Why Sneakers?

This is the first of what I hope to be many guest posts by fellow collectors and enthusiasts. Jayme Barkdoll is a thirty-something high school teacher from Alabama. His collection is 75-85 pairs strong, consisting of mostly low profile basketball shoes and retro runners. He has written for online music magazines and academic journals. Give him a follow on Instagram (@jkbarkdoll) and enjoy the read because it is a good one. – SG

I’m not sure if it was turning thirty last year or if it was the cascading stack of shoe boxes in my walk-in closet or if it was my ear-to-ear excitement as I sat in my truck opening that white box from Dover Street Market containing the Vachetta Tan AF1 Mids. Whatever it was, my wife, a woman of unbelievable patience and understanding, asked me the question that I’m sure so many of us have been asked countless times: “Why sneakers?”

Now, I do not pretend to believe that a collection such as mine would ever be deemed normal by the majority of Americans, but I still find myself amazed by the question itself. “Why sneakers?” The question would make sense if it sought to understand why any human would collect material goods without dreams of a large payoff in the end — you know, something like coin collectors who never cash in or Barbie collectors who have neither children nor buyers. But, I’ve realized, after being interrogated so many times regarding the size and scope of my collection, that it isn’t the act of collecting that confounds my friends, family, students, co-workers, wife, ex-girlfriends and more. It’s the shoes themselves. People outside of the sneaker community, and some within it apparently, cannot understand what would fascinate a person about the composition of leather, synthetics, rubber and glue so much that they would devote their precious free time to the attainment, organization, and coordination of these “things” (a term that I may despise for its demeaning connotation, yet one that I cannot deny). So, after roughly two decades of collecting, here’s my attempt to explain my “things.”

When I was in fifth grade, my parents took me to the mall to purchase my very first pair of sneakers. I imagine many sneakerheads can start their story in a similar fashion. Now, I must preface this by saying that by taking me to purchase them, that does not mean that they purchased them for me. My parents were a ride and a few dollars of tax money (the finer details of state taxation policies were lost on me then… maybe ignorance really is bliss). What I was there to do was serious business, as I would be unloading every dollar I had mustered from opening birthday cards and doing chores over the past six months. I could not tell you how long I sat in that store – The Athlete’s Foot in the old McFarland Mall – scanning the seemingly endless columns of sneakers that I had only seen in printed pictures on the pages of my Eastbay catalogs – magazines that I would read cover to cover with the enthusiasm of a born-again Christian reading Psalms for the very first time. I had options in mind, but only a certain amount of money and the promise from my mother that she “wasn’t gone spend none of [her] money to buy no expensive-ass shoes.” So I went down the list of wants and checked them off one-by-one as I realized there was no chance in hell I’d leave with them. There would be no “Showtime,” no Nike Diamond Turf Max 96… a shoe that I still have not purchased, though I will before I’m too old and arthritic to tie them. I would not leave that store feeling like Mike. But, as fate and my limited budget would have it, I did leave feeling like “The Kid” in my Nike Diamond Fury (which debuted in 1995 I believe, despite the retros claim of 96). I remember my mother laughing at me with a smile on her face as we walked down the carpeted halls of that mall, shaking her head while I attempted to swagwalk my sixth grade ass a little ahead so I couldn’t hear her making fun of my “Aquaman shoes” (a nod to the iconic Mariner Emerald colorway). But, it was on that car ride back to our trailer park that she would pose the question to me for the first time. “Why Sneakers?”

At the time, I probably gave some sort of animated, nerdy response about how they would make me run faster or jump higher like Griffey, as countless kids have done since brands like Nike, Reebok, and Adidas realized the capitalistic advantage athletes could provide their sales figures. But, of course, my Aquaman shoes did not earn me Golden Gloves and did not miraculously give me Junior’s signature swing. But, they did give me something else… a sense of pride and confidence. I’ll be the first to admit that this is childish, but pretty much any explanation you give at ten or eleven years old is childish, seeing as how you are, well, a child. But, it gave me confidence to walk into my fifth grade class not as the timid kid that wore the same five off-brand Faded Glory shirts every week, but as a new kid who had money of his own and the kicks to prove that he knew what was cool… even if he couldn’t afford to be cool like so many of his peers. I remember my mom telling me that though she wouldn’t have purchased those “awful things,” she was proud that I was responsible enough to save my money, a trait that it would take me another decade to recognize as rare and valuable in today’s world. So, at eleven, I chose sneakers because it opened up a door for me socially… I had something to talk about with the other kids who worshipped by turning to the book of Eastbay, Chapter 1996, Verse 1-100. Little did I know what other lessons I was learning starting at that moment.

A year later, I took my first trip. A trip to Washington, D.C. with my sixth-grade class at a new, more successful elementary school. While I was saving money to buy the Griffey before Griffeys, my parents were saving for our first home – a home without wheels and one within a school system that actually had a gifted program, unlike the one I was leaving. The picture of my class standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial tells the story of the teenager I was about to become. I look healthier. I smile wider. There’s a book in my hand. And, sitting amidst a sea of small running shoes (New Balance, Asics, Adidas, etc…), there are my feet in the loud, proud Pippens my parents had purchased me to ease the blow of going back to school. While a variety of grey and navy runners crowded around, my Nike Air More Uptempo spoke loudly and often with that signature over-sized AIR lettering on each side of the shoe. I remember being so proud of them, because not only did they match the new me – unique, proud, and always with something say – they also matched the new people my parents were becoming. My parents, a couple without a high-school diploma between the two of them, had worked hard enough and saved long enough that not only could they provide a roof over my head that didn’t depend upon the kindness of a landlord, but they could now afford to give the son they loved so much a gift that he would carry with him everywhere he went for months. I remember sleeping with those Pippens at the end of my bed. I remember confidently strolling through my new neighborhood in those Pippens (well, until the air max bubbles began to pop and the midsole started to separate) without fear that I’d either be beaten up by some kid who wanted them or wanted to make fun of them. I remember being confident and safe and, once again, proud. I imagine my parents felt the same thing when they turned the key to that house for the very first time.

nike-air-more-uptempo-mainBut, these anecdotes do not answer the question at age thirty-one. Paeans about pride and confidence hardly explain why I stood anxiously in front of a local City Gear a couple weekends ago eagerly waiting to purchase my first pair of “Banned” Jordan 1s… a nickname that I wish had never been given a shoe that Jordan himself was not even wearing when the NBA decided to limit the stylistic expression of its blossoming superstar. As I stood there waiting to open the box to a pair of shoes that preceded my sneaker buying by around a decade, I anxiously chatted with other heads about the shoes they were excited to pick up later in the year. I listened to a young man rocking a pair of all-white Ultra Boosts excitedly summarizing the events of Space Jam to me as he mentally salivated over the upcoming release “with the 45 on the back.” I watched his mother, a single mom who was camping out with her son to support his obsession/hobby, smile as he prattled on and on about a player he was not even alive to see play. In one of the few moments he stopped to breathe, his mom apologized for how talkative he was and I told her not to worry about it, because I was that kid once upon a time. I explained to her that I’m very thankful there was no camping out for shoes back when I was his age, but that I was really impressed that she was willing to do that for her child. Without hesitation, she responded by saying, “Hey, it makes him happy. He’s been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot. If buying shoes gives him something to smile about and give us something to talk about, then I think we have a lot of moms and sons beat in this world.”

While I cannot say for sure what drove that young man to collect at such a young age, I feel like sneakers have probably opened lines of communication for him, not only with his mother, but also with his classmates. Those Jordans will probably impart upon him the childish confidence my Griffeys and Pippens did me at that age, and I’ve realized there’s nothing wrong with that. Hell, I hope they do actually make that young man faster and stronger even if I know they won’t. But why was I there standing in line at 7AM? While some might claim that sneakerheads of any age still get that social high that comes along with people eyeballing our kicks as they pass by, I hardly feel that anymore. In fact, at thirty-one, it’s awkward now. Students I do not even teach come by my classroom to see what sneakers I have on, either to ask me how much I spent on my Yeezys or how I got my 72-10s. Hell, some just come by to laugh at the old bearded dude wearing the shoes they wanted. So, the idea of social validation does not cut it for me; I spend more time defending and explaining the hobby than breaking necks. What draws me to these sneakers today are the narratives that escape each box when you open them. I teach AP English and Southern Literature, so stories are important to me in a way that I’m not sure they are important to the majority. I see stories as an account of time, place, person, and perseverance. I still collect shoes because I love the nostalgia I feel when I see yet another release of the Neon Air Max 95’s, because they remind me of a neighbor I had who served as the definition of cool for me when I was in elementary and middle school. He wore those with khaki shorts and real Polos; he had his own truck; he dated pretty girls. I love the narratives that come out of the shoe designs from men like Ronnie Fieg and Deon Point who use runners to recount childhood family trips to Florida or to celebrate the iconic 37+ foot Green Monster of Fenway Park. I love the story carried on the scent of these remastered Jordan 1’s and I love how they are not factory laced so that they hearken back to pictures of Michael lacing up each new pair prior to those on-court wars when his every shrug and shot would symbolize something so special they would forever be preceded by “The.” I love seeing the teenagers in my school walk around in the same Pippens I wore in sixth grade and hearing them talk about how their mothers and fathers, men and women like my parents who just want to see their kids smile in a world so full of reasons not to, scrimped and saved to provide their children with the exact fleeting happiness I once had when that same AIR was mine.

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4 thoughts on “Why Sneakers?

  1. Love this, one of the main reasons I collect. A lot of my shoes have a story tied to it that I can remember why I wanted them so bad or how I worked to get them and once they retroed it brought that back for me. I didn’t come from a trailer home but housing projects back in NYC and if you didn’t have the freshest pair…you weren’t cool. Caused me start working at 12 yrs old so I can get a pair of air raids after watching spike lee in those commercials…memories like that drive my love for the shoes…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! And that is why this blog means something to me. I can go to several sites and find out what releases are coming up or what hype is out there but I want to hear people’s stories and talk about the personal connections. Thanks for your comment.

      Like

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