New Shoes On

For far too long as a kid, I didn’t know how to tie my shoelaces. I wore the sneakers with two Velcro straps that were not so uncommon for a kid in that era who was five, even six years old.

I don’t remember the surrounding circumstances, but I recall quite vividly a day when I was ten years old and this gap in my knowledge was exposed at school. Not in a big, public humiliation. Not in anyone making fun of me. But in another boy smiling and trying to show me how to do so--as if one demonstration would be enough to internalize the lesson for a lifetime. I remember his kindness and how profoundly it felt like condescension.

I remember thinking that tying my shoelaces was simply a skill I’d never master. As a boy, I wasn’t intimidated by learning multiplication or division or algebra. My vocabulary expanded and expanded. By tying shoelaces--there was something confounding in it.

And yet, one day, I got new shoes. As was customary in my family, I only had one pair at a time: all-purpose sneakers, and I only got the new ones after I’d outgrown the ones before them. And that day, my feet were too big for any of the ones with Velcro straps in the store. And so it was decided. I had to learn.

I learned there was more than one approach. The loop-swoop-and-scoop. The bunny ears. I latched onto the former, and after a day or so of sheer rote practice, I’d picked up the skill. A minor triumph.

I don’t remember those first lace-up sneakers, but I remember that the ones after them were the kind with light-up heels, that flashed red when I ran. I remember that the light-up heels were already a little out-of-style, and also meant for boys younger than me by that time, but they’d been the only pair I half-liked at the discount shoe store that afternoon. My father and I were both impatient with shopping, so I went home with them.

Another pair were black, branded with the Colorado Rockies logo. Cool enough to look at, though I had no more affinity for the Rockies, or baseball in general, than from the New York Rangers (or hockey) that branded my winter gloves.

I outgrew the point when it was socially acceptable to wear sneakers as part of a dress-up outfit just as my feet grew to about the same size as my father’s, and so he lent me his lone pair—the shiny black monk-strap shoes that I wore to play in orchestra concerts and to the winter semi-formal and to prom.

I was low-maintenance, but in an early high school growth spurt, I got five inches taller my feet stretched two sizes past the pair of sneakers that I still wore for a period of months before saying anything to my folks. From then on, my mother made a habit of asking how my shoes fit, and for the first time in my life, I began getting new pairs even when I didn’t necessarily need them, as the shoes got just the least bit tight or I imagined they did.

When I left for college, my mother bought me my first pair of dress-ish shoes. The ones I picked out. Big, brown, boot-like shoes, rounded at the toes. I remember asking one of my girl friends at college if she thought I could pull them of with shorts. She did her best not to laugh when she told me no. For years, I wore them with black socks, unaware of that fashion faux paz.

A few years out of college, a few years into office work, I had settled on three pairs of shoes at a time—a real wealth of footwear relative to childhood, though I developed my own penchant for wearing these shoes into the ground—until the soles wore away or parts of the heel separated. Until they actively hurt to wear or looked overtly stupid.

When I left the office to go to grad school full time, one of my last items I treated myself to before I adjusted to life on a tight income was a new pair of sneakers. The Onitsuka Tiger brand that seemed to sprout up in variety of social circles, that I liked the look of, perhaps the only time in my life when I consciously sought out a particular pair of shoes and paid a modest premium for them.

I wore these shoes in a new life, when it was not out of the ordinary for me to walk two-and-a-half miles to or from campus in a given day.

And my feet ached. These sneakers looked sharp, and maybe some people do like the way they feel.

For me, they were not a fit.

I stuck it out for the year—relishing the novelty of getting to wear sneakers, not shoes, so often again. I stuck it out until the pain became chronic, and I was unwilling to go on weekend hikes because I knew I’d regret it all week afterward.

That summer, I worked an intense job, in which the hours were brutal but the paycheck was commensurate with the effort. At the end of it, I decided it was time to treat myself again, and Googled the most comfortable men’s sneaker on the market.

This was how I found my Brooks running shoes.

Even tying the laces that first time, I could swear I felt a difference.

That fall, I taught at 8 a.m.--too early for a bus to get me to campus on time, so I was walking to campus three days a week. But in these new shoes—these big, not particularly fashionable sneakers—I felt strong. I felt comfortable. Despite the early hour paired with my night owl tendencies, I even enjoyed these walks sometimes. A leg up on the day. Putting my best foot forward.