What do you intend to do with these sneakers?

THE other day it occurred to me that I could use a pair of sneakers, something I haven't owned for many years, and I made my way to a sporting goods store. I sat down in one of those shoe-department seats and when the salesman approached with his smile, I said, ``I'd like a pair of sneakers.'' I quickly wished I'd been up to date enough to say tennis shoes.

``What did you have in mind?'' he asked.

``Well, something plain, about the same size as my shoes, would probably work OK,'' I replied.

``No. I mean, what do you intend to do with them?''

I started to say I intended to wear them, but this seemed kind of flip. I paused. He quickly picked up the slack. ``Do you plan to use them for tennis, for jogging, for racquetball? Will the movement be forward or lateral -- or both?''

I thought for a moment about the nature of my proposed sneaker usage, then replied: ``The movement would be largely forward, but there would be some lateral action on occasion.''

He pressed on. ``Will you be running on dirt or cement?''

``Actually, not too much running,'' I confessed. ``Mainly walking, and mostly on dirt.''

A slight hint of impatience crossed his face. ``It would be helpful if you would tell me just what kind of activity you plan in the shoes.''

``Well,'' I explained, trying to be as helpful as possible, ``what I had in mind was wearing sneakers when I water the plants in the backyard, mostly forward and on dirt, and when I walk to the market down the corner. That would be cement.''

His face fell. I had disappointed him, posing no challenge at all to his sneaker expertise. But he bounced back quickly, saying, ``OK, just a minute.''

Within minutes he had fitted me out with handsome blue and white sneakers, imported from the Orient; had stressed their structural features; instructed me on their use and upkeep. I took a few steps to get the feel of them, which was OK. They did have a jaunty quality that appealed to me. So I closed the deal, for a startling $28, and left the store carrying my package.

My new sneakers (``running shoes,'' actually) were clearly overqualified for the job ahead of them. But perhaps I could challenge them now and then. I had a brief vision of myself watering the plants on the run, with periodic flashes of lateral-ness.

As I reached the parking lot I thought back to when I was a kid in Brooklyn, circa 1940. Sneakers then, high-top jobs, were about a dollar a pair, and they were pretty much all the same regardless of brand.

Aces were my favorite, mainly because of the name emblazoned on the side, which suggested to observant passers-by that here was a person of action. They served both forward and lateral movement; didn't worry about the nature of the terrain underfoot -- responding adeptly to the surface of the empty lot down the corner, the sidewalk, even the streetcar tracks.

You wore them whatever you did and you wore them until they began to come apart at the seams, then patched them up and wore them some more. Eventually you got a new pair, same model. They did their job admirably, without complication, asking no decisions, demanding no attention from the wearer until near the end of their life span.

I got home and went in the back door. My daughter, Claudia, the first-grade teacher, was in the kitchen.

``What's in the package?'' she asked.

``I bought some sneakers.''

``Oh boy,'' she said, smiling. ``I'll bet that was the biggest deal for you.''

I sat down and looked out the window at the plants in the backyard. How did she know?

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