Sole Power, Part 2
The Soul in His Sole: Boy Culture & Sneakers
“Sole Power.” You may recognize that title, as it accompanied the excerpt of the following piece when it ran in glossy print in KICKS 12. With KICKS 12 resting on newsstands for a few weeks now, and as we promised in the issue, here’s Lee Gabay’s full-length story. While all of the words are real and true, please note that names have been changed to protect identities. If you want to read part 1 before part 2 (which we recommend), here it is.
by Lee Gabay
High Yield, Net Income, Tax Incentives and Dunks
The rise of boy sneakers culture in the 1980’s evolved during a reactionary period in response to the political gain made by social movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The public and political tone was such that small government was the zeitgeist. Federal policy decisions to cut public housing, standardize education, and crackdown on crimes reflected the growing cultural and political intolerance to etiological factors such as early education failure, family disruption, drug abuse, and gang involvement. During President Reagan’s first term the number of juveniles sent to adult prisons rose almost 50%. The policies that emphasized deterrence and punishment impacted the inner city social context where many urban young men resided. Forces of race, class, gender, and distribution of wealth in the US inner cities during Regananomics gave rise to three things: the prison industrial complex, hip-hop, and the sneaker iconoclast.
Many boys lived in neighborhoods and attended schools where they were put down, shamed, humiliated, exploited, and alienated—or where they were doing this to others. Sneakers provided fertile aesthetic ground, which emerged from the frustration and anger stemming from the growing oppressive and disempowering systems. Young men, longing for salvation and agency and through their shoes, found an uncensored and often amplified platform from which to speak. Sneaker culture screamed of young men’s issues of exclusion from individual opportunity and real diversity. Sneakers were a prop used in meaning-making propelling boys toward deeply rooted escapist fantasies: by wearing sneakers they could be that guy on the poster. Personal achievement was difficult in a world where most things seemed contested, incoherent, and unrealized. Sneakers offered boys something many were not receiving in school or at home: positive attention, praise and a semblance of control within an ontologically insecure world.
Though the stereotype is usually attributed to girls, boys too can be deeply concerned with how they are viewed. Sneakers thus became an inexpensive way to achieve quick social mobility in the fashion show of the streets and school. Sneakers became a place of recognition, a sense of worth and an ingredient that united disparate groups. The appeal is seductive. Sneakers excite like a drug, entertain like a movie, and praise like a church.
Boy sneaker culture somehow escapes the precepts of the larger society. As mentioned, sneaker subculture is immune to the domination of mainstream values, as each buyer claims these products as their own. Sneaker culture is not a revolution, but it shares certain elements of rebellion and resistance that emerged from protest communities. Sneaker culture is not necessarily organized, but is clearly articulated. Subversive sneaker culture is not counter-capitalism, as the products are produced by billion dollar companies who attempt to co-op the prophetic at every moment.
If not prestigious, sneaker culture membership is based on a select manifest, a sovereign tale, a creed, and a cause celebre. The currency of sneakers is the cross-cultural exchange of ideas of like-minded people. These ideological allies represent a distinct bunch of people purchasing a lifestyle that generates individualism. Speculating about the dictums of its participants in this axis indicates to others that what particular brand is on their feet is not as important as each one’s passion and obsession in deciding these things. The emphasis is on a discursive interaction that is in principle unbounded and open-ended. Sneaker culture encompasses an extremely democratic frame with the tremendous possibilities implying the invention and reinventing of self. Those who participate in the sneaker ministry are stylish not in a cool hipster way, but in the way they represent themselves. As suggested, boys are more likely to define their masculinity through the separation from others. Sneakers are part of a boy’s persona. They are tattooed on his psyche as if they were a religion, a modern bouncing crucifix.
In an episode of HBO’s Entourage audiences witnessed a dramatized glimpse into today’s sneaker culture. Turtle, one of the show’s main characters, decided he needed the new limited edition Nike shoes that were dropping. He attempts to satisfy this desire with a fervor that hadn’t been seen from this generally apathetic character: a man-child who spends his days sitting around smoking and playing video games. Once the decision is made to find the limited Fukijamas Nikes, the mumbling Turtle is uncharacteristically expressive and coherent. Turtle, like so many boys, finds direction and purpose through his intimate connections to sneaker culture. When Turtle and Vince (his rich, famous, and well-connected movie star friend) get to one store they encounter a huge line. They wait for a while and the sneakers eventually sell out. The shop worker tells them that the Santa Monica branch has a few remaining pairs, so the gang races toward the coast. When they arrive someone swoops in, grabbing the last size elevens. Turtle is shattered, crushed by the great defeat. Vince makes a few calls and eventually spends $20,000 on a pair of custom made Nikes for Turtle. Turtle is subsequently brought to tears on his ride home, where he caresses a gold plated sneaker box.
Turtle’s hunger and spiritual search goes well beyond the potent and dangerous cocktail of vanity. His very place in the world and his self-esteem are riding on the size eleven Nikes. Delving deeper than mere materialism, particularly for the young, isolated and lonely, the society of sneaker consumption provides a community and nucleus for relationships. To have a pair of sneakers is not unique; what makes the subculture atypical (in droves) is the allied exploration without a core leadership, but consent to participate. Notably, during the sneaker hunt, Turtle even finds his first real girlfriend.
Girls and Old People
A boy’s relationship with his sneakers on a personal micro- and macro-societal level is not gender exclusive, but it is gender specific. There are certainly many types of common footwear for both boys and girls (men and women): gender neutral sandals, Birkenstocks, clogs, roller blades, golf shoes, Doc Martins, water booties, brogans, hiking boots, galoshes, ski boots, flip flops, and Crocs. Females are undeniably part of and even principle players within the subculture surrounding sneakers. They’re sneaker lovers, but they have so many options with fashion, that they don’t specifically focus on sneakers. Sneaker culture embraces millionaires, the guy on the street, grandmas and first graders. It bridges all sects and every clique: goths, jocks, techies, shop rats, nerds, cheerleaders, boys, punks, preppies, hip hoppers, skaters, head-bangers, cops, gangsters, convicts and even teachers.
Sneakers are not a social movement, but within a framework of social change, sneakers are significant to the discourse. Sneaker subculture is a politic of identity rather than that of class. Sneakers are also reactionary and for many boys necessary for daily survival in adolescence. In the book This Boy’s Life (and the movie based on it), Dwight, the abusive and controlling stepfather, hurts young Toby in the cruelest of ways for a boy—public humiliation. Dwight blames Toby for his changing foot size and refuses to get him another pair until his foot decides on a final size. The public social shaming begins when Dwight not only refuses to buy Toby sneakers—which is indeed punishment—but he also forces him to play a middle school basketball game in brown dress shoes. Toby slips and slides all over the court while amused onlookers witness his visually hilarious (and emotionally daunting) public castration. Toby clomps loudly and slides as if on skates crossing the varnished floor of the gymnasium. Toby’s heavy square dress shoes appear even more outrageous paired with his red satin basketball uniform. The scene is both poignant and comical, while the phallic and Oedipal overtones in this quasi-Shakespearian power struggle between the stepfather and stepson are manifested in control of sneakers.
No Running in the Halls
Teaching is an athletic endeavor, especially within the transient juvenile detention school system, and if high-tops aren’t worn to class, an ankle may be sprained. One of the challenges educators face, particularly in these alternative schools, is to capture student interest quickly and develop a space of trust, connection, and comfort. In this way, teachers must walk a fine between ingratiating themselves and maintaining an appropriate distance: My students do not know my first name or where I live, but they do know that I love the Knicks (and are sympathetic) and that I am a sneaker aficionado (and are appreciative).
My love of sneakers reveals a personal side of myself and often sparks a co-generative dialogue with my students. As I begin class by looking at their homework, visiting each desk in an informal but personal ritual, I notice my student’s sneakers and they notice mine. Later, we do in class journaling, which gives the students the opportunity to describe that which they know best–themselves. The journals provide a space for them to express why they love their girlfriends but hate Beyonce or why they didn’t finish the last book we read in class but stayed up all night writing in their diary. Many studies have proven that a teacher’s genuine interest in student’s individuality leads to improved test scores. In others words, students need to know how much you care before they care how much you know.
With this understanding, a teacher can foster a learning community that rigorously engages the curriculum without neglecting the reality and passion of the students’ own life experiences. My methodology is such that lesson plans are rooted in academic areas but are ultimately designed as departure points for further education exploration. For instance, every year we listen to Gil Scott-Heron’s anthem, ‘The revolution will not be televised’ as a springboard to discuss consumerism in urban areas and we watch the film The Outsiders to dissect gang culture.
Though I do not advocate sneakers being a formal academic subject, they do aid in presenting a lesson. When I ask a new student to “free write twenty lines,” the response is usually a still pencil and a blank sheet of paper. However, if I alter the prompt slightly—“List ten places to get sneakers and your top ten favorite brands”– the page is filled in minutes. Personalizing the material immediately makes it both relevant and compelling. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that building on a seemingly simple dialogue about sneakers can lead to highly evolved colloquy and often-sophisticated essays.
As seen, personalizing a lesson plan can be very effective. However, one must not pander. During one humbling exchange, Martinez, a soon-to-be-remanded tenth-grader, made proud reference to his ‘Bugs Bunny’s,’ which I assumed to be parlance for his Nikes. A few weeks later, I confidently praised another student on his Bugs Bunny’s and he looked at me blankly. “These aren’t Bugs, Mr. G, they’re Dunks.” Sensing my embarrassment, he kindly explained that the Air Jordan VIII, aka Bugs Bunny’s, received its nickname not only from the “Mike And Bugs” commercials, but from the straps which resemble Bunny ears. I thanked him for the lesson and stumbled back to the board in my Pro-Keds ‘69ers.
Traversing the residence halls of my school, I can see that the cells are clean and organized and, under each bed, lay a pair of sneakers (without laces; they are forbidden). The sneakers are meticulously lined up like the outside of a mosque; they are dusted, polished, pampered and idolized.
No one will ever confuse this monolithic structure for anything other than what it is: a detention center. Nonetheless, the rubber and canvas of a fresh pair of sneakers, even seen through steel bars, can create a jumping off point, bridging the gap between student and teacher.
The Wars of Wardrobe!
There are numerous economic, political and even moral issues that surround the subject of sneakers. Neoteric sneaker culture, like boys themselves, is constantly changing and its pluralism can be manipulated to fit the parlance of these complicated times. I and those who buy, wear and love sneakers are slightly teflotic and often ignore the hard facts of fair-trade labor and wanton hedonistic capitalism that are synonymous with sneaker production. It is necessary as a society to explore how, where, and by whom sneakers are made. There are many important, disconcerting stories to be told of sneaker factory working conditions and other related issues. For instance, it is a social emergency when Nike pays Michael Jordan more to wear its product than the company paid its entire 30,000 Indonesian workforce to make them. These are stories that cannot remain untold.
Are Those Keds?
The ongoing legacy of boys and their relationship to sneakers seems to be in continual postscript and renewal. Sneakers’ historical framework is rife with fulfillment and failures, and provide maps of self-actualization and recognition. The most vivid memories from my childhood in the late 1970’s include Evel Knievel, The Gong Show, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, The Bad News Bears, and going sneaker shopping with my mom each September. Scenes of putting my feet on the silver metal apparatus with lines that measure your foot size (a device that does not exist anywhere else in the world but in a shoe store), and fooling around with it when the salesman departs to bring out my latest pair still play in the glorious Technicolor of my mind. I always paused when giving up an old pair either to be discarded or donated as if I was saying goodbye to a dear friend with whom I shared years of memories. Snapshots of my dad letting me win a race around a track and mental Polaroids of my brother not letting me win in stoopball all include the Nike Waffle Trainers and Pony MVP’s on my feet.
I learned to move on but never away from worn sneakers as I take the fresh pair out of the box intoxicated by their effects; the olfactory delight of the new sneaker smell, a combination of musk and seraphia flows over me. I fumble through the white tissue paper which protects the untouched shoes, and gently pick them up, holding them up to the light and almost caressing them. Both the shoe and I are grinning, the sneaker wags its tongue; I mine. I surrender to the seduction. I begin the journey, full of hope, full of possibility. Where will these souls in my sole lead me? I quickly remove the thicker gray tissue paper stuffed deep inside the synthetic and rubber heaven. I slide my foot inside, make sure the laces are evenly distributed, I don’t miss a hole. The starchy white bow tie falls on either side of the ashen frame and I slowly rise for the first time, like a phoenix, the new sneakers permeate my flesh, uniting, extending and supporting the final layer between me and the primordial earth. From head to shell-toe this is not merely metaphorical bliss, it is euphoria itself. My hero within is unleashed. I jump for no apparent (yet seemingly every) reason. My heart dances, my legs move in ways they’ve never done before. I want to paint, write, and sculpt. I want to climb Everest, swim in the Great Barrier Reef, cure cancer, eradicate world hunger, and play second base for the Yankees. I want to scream at the top of the Empire State building from the bottom of my lungs! However, I’m getting over a recent bout with pneumonia and I have an acute fear of heights. So, instead, I meticulously lace up my shoes–sending the rabbit carefully through each hole—to wear out of the store.
It is now thirty years later and I am heading home walking down a crowded street in Brooklyn. An elderly lady approaches me and asks, “Are those Keds?” pointing to my navy 69ners. I nod as she continues with a smile, “I haven’t seen those in years.” I smile back as we both return to a place of innocence, simplicity—a time long gone and probably altered through nostalgia’s lens of purification. I look up and see an old pair of sneakers hanging from a power line above. I think about their past as they point me towards a future. My heart jumps, my soul bounces. I walk on.