Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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Swoosh of Consciousness

In honor of the awesome $10 red shoes that siyeh wore to our last Congress get-together and the picture hollsterhambone posted today of her latest pair, I'm going to share my own find. No, I'm not talking about the barely tolerable Nikes I convinced myself to buy yesterday because basketball means too much to me to stop playing for a lack of shoes. You see, I stopped at Ross -- in Foothills Mall, no less -- to see whether I could find something so cheap that my conscience would be soothed. Predictably, there weren't any functional basketball shoes near my size. But something else caught my eye.

Last year I picked up a remaindered copy of Bobbito Garcia's Where'd You Get Those?, a remarkable visual history of New York City sneaker culture from 1960-1987. I've pored over the images again and again, excited both by what I remember and what I don't. I was particularly excited to read about the "pre-history" of basketball footwear, when Converse "Chuck Taylors" and Pro-Keds were the only options, whether you were Jim Carroll or Elgin Baylor. I've had Chucks on and off since undergrad. I've even played in them, astonished at how much wearing them changes one's game from stop-and-start to flow-and-go. Pro-Keds, however, were another matter. So when I saw this pair on sale for $12 I simply had to have them:

When I got them home last night, I immediately put them on to see how they compare to my Converse. I expected that they would be more or less the same. But, just as Bobbito's book implies, the Pro-Keds are better suited to playing basketball. The combination of slightly more padding above the sole and a firm arc along the instep give them a lot more support, relative to Converse, than you would think by giving them a once-over with your eyes. As I walked around the house in them last night, I thought, "I could actually hoop in these on a regular basis."

I wore them all day today, telling myself that I was "breaking them in" even though, unlike Chucks, they fit my feet -- too wide for out-of-the-box Converse -- great to begin with. The longer I wore them, the more I thought about Bobbito's book. And the longer I thought about Bobbito's book, the more sneaker-related body memories I became aware of. One train of thought was so rich with significance that I am moved to share it with you. It may not be dramatic in the way that pieces by my favorite LJ memoirists like kdotdammit, samifo, zokah, hollsterhambone, or thewhitaker are, but it shares with them an interest in details. Consider me inspired.

When we moved from rural Pennsylvania to suburban Maryland in the summer of 1979, I was a complete innocent when it came to fashion. In Pennsylvania, my mom had sewed her own clothes and bought most of the rest at Sears Surplus. A good deal of my own attire consisted of hand-me-downs from my cousin Billy. That was a probably a good thing, because his mother bought him nicer threads than mine did. Yet it meant that I was always wearing shirts and pants that were about five years out of date. Among other things, this explains why looking at Kim's elementary school class photos confuses me: the boys around her are wearing the same fabrics and designs that I wore at that age. But they were doing it in 1970 and I was doing it in 1975.

I was so sheltered from consumer culture that the mall remained a novelty to me until after we'd moved. Lehigh Valley Mall seemed as huge to me then as South Coast Plaza does now. This provincialism caught up with me when I started sixth grade in Maryland. During our trips down prior to the move, my mom had taken me to what was supposed to be my new school, Randolph Village Elementary, a dilapidated building off of Central Avenue inside the Beltway and not far from the shockingly rundown Hampton Mall. Truth be told, I was scared of the place. So when I learned that the school had been closed for good in the spring of 1979 and that I would instead be attending Kettering Elementary, which was both considerably closer to our new home and located in a neighborhood that resembled my sense of what suburban life should and could be, I was delighted.

The reality, however, was another matter. Many of the students from Randolph Village ended up getting bused to Kettering. And because Randolph Village had been over 80% black and Kettering every bit as white -- Prince George's County was still in the process of trying to implement a court-ordered program designed to bring about integration through intensive busing -- the new kids were regarded with considerable derision. Because I was new, the white students who had already been attending Kettering logically grouped me with the influx of mostly lower-income, non-white children and proceeded to act as if I were invisible. My dream of getting to know real African-Americans, forged in the fires of religious Roots-viewing and a subsequent interest in the Civil Rights Movement, materialized faster than I could ever have imagined.

Unfortunately, that dream rapidly started to turn into a nightmare. The black kids didn't recognize me from their old school and, more importantly, could sense that I didn't have a clue about their situation. During my first week a boy named Brian subjected me to a humiliating "Kiss my shoes" ritual in view of the entire lunchroom. More troubling still, my school records from Pennsylvania didn't show up until the following spring, leading me to be classified, as I've already related here in De File, with the lowest performing students of color and therefore assigned to a remedial reading group at such a low level that I literally couldn't understand what was being asked of me. Not only was I "black" to the white kids and "white" to the black kids, students in both camps regarded me as an illiterate loser.

Somehow, though, I survived. And thanks to the kindness of two African-American classmates, Jeffrey Lowe and Camille Exum, and my African-American teacher, Bertha Clarke, I slowly found a handhold in the classroom's social network. The white kids played soccer and football on the upper field. The black kids spent all their time on the basketball court. Even though my hoops experience up to that point had consisted largely of shooting inside our barn in Pennsylvania, navigating my way around tractor parts and bags of fertilizer, Jeff and Camille welcomed me into their recess world. Jeff wasn't that good a basketball player himself. But Camille played like a dream. She was easily the best player on the court, gliding past boys intent on punishing her for her gender transgression to make beautiful finger rolls and reverse lay-ups.

I fell hopelessly in love with the idea of her, her grace and beauty merging in my mind with that of Magic Johnson, whom I had watched win the NCAA basketball championship during my last spring in Pennsylvania, suddenly turned on, like so many other Americans, to a game that I had previously ignored. Although Larry Bird interested me, it was Magic and his sidekick Greg Kelser that I rooted for. And now, in the person of Camille, my abstract infatuation with Magic Johnson turned into something a lot more tangible. I remember sitting across from Camille at our cluster of desks, watching her collarbone move back and forth to the beat of her breathing. Her neck, so fluid on the court, was even more captivating at rest. I wasn't even sure what it meant to feel so strongly about someone at that point in my development, but I knew that Camille was something special. I wanted to be part of her world, even though there were all sorts of reasons to think it impossible.

And that's where the shoes come in. In the first weeks of school, when I was just starting to feel like I might be allowed to hang around with Camille's crowd, a bunch of kids, both white and black, had a heated discussion about the merits of different Nike court shoes. "I don't understand," I blurted out, "What's a Nikey?" If you ever need a textbook definition of the word "incredulous," you could travel back in time to that gray-hot day in September, 1979 and look at the faces of my classmates. They were so taken aback that they couldn't even compose themselves enough to make fun of me.

In the wake of that moment, I lost my innocence as a consumer. For the first time, I desired a brand. Even though I knew how difficult it would be to persuade my relentlessly practical, pseudo-Pennsylvania Dutch mother of the necessity of spending two or three times what she was used to spending on shoes for me, I pressed onward in my quest for belonging with a fervor I've rarely summoned since. I had to have a pair of Nikes. I had to have them because, if I didn't, I would never truly fit into the world that Camille inhabited.

By the time I achieved my goal, the end of the school year was approaching. I'd been removed from the remedial reading group and placed in the "TAG" gifted program. And I'd seen my friends Camille and Jeffrey, not to mention a number of their African-American acquaintances, turn down the honor because they -- or maybe it was their parents -- were afraid of not fitting in back home if they were classified that way. It was a hard lesson. But not as hard as the realization that everyone I cared about at Kettering was going to be bused to a different junior high school than I would be. My parents had me take the entrance exam for Queen Anne School, an Episcopal school very close to our house, and, after I'd scored well enough to get in, decided that it would be better for me than the chaos of Prince George's County public schools in an era of Proposition 13-copycat funding restrictions.

I remained friends with Jeffrey through the end of eighth grade, though the class and ethnic division between us became a bigger deal with each month we spent in different educational environments. Camille I never saw again, though she called me once, out of the blue, when I was in eighth grade. Maybe she'd run into Jeff or perhaps one of my two Queen Anne School classmates from her neck of the woods. I was so happy to hear from her that I could barely say anything at all. I've kept a place in my heart for her ever since.

I tried to track down information about Camille a couple of times in the 1990s, but the only thing I turned up was a story about how her father, a long-time member of the State Assembly in Annapolis, had suffered through a serious illness afflicting one of his daughters. I feared that it had been Camille. Indeed, I was so afraid that I put off searching her name on the internet until tonight. Besides, the odds of her last name having changed were pretty high by this point. But guess what? She's alive and well and remains "Camille Exum." And she has followed her father into politics, presently serving on the Prince George's County Council. The burden of potential sadness has lifted from my shoulders. I'm so happy to see her face, to know that she's more than alright. The funny thing is that I never would have reached this point if I hadn't begun writing about my new shoes.
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