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Swoosh of Consciousness - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
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.

Muse: a memory of the Sugarhill Gang on the school bus

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Comments
hollsterhambone From: hollsterhambone Date: August 8th, 2005 03:06 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
What's strange to me is that Prince George County when I was in Fairfax County at Fox Mill Elementary was a suburb on par with Herndon. It's weird how suburbs of DC can change so quickly. I was in Fairfax from 1975 - 1984. While '75 - '77 were spent in Falls Church (I have only one memory of this time, probably because I was born in '75), the rest were spent in Herndon.

I found a baby blue pair of Chucks at TJ Maxx. I was tempted, but I found those patent leather heels and they trumpted any Converse purchase. Oh the decisions.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 03:13 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well, it depends on what part of Prince George's County you're talking about. Kettering Elementary is probably almost 80% black now, but it's still pretty middle-class. Inside the Beltway, though, the Hood remains in effect, particularly from the new Redskins stadium south. While the mall that replaced the Capital Center is more upscale by far than Hampton Mall -- they aren't even on the same planet, really -- the area between there and the D.C. line is still filled with "rough" patches.
hollsterhambone From: hollsterhambone Date: August 8th, 2005 02:22 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
This is so fun for me...trying to remember about DC and surrounding areas. Now you're making me want to go back and tour. Maybe I'll rent a car the next time I go to DC, just to check it out.
From: e4q Date: August 8th, 2005 04:10 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
nice piece. brings to mind a short one i wrote here http://www.swinney.org/journals/article.phtml?id=3844 on body memory which i recently read out live - it was weird getting live feedback - people laughed and not at me but with me, which was nice. it was the first time i had written anything like it and i sometimes think about writing more... but anyway the content has something in common with this, if you fancy taking a peek
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 04:25 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I like the way you use the present tense in that one. And you use the word "behoov," which I'm always afraid to use because I'm not sure it's real enough.

As for the reading out loud part -- I know what you mean. I've read short pieces out loud and almost always elicited more laughter than I had intended. But it's the good kind, so the experience isn't wholly unnerving.
From: e4q Date: August 8th, 2005 04:38 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
ha ha - yeh, maybe it is because i am in the uk i can be a bit olden days, but noone says behoov really, and i can't remember ever seeing it written - strikes me as being positively dickensian now you mention it, and maybe a bit religious?
i don't think you can use the present tense for long, it would be tedious in a novel if you used it all the way through, but it does keep a certain existentialism going. actually i think also locally here it is pretty common for someone to relate a story of their recent experience in present tense, as in frinstance -
'listen, right? i'm going up the road, minding my own business, right, this is yesterday, and what happens? this bloke, he comes up to me and he says...and i say..., and he says... etc'
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 04:59 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Dickensian is good! What I like about your present tense is that it doesn't sound like the standard telling-a-story sort you give an example of here. Yours is more abstract, almost outside of any specific time.
From: e4q Date: August 8th, 2005 05:10 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
i was VERY impressed by simone de beauvoir's 'she came to stay' when i read it some time ago. i don't think she used present tense, but i do remember that she imposed certain rules to maintain a sense of present tense which made the book read really well, to me, and which keeps the book fresh over time. she never describes what people are feeling just what they do and say and makes those things work harder. now i am trying to express myself in words more i have that goal in mind. i have no idea if i could write anything longer or how that would work, but this is the problem all modern literature faces and each writer has to deal with the question of form afresh.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 12:53 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Writing short stuff is fine. I love micro-fiction and micro-non-fiction. Beckett, Kafka, Didion -- they're among my favorites.
pissang From: pissang Date: August 8th, 2005 04:27 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
so are you actually going to play in those suckers? i know if i did, my dogs would be barking. woof woof. sorry. woof. i can't stop. woof woof woof.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 04:57 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yeah, but you have skills, my friend. All I do is set screens and body up on defense. But, actually, I do think I could play alright in them. I've played in Chucks on numerous occasions. You just can't stop, is all. It's like driving on ice: no braking allowed.
frostedfuckhead From: frostedfuckhead Date: August 8th, 2005 05:25 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

hah

tell me about it... i played basketball in chucks exactly one time...

shin splints for 3 weeks.

ever see these:

http://adbusters.org/metas/corpo/blackspotsneaker/home.html ????

i was going to get them but i decided to get a classier pair of merrells and just run a couple old chucks through the wash. they'll keep me happy for another year while i'm in china.


cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 11:38 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: hah

Awesome! I need some of those to show off my resistance to branding. But can you figure out how to become a shareholder?
From: zokah Date: August 8th, 2005 09:01 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I love posts that interweave the present and past. Thank you for taking me back East this morning.

And I have to ask, because I know you so perhaps I don't, however, has Camille replied to the e-mail I feel most positive you sent?

:: there's a slow grin on my face as I type this ::
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 12:48 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Gosh, I was too taken aback by my discovery and the memory of my shyness to send an e-mail out. I think I'd better change her last name to "E." first. . .
From: zokah Date: August 8th, 2005 01:17 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
well, you did provide your found link to her in your post.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 01:24 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Right! I had to do that for effect, but I think I'll change it tomorrow.
From: zokah Date: August 8th, 2005 09:03 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Oh, and like all of your posts as well as this Blog's Title, I especially enjoyed the play of words in the post's title.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: August 8th, 2005 12:52 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks! And for your compliment on the past-meets-present thing too. I try. Of course, the fact that Nikes no longer have a "real" swoosh makes me like them a lot less. Back in the honest days of the late 70s and early 80s, they made regular shoes -- mine were the cheapest canvas sort -- that avoided bizarre accessorization for the simple shape. Of course, I guess they probably make retro shoes now. I might need a pair. BTW, you should check out frostedfuckhead's comment and click on the link to the anti-corporate sneaker. Awesome!
frostedfuckhead From: frostedfuckhead Date: August 8th, 2005 03:24 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
you become a shareholder with your first purchase ;>
From: marcegoodman Date: August 8th, 2005 10:00 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
It is ironic how unlikely it would actually be to play ball in Chucks today when many of us would have sacrificed something very dear for just that opportunity as young aspirants in the early 1970s. My own ascension to Chucks included Converse's Lou Brock baseball shoe, Thom McAn's Chuck clones called NBA's (nicely documented here:http://sneakers.pair.com/clone-b.htm), and Pro Keds. One might even have played in low tops-just about unthinkable today. After the first few of many sprained ankles, there was regrettably no going back to canvas. I've actually gone back to Converse because it seemed that they were the only genuine high tops I could find.
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