I absolutely adore my black and white leather Converse All Stars — the feel, the look, the star-stamped black and white emblem.
At nearly 58, I pull them on, letting my fingers kiss their skin. I tie them tightly with a certain sense of nostalgia and pride. Chuck Taylors, baby!
I remember when I first laid eyes on Converse sneakers, showcased on the shelves at the clothing goods store down near 19th Street and Pulaski Road, a few blocks from the crib on the West Side.
They shone like Christmas ornaments but seemed as unreachable as those scrumptious 5-cent lunchroom butter cookies at school that I could seldom afford to go with my free lunch.
“If all of your problems are money problems, you don’t really have any problems,” my mother used to tell me. “You can always get more money, John…”
I wasn’t always convinced. I would learn the value of patience, the lessons that come in time with keeping things in proper perspective. I learned that “not today” does not mean “never.” And I have experienced the joy of waiting.
Back in the day, I longed for Converse. Long before Run-D.M.C. christened the Adidas obsession, before Jordan’s, before Shaq Attaq’s and Curry 5’s, Converse captured our sneaker imaginations. Dr. J wore Converse — and an Afro. At nearly 10 bucks a pop in the 1970’s, those shoes may as well have been $100 to a kid like me with more cotton in my pocket than cash.
Mama couldn’t afford Converse most of the time. At least she could not justify the expense when there were more pressing things, like lights, gas, rent, groceries…
Mama could afford the off-brand sneakers, the ones that sometimes slipped and slid across the gymnasium floor. They got me teased by the fellas whose families could afford Converse, or else they made money hustling outside grocery stores by helping ladies load their bags into their car.
I envied the dudes who wore Converse.
Converse was cool, a status symbol to a ghetto boy — crown jewel to a hoops ensemble of thigh-high basketball shorts and a T-shirt. Converse accentuated a pair of bell-bottom jeans even better than a pair of platform shoes.
They were the Jordans of my day, long before the 1980s when His Airness helped launch the Nike brand to the gym shoe-marketing moon.
When I was in my off-brands, I still dreamed of Converse. Of walking into the store and trying them on for size then lacing them up right then and there. Of putting my old shoes in the box and walking up to the cashier and laying down cold hard cash.
Then, in my dream, I would stride coolly out the door in my brand new Converse, like John Shaft. Back up to my block at 16th and Komensky, so I could show them off to the fellas.
A few times, Mama worked Converse into her budget. I don’t know how. But she did. And I remember acting out my gym shoe dream scenario, overjoyed to be able to buy a pair.
I discovered, though, that the shoes didn’t make me jump any higher or run any faster. They did not boost my self-esteem. Did not lift my social status.
And this has served to remind me in life that shoes and money, or status, titles and things don’t make the man. It is a man’s heart that lies at the core of him. Not the brand of shoes on his feet, even if he can now afford them.
And yet, I never walk more proudly or coolly than when I am in my Converse All Stars.
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