On tour, I wore the same pair of Adidas every day. They were lovely. They’re still lovely.
Right now, I am wearing my scuffed work shoes, waiting at the airport to go to DC. They’re chukkas - some middle ground between dress shoes and boots. They’re hefty enough to wear through the slushy Ohio winter weather full of salt and always melting snow. And I don’t mind letting them struggle a bit. But after wearing the same beat-up sneakers for almost a month in Germany, I want that little spark of happiness that comes with colorful sneakers.
My colorful sneakers are at home. I recently finished reading They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib (just click the link and buy it). He talks about shoes in it a little bit. As well as close to everything I think is worth living for and making the world better at. It makes me feel a little bit less alone.
At home, I have a pair of golden sneakers. They’re showing their age. I just got some green sneakers with yellow stripes. They’re still snappy. I’d like to wear bright blue sneakers. I’d like to wear bright red sneakers. Black sneakers wouldn’t be bad either. if they had a little bit of highlight on the sides or something.
I dropped off some new grey sneakers at a UPS yesterday. I ordered them online before my trip, and they arrived the day before I got on a plane. I laid them out on the table at home, waiting for me to come home, slip them on, and celebrate being able to wear more than one pair of shoes. But I got home. I tried them on. They’re kind of 80s looking, with a big white plastic toe box. On the inside, they’ve got blue and red fabric stripes, but matte grey on the outside. They’re nice in theory, and they were on sale. But I wouldn’t wear these shoes. Someone else would wear these shoes. And they’d wear them well.
They look weird on my feet, the same way that the work chukkas look weird on my feet. They’re functional but feel like tanks at the base of my leg.
I don’t care about shoes. I spent a month not caring about shoes. No one I meet cares about my shoes. And they will not play into any real story about my life.
But maybe I do care about colorful shoes.
When I was a young kid, my parents say that they had me tested for color blindness. I say that they said this because I don’t have a memory of this. But, I do have a memory of being in a classroom. I don’t know what age or what grade, but I knew that I had a brand new pack of Crayola twistable crayons. They just about the same size as normal crayons, but encased in a little plastic sheath. The label around the outside was clear with a Crayola logo, allowing you to see the wax held inside. When you twisted the bottom, more of the wax poked out of the top. So, you could use every last bit of the crayon without having to struggle with holding the little nub. Granted, it also created waste that will be on the planet forever, but that was a small price to pay for the thrill of unneeded innovation of a childhood staple.
And so, this was the most excited I had been for school supplies in quite a while. And I was a kid who got excited about school supplies. I loved the idea of preparing my tools for the whole year. I loved big yellow Ticonderogas in the early grades. I got excited about white out when the teachers allowed us to use pens. I remember raiding the loose change drawer to walk to Walgreens to buy some candy and a premium Uniball black pen with the ink smoother than I ever thought ink could be.
But, at this early age, twistable crayons were the obsession.
I don’t remember what the assignment was. I don’t remember who the teacher was. But I knew we were all drawing a picture. In a class of 20 or so. And I know when I turned in the picture, someone made a comment. It wasn’t mean, more surprised. They mentioned my purple ocean and my dark green clouds. As if I was making mature, unsettling choices with my Crayola color palate. On purpose.
But I never meant to. And I wasn’t in on the joke. I grabbed the colors I thought I was seeing. Blue and black. But no - purple and green. The label on the outside of the plastic shell of twistable Crayola crayons have the logo, but not the name of the color. Because you should be able to see the color. And I should be able to see the color. But I can’t. Or, I can’t tell them apart from the correct ones. They mush and merge into the same color. So even a 48 count palate would merge into a lower number for me. And I’d pick the wrong one.
I was upset. We got new crayons, and I don’t know what happened to these ones. But after that, every time I got colored pencils, markers, or crayons, I double checked to make sure the color names were written on the outside.
I went to Catholic school from K-8. We wore a uniform. So, our shoes were the only way we could express ourselves, especially after they came down on the colorful socks that students started to wear. If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile. So nip it in the bud and send them off to church.
This put a lot of pressure on us to wear shoes that could encompass the whole of our budding little identities. Nikes were the most popular, with the high basketball socks with the swoosh on the outside. I didn’t want to be that ostentatious. And I can’t particularly remember most of the shoes that I wore at that time. I always had one pair of sneakers that I wore every day. I remember some black Nikes that felt like I was walking on clouds. I was convinced they made me run faster. I also remember when my older sister started listening to Avril Lavigne and wearing Etnies. She didn’t skate, and I didn’t skate. But of course, I wore those shoes for a while.
When my shoes would start wearing through their soles, mom and I would decide it’s time to start looking for another pair. And we’d go out to the store. I mostly remember Kohls. And we’d try on pair after pair after pair. I’d be so nervous with each one. Did it fit right? Was it comfortable? And did it look like something I would wear?
The last question was the most difficult to answer. In middle school, we don’t have a clue who we are. We can only see who we think other people think they are, and then compare ourselves to that. And I wasn’t sure of my tribe. When you’re with the same kids from kindergarten through puberty, you fall into the pecking order by fourth grade or so. And tend to stick to your roles as you change. But I’m not sure if any of us were particularly thrilled with this. Or comfortable with it. And most of my anxiety came through my shoes.
I didn’t mind wearing a uniform. I didn’t have to match outfits, which I found was difficult when I started dressing. When I went to the public high school, without any uniform requirements, I found a new freedom. But I couldn’t navigate it very well. There were too many choices. Too many colors. Too many things I wore together than apparently “didn’t go together.” And it took a long time to figure out what that meant. Every time I got a new piece of clothing, I would talk to mom about what I could wear it with. And I’d do my best to remember. But I had to remember. I couldn’t trust my instincts, or I’d end up looking like a purple ocean or a green cloud - and not in an artsy way.
So, for most of my life, I dressed with the trust of other people. I needed people outside of me to confirm that I didn’t look like a fool; that I wasn’t breaking any rules that my eyes couldn’t see or understand. So, when I went off to college, I didn’t have those people. I couldn’t ask those questions. Especially as a young man, I felt like I shouldn’t ask those questions. I shouldn’t care about how I look, or I shouldn’t take pride in it. I definitely shouldn’t ask other men if something looks right or good on me. So, I didn’t. And I slowly started making a plan.
Over the past couple of years, I bought my own clothes. I bought shirts for the office. I bought shirts for the rest of the world. I bought black jeans. I bought black shirts. I bought white shirts. I bought grey shirts. I bought a grey suit like I thought grown ups are supposed to. Dad lovingly and consistently bough new black socks for the family at every Hallmark occasion under the sun.
Slowly but surely, I amassed a small wardrobe of black, grey, and white clothing. A handful of colorful t-shirts that I mostly wear around the house, but other than that, everything I own matches with everything else I own. I can’t make mistakes, and I don’t have to ask anyone for help. And I feel confident with that. I have my uniform.
Except for my shoes. Found a pair of bright yellow Adidas online. I still hate shopping for shoes in the store. And they shipped to my house. And I tried them on. And they worked. And I walked taller with a bright pop of color around my ankles. They’re the perfect self-contained pop of joyful color that I can add to any of my greyscale outfits. All of my greyscale outfits. And I love it. And it makes me happy when people mention them to me. So I’m always on the hunt for more. I want them in every color - because I don’t have to match them to anything else. Just the same greyscale.
I know that my shoes don’t matter. What I walk on and what they look like don’t make a difference in the way that I live my life. But, the story that I tell myself lets me take pride in this. I learned over the years that (1) I am normally wrong about what looks good on me and (2) I shouldn’t be caught caring what I look like anyway. My little shoe habit is my personal vendetta against those voices in my head. I know what I wear now. I choose what I wear now. I’m in control of what I wear now. And it’s alright to care about how I look. These colorful shoes are my middle finger to color blindness and moderately-poisonous ideas of what men should and shouldn’t care about.
I’m allowed to care about this. And I’m allowed to build a story around this. And I’m allowed to bring two pairs of shoes on business trips because for the few hours that I strut around in my sneakers, I feel like I’m worth it.