People look — but try not to stare at Boban Simic.
His cinched dreadlocks protrude and dangle from his head like a weeping willow.
He rides an old mountain bike in the winter with no shirt on.
His nose goes a bit east and west, a byproduct of chasing glory as a mixed martial arts fighter.
He runs around Montrose Beach punching and kicking the air to warm up after wading through Lake Michigan ice flows in January to reach open water for a swim. He’s regularly interrupted and occasionally scolded by annoyed rescue personnel under the impression he is drowning.
No matter, the cold rejuvenates him, he says.
Simic has again been catching grief for living “a natural lifestyle” since he stopped wearing shoes two months ago.
“This is a modern thing I’m doing,” said Simic, 32, a nightclub bouncer by trade who formerly worked at a South Side BYOB strip joint (he’s used his fists only once: a guy tried to touch his hair). “Some people might say it’s primitive because cavemen used to do it, but I find it’s the reverse,” said Simic, who noted that he’s happier and less stressed since shedding his shoes.
“It’s natural,” he says. “It doesn’t affect anyone. It helps back pain.”
“Your closest connection to the earth is through your feet. When you wear shoes you’re just stepping on rubber all day long. With this, I’m stepping on hot surfaces, spiky surface . . . All these signals, I believe, somehow get interpreted in my mind — I don’t know in what way — I’m an animal . . . I feel like I’m more connected to the earth.”
Most people who see his feet keep their thoughts to themselves, but some, like folks at a few restaurants, grocery stores and coffee shops, ask him to put on shoes or leave.
“They first say ‘health code violation’ . . . then they switch it over to ‘it’s a state law,’ then they switch it over to ‘it’s a liability’ . . . in the end they say ‘store policy.'”
Simic calmly tells detractors that there are no laws against being barefoot. Some people capitulate. Others threaten to call the cops, at which point, Simic exits.
But according to the city’s department of health, he seems to be standing on firm ground.
“There are no regulations requiring footwear,” health department spokesman Ryan Gage said in an email. “But we might suggest getting a pedicure,” he quipped.
Simic, who washes his feet twice a day, denounces claims that barefoot living is unsanitary.
“I know what I’m stepping on. When you wear shoes, stuff gets stuck in the treads and you might not know it for days.”
Simic abandoned shoes in September and hasn’t suffered a scratch since.
“I even walk in the alley by my house and there’s shimmering bits of glass on the ground, and I haven’t had any problems, not one splinter, and I haven’t stepped in anything gross.”
The barefoot lightbulb went off in his head after reading about runners who swear by the health benefits. His girlfriend also teased him, Simic admits with a laugh, that his rough exterior didn’t match his delicate feet.
“She was saying how I have these soft, effeminate feet and that my skin’s real smooth, and I’m like, ‘Man! I’m this fighter and have these callouses on my hands and I’ve got these silky smooth feet. I’ve got to do something about this.'”
Simic has sought support from other barefooters through the Society for Barefoot Living, an advocacy group with members in more than 30 countries.
Ryan Skaalen, 47, a member who lives outside of Madison, Wis., said he occasionally travels with a printed letter from the health department to show business owners what he’s doing is legal.
“Certain places, of course, are private property, but if they don’t like my business, I’ll take it elsewhere,” said Skaalen, who once showed the letter to a manager at a
restaurant who appreciated the gesture and smoothed things over by buying him a pitcher of beer.
There is one obstacle, however, that’s more difficult on barefooters than any store owner: Chicago’s winter.
“If I get frostbite, I’ll have to find a nice pair of leather shoes, but no rubber soles,” Simic says.