Sole man

It's tough being a Shoe Guy. You love shoes but dislike most of the ones you see.

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    Fancy footwear: Members of the band Los Razos show off their distinctive cowboy boots in Ventura, Calif.
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Things weren't always this way, me owning 30 pairs of shoes. But now I admit it: I'm a Shoe Guy.

I hoard shoes. I buy shoes I don't need. I buy shoes I don't necessarily want. I go out to buy milk and somehow come back with shoes. Who doesn't love a sale?

I notice people's shoes. I study them, subconsciously almost. For the 25 or so people I work with on a daily basis, I could tell you all about at least one pair of shoes each wears. There are Mike's gleaming white, over-50-and-on-a-cruise sneakers; Myra's I'm-athletic-yet-very-hip tracksters; Tony's cool-for-his-age Airwalks; and Wayne's New Balance athletic shoes (the hands-down brand leader for the over-45 crowd). I could go on.

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Normally I just take notes in my head, keeping my mouth shut. But recently, a friend had gotten new shoes and asked me point-blank if I liked them. The truth: Not in a million years. Too much stitching, too dressy for jeans but not dressy enough for anything more. And stylewise, better suited for a man twice his age. It was a quandary I find myself in often: unable to give disingenuous compliments, yet incapable of offering a frank assessment. The best I could offer was that I didn't not like them. Even that left the metallic taste of insincerity in my mouth.

What I failed to mention to my friend in the waffling assessment of his footwear was that a day earlier, I had walked through a DSW store, interviewing hundreds of shoes, wishing desperately to leave with a pair. Even a hint of potential would have sold me. And not one shoe passed the test. But that's what it's like being a Shoe Guy. You're in love with shoes, but you dislike 95 percent of the ones you see.

Looking back, I remember the moment I became a Shoe Guy. It was six years ago: I was looking for a belt at Dillard's and had to walk past shoes to get to belts. A pair of Campers the color of cherry wood with khaki laces caught my eye. They hinted at the retro styles that shouted back to the '60s and '70s when people apparently went bowling and then wore the shoes home.

I picked up a shoe and turned it over to look at the price. A sticker attached to the distinctive bubbled Camper sole advertised a sale price of $60. Perfectly affordable, but adding to the intrigue was that they were marked down from $120.

I hadn't come to the store in search of shoes. I didn't need shoes. I didn't want shoes. But these shoes were arguing with me.

A salesman approached, and he seemed to know all about my dilemma. His name was Richard, and his sharp suit and $60 haircut screamed East Coast, which stuck out in Corpus Christi, Texas.

"Looking at the Campers," Richard observed.

What a salesman. A simple "Can I help you with anything?" would have elicited an automatic "No thanks, just looking."

"I just can't decide on these. There's something about them," I said.

"Yes. Very distinctive," he said.

We stood in dead air for a few moments, both admiring the Campers. And then he said, "They're very collegiate ... Like something Ronald Reagan might have worn in college."

Sold. I would have paid full price just to hear that line. He didn't sell me shoes. He sold me a feeling, an image: A young Gipper with dark, wavy hair combed to the side, wearing his college sweater, and walking around campus in his ... Campers. It sounded so right.

The Campers have since become the standard-bearer on my shoe rack. Their versatility is unparalleled. They work casual or dressy, sporty or bookish, classic or trendy. Unfortunately I have not seen the brand at any store since.

After six years of being at the top of my shoe pile, the Campers are beginning to show signs of fatigue, as if they actually were worn by Ronald Reagan in college.

Once shiny and smooth, they are now faded and scarred. Looking at the balding bubbled soles, you can see my slightly uneven gait, the right heel worn more than the left. A small discoloration remains from a glop of banana pudding that landed on my toe as I sat in the front row of a Blue Man Group performance in Las Vegas.

But in each blemish is a piece of my life, a memory manifested in the tired leather: the first dazzling walk through Times Square, the last trip home for Christmas, the stroll through the French Quarter.

The shoes I cling to in my closet aren't always about style, comfort, or the occasion. There's always that one pair that's not about where I'm going but where I've been. Looking at my Campers is like looking at an old man's weathered face. You just know he's been places, that he has stories to tell.

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