I make no secret of the absolute despair I feel when I see whole stores devoted to the sale of something that once occupied a modest corner of Main Street clothiers.
What has happened to the simple affair known as the sneaker? Where once there existed only low-tops and high-tops, there are now: medium-tops; booties; sneakers with "state of the art" liners; running sneakers; basketball, tennis, squash, racquetball, bicycling and walking sneakers; Velcro and zipper closures; and even sneakers that wink at you with a maddening incandescence whenever the foot is put down.
I was recently drawn in to one of these footwear emporia by my teenage son Alyosha, who has a well-honed taste for the things. "Thirty dollars," I kept reciting, like a mantra, declaring the limit of what I would spend for something designed to wear out within a month.
How naive of me. The lowest price on any of the sneakers was a cool $55. And that was a sale item marked down from $89.99! My son casually slipped the shoe from its little acrylic shelf, and within a twinkling, as if a silent alarm had been tripped, a young woman was at our side. "Are you interested in that one?" she asked.
My son made puppy-dog eyes at me and the woman immediately picked up the beat. "I'll have a tech come right over," she announced.
A tech? Sure enough, a young athletic man of college age came over. He laid his hand on the shoe and began to recite its attributes, describing its chemical composition, its unique means of supporting the ankle, and the particular freedom it offered the toes.
"And the middle layer," he said, fairly quivering with excitement, "is the latest composite polymer designed to resist cracking and to increase the integrity of the lining."
Then he looked up at me as the bearer of the credit card. "So what do you think?"
I was glad he asked. I threw up my hands. "It's a foot, for goodness' sake!" I lamented. "All we want to do is cover a foot."
The salesman looked like an ancient who had just been told that the earth revolves around the sun. Alyosha looked at me as if to say, "How could you embarrass me like this?"
Well, it came naturally, as a result of my own experience growing up. Sneakers were sold in the back of the local clothing store in downtown Jersey City, N.J. There were two types: the $2.98 ones - low black canvas with a toe that was more plastic than rubber - and the crown jewel of sneakers, the hallowed Converse, selling for $9.98 (and no sales tax).
Family finances being what they were, the Converse remained off-limits to me for the longest time. I contented myself with the cheaper sneaker which, if well cared for, and so long as my feet didn't grow, would last many, many months.
But I still admired the Converse with hungry eyes. Especially the all-white Chuck Taylor All-Star high-tops that bespoke quality and promised spectacular changes in the young athlete. Only one boy on my block - Sal Briguglio - wore them, and he was the best stickball player I'd ever known. So what more evidence did one need?
I was 16 when I finally got my first pair of Converse sneakers. That, more than anything else, told me that I had arrived. I remember putting them on in the store, walking around in them to test the fit, and feeling, at long last, like a pro.
As for my son, well, under Yuletide duress I bought him his $55 sneakers with the zipper instead of laces, and the fabric covering instead of vinyl or that wonderful Converse canvas. By the end of the first week of basketball practice the linings of both shoes were torn up. We brought them back to the store.
When the sneaker tech approached us, it was my sad duty to report that the magic middle layer of polymers hadn't done its job. We then exchanged them for a more traditional - and reasonably priced - shoe.
That evening, while noodling around on the Web, I found the site for the Converse company. I was almost beside myself, having thought that the sneaker had gone out of production years ago.
When I clicked on the Chuck Taylor All-Star model, I was rewarded with an image of the shoe I had loved, with its ankle patch bearing the Converse blue star and the red and blue lines wrapped around that thick rubber sole.
I called Alyosha over to the computer. "This," I said, throwing my arm out in presentation, "is the greatest sneaker in the world."
My son drew his face close to the screen and conducted his examination. "Did you wear these when you were a kid?" he asked.
I watched my son slip away in his new sneakers, the ones with all the glitter and no promise. Then I turned back to the image of my Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars.
Closing my eyes, I ran an imaginary finger along its classic contours. And man oh man, I could feel the give of the rubber and the riffle of canvas.
And if I inhaled deeply and held it in, I swear I could smell that new-sneaker smell, that fresh-out-of-the-box smell, the aroma of that classic sneaker that had carried Sal Briguglio - and then me - through many a stickball summer, as if we'd had wings.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society