You know you’re getting old when you go shopping for a pair of sneakers and don’t see anything you would be caught dead in.
My last pair of sneakers were black Reebok high tops that vaguely resembled dress shoes and could be worn to work on dress down days. I purchased them sometime during the first Bush administration. They finally gave out last week and I went to the local mall for new ones. Big mistake. Never mind that I was the oldest person in the store by twenty, maybe twenty-five years. A tatterdemalion rabble of grungy teens immediately began to size me up. They all cultivated the same slacker look: bad haircut, Metallica t-shirt, black hooded sweat jacket, jeans several sizes too big that dangled precariously around their hips. I tried to look inconspicuous as I searched in vain for something similar to my Reeboks. Not a chance.
For a moment, I thought I had wandered into Elton John’s shoe closet by mistake. Hot pink, chartreuse, neon green, and other colors seldom found in nature assaulted my aesthetic sensibilities. I could bring home a pair of inflatable sneakers endorsed by a famous basketball player for a mere $225. I briefly considered a pair with soles like Herman Munster shoes. They were marginally more attractive than the Chernobyl glow-in-the-darks or the ones with pulsing red laser lights that could trigger an epileptic seizure in small dogs. Well, at least I learned why the teenagers wore their pants so far down — to hide their ugly-ass sneakers.
Things were so much simpler when I was a kid. Back then there were only two types of sneakers for boys: “Converse” or “Cons” (i.e., real basketball shoes which cost the exorbitant sum of $10) and “skippies” or “skips” (all other sneaker brands, averaging around $5). Sneakers came in two colors: black and white; in two styles: high-tops and low-tops. Anything else was un-American.
The boys in the neighborhood perpetuated and enforced a strict social hierarchy as harsh and inflexible as the Hindu caste system. Ours was a system based not on distinctions of heredity, wealth, culture or the content of our character, but on the status of our sneakers.
The Converse owners were the elect, the Brahmin or highest caste-equivalent. Converse acquisition meant immediate acceptance into the inner sanctums of the tribe, with all the rights and privileges appurtenant thereto. The purchase of one’s first pair of Converse was a historic event, a rite of passage commemorated in solemn and secret ritual. Each Converse owner would step on your new Cons, purposely dirtying them to create the illusion of long-term use. For the age and amount of wear was a meaningful subgenus in the taxonomy of the Converse caste system — the older, the better.
Skippies included any sneakers that came with free secret decoder rings, whistles, etc. PF Flyers, which offered such frills, were considered the quintessential Skippy sneaker. I wore Keds, which cost $5, provided no plastic trinket, and were thus deemed marginally less skippy-like than PF Flyers. The Converse caste looked down on my cheap Keds with open contempt. My only salvation was when a poor soul who didn’t know better showed up at the playground with a brand-new pair of PF Flyers. You never saw a kid wearing an old pair of PF Flyers; kids would go barefoot rather than submit to a second hazing. Even Keds kids like me were allowed to join the Converse caste in the jeering.
For years, I begged, bribed, nagged, pleaded and hounded my parents to buy me a pair of Cons. Every time we went for a new pair of sneakers, these magical talismanic artifacts worthy of a Hermes or an Achilles called to me from the store’s display case. But my parents were made of sterner stuff than the Converse caste system. Traditional hard-working immigrants, they were not inclined to spend twice as much on a pair of sneakers that seemed to them no better and no different than my hated Keds. So one by one, my skippy friends broke down their parents’ resolve, got their Converse till I was the only one left wearing Keds.
One of my aunts finally took pity on me and took me to the shoe store for my first pair of Cons. I think by then they cost $12 instead of $10, but my aunt was determined to requite the injustices I suffered on account of my Keds. When we got to the store, I proudly asked the salesman to see a pair of Cons. I tried to hide the excitement in my voice, lest he know I was a Converse virgin. I concocted a fanciful tale about having my old Cons stolen and needing an immediate replacement. He nodded, but I knew he knew I was lying. He measured my feet and returned a short while later with a beautiful pair of off-white canvas high tops. But something was wrong. Instead of the familiar Converse logo indelibly imprinted in my brain, I saw an unfamiliar snazzy logo, but with the dreaded word “Keds”. I was furious.
“I don’t want skips.”
He gave me a blank look. “Excuse me?”
“I said ‘I don’t want skips.’ Keds are skips; those are skippies. I want Cons!” I demanded.
“Oh no,” he said with a mischievous twinkle, “these aren’t regular Keds. They’re Pro-Keds. See the new logo?”
Now it was my turn to be puzzled. “Pro-Keds? What are you talking about? Keds are skips,” I insisted, but more weakly this time. He plunged headlong into his sales pitch. He explained that Pro-Keds were much better than Keds, even better than Cons. They cost more than Cons, too: $12.50 in fact, a princely ransom.
And so I weighed the Pros and Cons — literally and figuratively!
Of course, the safe bet was to go with the Cons. The downside was I’d still be the last kid with Cons, so I’d still have the lowest status in the group. The Pro-Keds were a gamble. Had Al Gore been with me, he would have called it a risky sneaker scheme. I thought hard about the risks. There was a strong possibility that the elders of the tribe would reject the salesman’s excellent arguments. If the tribe decreed that Pro-Keds were Keds, then it followed a fortiori that they were skips. I wondered if the salesman would come with me and share this new wisdom with the tribal leadership, but I knew he would not come. If he spoke, surely they would accept the new teachings, and instead of being the last kid with Cons, I would be the first proud owner of a new species of footwear. The last would indeed be first. But I doubted my ability to spread the new teachings to the skeptical, traditionalist Converse-prejudiced members of the tribe.
I sensed a paradigm shift was about to happen, and that fate, chance, destiny, God perhaps, had taken pity on my skips and offered me the chance to take one small step for a kid, one giant leap for the overpriced sneaker industry.
It was the most difficult decision of my young life. If I passed up the Cons and the Pro-Keds were declared skips, the window of opportunity to be a fully accepted member of the group would close, probably forever. But if I played it safe and took the Cons, I’d miss a glorious opportunity to overturn the shibboleths of the tribe and be primus inter pares in a progressive Pro-Keds vanguard!
The salesman stood up and nodded to another customer as if to say “I’ll be right over.” The time for deliberation was over and I made my choice.
I thanked my aunt and returned home wearing my brand-new sneakers.
* * *
As I finished my story, Eddie Willers threw up his hands and said, “Come on man, I’m dying here. Which one did you choose?”
I had to be a wise acre. “Okay, Eddie,” I whispered conspiratorially. “This is what I did.”
“‘I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’”
“Don’t tell anyone I told you,” I chuckled.
He didn’t miss a beat: “Ah, you bought the Skips!”
The Super Secret Decoder Ring was irresistible.
© 2000, 2001