It wasn't until I took my daughters back-to-school shopping that I realized how out of date, out of taste, and middle-aged I had become.
My mall experience has taught me that teenage fashion runs the US economy. To teens, looks are all that matters. And my two teens were determined to make the ultimate fashion statement on opening day at school, no matter how much it cost me.
From my viewpoint, our mission was simple - find a pair of sneakers. Experienced shoppers hunting for bargains during back-to-school season head for the clearance racks and bins strategically hidden throughout the stores. This is my mode of shopping. But after about an hour of scrounging through bins, with the girls rejecting every bargain sneaker I presented, I realized that my female shoppers had another strategy: Wear Dad down.
The girls forced me to stop at a trendy shoe boutique. We were greeted by a bell-bottomed youth with her belly button showing. She was pierced from eyebrow to chin and outfitted with what she called "retro-fit" jeans.
"I remember those," I mumbled as I shuffled my daughters down the mall corridor and away from a potentially dangerous influence.
I thought I struck pay dirt at Sears. The price and sizes were right but the kids would have none of them. "Those are ugly shoes," they informed me.
At an upscale, high-priced department store, the girls did not go for the men's sneakers on sale. "Those look different than women's shoes," one protested.
"But they are made better and will last longer," I cajoled.
No wonder these kids are confused. Shoes are now in the "footwear" section at the store. That was a clever move by merchants. We have long ago accepted "eyewear" for glasses transforming the old "four-eyed" scourge into a fashion statement. And in the process, parents pay through the nose.
When I was in school, sneakers were just functional rubber and canvas equipment for mandatory gym classes. Today, sneakers are manufactured for high performance and endorsed by superstar sports figures. And the more they cost, the more teens want them.
I overheard one dad in a sporting-goods store tell his unusually conscientious son not to worry about the price. "That's my job. Just get the shoes you want," he said. The song "Love Hurts" was playing in the background.
I thought to myself, "Which hurts more: not wanting to pay the price or not being able to say the price doesn't matter." Like this benevolent dad, most parents want to give free reign to their children's wardrobe choices but reality gets in the way.
I complained, to no avail, about exploited Indonesian workers who are paid 20 cents an hour to make name-brand sneakers. I inveighed against the shakedown of helpless American dads. My daughters just rolled their eyes. In the war between my wallet and their cool wares, these gals would take no prisoners.
As the mission wore on, and I wore down, it became clear to me that my job was simply to drive them to the mall and to pay for whatever they picked out. After two hours, we ended up right back where we started. I retreated to a corner.
My oldest daughter interrupted me after a time and said, "We're ready for the payment." I approached the counter reluctantly and asked the clerk, "Which payment plans do you have?" One mom, a seasoned shopper no doubt, heard my question and said, "I've been in those shoes before."
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