag with something resembling a blood-pressure machine sucking the air out of the sack, pulling a Superfeet footbed up against the sole of my foot.
“It's hot,” I tell him.
“Need another beer?” he responds.
The phone rings.
The apprentice answers and relays to Cosmo: “Snowboarder. Needs a power strap sewn on ASAP.”
“Bring 'em in dry,” Cosmo replies. “I'll do it overnight. You're sure they're dry?”
The apprentice speaks into the phone and nods, “Okay, then … Sure.” Click.
Cosmo slides over to another guy, a telemarker who's been waiting patiently. A walk-in, still wearing his knee pads.
“If you don't mind holding on a bit, I'll take 'em the boots in back and beat on them for a while,” says Cosmo. The phone rings again. Cosmo answers it himself, listens, and scans a completely filled schedule for tomorrow.
“I can fit you in at 2:30, but don't expect too leave until five. Yeah, yeah–nothing domestic,” he says and hangs up.
From the back room I hear what sounds like a baseball bat hitting a hollow wall. Then wood. Some sort of buzzing contraption emits a shrill grind, then Cosmo walks back in.
“Try this,” he says, handing the telemarker his boots. “Beautiful. What do I owe you?” Cosmo waves him off.
“Follow-up,” Cosmo explains. “I don't charge for follow-ups.”
My footbeds are forming. I'm standing in a half-squat in my snowboard boots, everything laced up and tight. He looks over at me.
“You're keeping your weight on there?” Cosmo asks. I nod.
Then he's off to check on another gentleman.
“We'll get your boots in the boot-torture device next,” Cosmo says to the customer, pointing at a hexagonal wooden board with metal clamps, bungee cords, and ski bindings attached. It looks like something used to extract intelligence from P.O.W.s.
The guy nods, then asks, “Got anything nonalcoholic?” Cosmo hands the gentleman a Hansen's soda.
Another oven heats up under a female snowboarder with linerless boots.
“We could do more for you with a removable liner,” says Cosmo. The snowboarder nods and slips off her sock to reveal huge bone growths on the tops of her feet. Bummer, I think to myself.
“I might be able to relieve some of the pressure,” Cosmo consoles. “But … “
Finally, it's back to me as Cosmo continues my education on foot mechanics, snowboarding relevance, and anatomy in general. He holds out a jar sloshing clear liquid.
“This contains 50 ml of sweat,” Cosmo explains. “This is the equivalent to the amount of sweat produced by EACH foot on an average male during twelve hours of sitting and light walking.”
“You're kidding?” I question. “That's really sweat?”
Cosmo replies, “I can't tell you whose it is, but let's just say it might be worth something someday if he wins the gold.”
The whole time I've been at Cosmo's, I haven't been able to stop staring at a weird wooden statue overlooking one of the two aquariums in the boot-fitting lounge.
“T.B. Tom Burt and Jim Zellers brought that back from Africa for me,” says Cosmo. “They swear it's the happiness god. I think it's a fertility god–ever since they put it there, that aquarium is like a nursery.” I laugh.
“You got a girlfriend?” Cosmo asks. I nod.
“Don't bring her in here unless you're prepared to escalate the relationship.” The place erupts in laughter. We're all buddies by now.
Now my boots are off, and Cosmo's examining red spots on my ankles. He disappears into the back and I hear a generator building up pressure. Then a whistle. Pneumatic fitting machines, an industrial-grade sewing machine–thousands of dollars worth of equipment to complement years of experience.
After three-plus hours in the cosmos, I give Betty a final tummy scratch, shake Cosmo's hand, and leave with boots that fit like gloves. Outside, it's snowing.