As a little kid I used to earn 25 cents for shining my father’s dress shoes. That money bought quite a bit of candy at the Little Store a few blocks away, so it was worth the effort. I’d sit down with the cans of Kiwi shoe polish and open the flip-top lid, dip an old tee shirt into the brown or black polish and smear it all over the shoe leather. Then I’d shine them to a nice gleaming finish.
This process gave me reverence for the style of shoe called a wingtip. They didn’t make those shoes for little kids back then. Wing tips were big people shoes.
All my shoes were Buster Brown specials purchased at the downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania shoe store where the shoe salesman stuck your foot in one of those black and silver foot measuring devices and determined your size.
I recall feeling pride as my foot grew larger. “I’m getting bigger!” I smiled to my mom throughout my elementary years. And then one day my foot measured over a size 6 or something like that, and the salesman pulled out a pair of actual wingtips and set them down by my feet. “Would you like to try these on?” he asked.
Wing tip dreams
Got I loved those shoes. I could not believe I was so suddenly old enough to wear wing tips. My friends at school were also admiring of those stylish shoes. I may have had flood pants and saggy socks on most days, but damn those wing tips looked good.
The same sense of pride happened years later when I signed up for high school cross country. Within a week of practicing it was clear that I would be one of the top runners on the squad. Then the time came to dole out spikes for the first meet.
We all sat on the grass as the coaches sized up the available shoes. Then I was handed a box that contained a set of running spikes with Velcro fasteners and kangaroo leather. I’d never worn a pair of Velcro anything in my life. I pulled the tab pack and it made that weirdly scratchy noise that Velcro makes as the hooks and loops separate. “Okay,” I thought to myself. “That’s cool.”
When I think about those shoes, they were probably perfect for a 14-year-old kid with a bit of ADD going on. No laces to be tied or come untied. Just push them on and go.
The leather itself was soft as silk. That made me feel guilty in some fashion. I was already an environmentally conscious kid. The thought that someone killed and skinned a kangaroo, tanned the leather and then dyed it white was just strange. But here it was, and there was nothing I could do about it now.
The long Puma swoop on the side made me feel fast. In some respects those Pumas bore the exact opposite pattern as the wing tips I’d learned to love in sixth grade. If the wing tips were the “positive” then the Pumas were the negative space on a set of shoes.
And speaking of negative space. I recall the hot sense that other teammates, some of them older, were a bit envious of the new shoes I’d been given. I’d eventually learn that jealousy was an inevitable result of working hard in many circumstances in life.
In any case, those Pumas did me well that first year in high school cross country. I ran Varsity for all the dual meets and helped lead the team to a Frosh-Soph conference title. The next year, we won the Varsity conference title.
I specifically recall wearing a pair of boxy shoes to the awards ceremony that year. There was something classic about wing tips, but they had gone out of fashion among the younger set.
Now when I walk the aisles at a Men’s Wearhouse and hold aloft a pair of shoes for inspection, all that life experience folds together in a shiny little memory. These feet have carried me a long way. They deserved a nice set of shoes now and then.