©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
As if there were not enough ways to categorize young students at Our Lady of Perpetual Construction Elementary School. Along came an older pupil one Spring day during lunchtime in the playground, looking critically at... what we were wearing on our feet.
Most of us didn't bother to change out of our required shoes. A few did. They were the objects of this older kid's attention. After a short investigation, he started calling out names; not of the students, but apparently of their sneakers.
What was this about?
Then, a hysterical laugh from whoever this was.
"Ha, ha, ha!! Jeepers!"
Ok, what was this about?
"You have Jeepers! Ha! Ha! Ha!"
And off he ran to tell his friends. Needless to say, this incident was the talk of the first graders back in class. What was this kid doing? A science project, maybe? The next day, he was at it again. The third, second and first graders who wore sneakers once again were evaluated... or their sneakers were. I heard four proclamations of "Cons," two of "Fake Cons," and ten hearty laughs and the term "Jeepers." This still did not make sense. Fortunately, that second day was a Friday. So perhaps over the weekend, either one or more of us would figure out what this kid was talking about, or it would simply go away in time for Monday. Next was a complete coincidence, an unrelated event: on Saturday my mother announced that I needed a new pair of sneakers. If we were still where I spent my early youth, that would have meant a few blocks walk to Molly's Shoe Store, an old-style emporium with footwear shelved floor to ceiling, plus a back room that held even more stock. That was a fascinating place, already somewhat stuck in time. But no, we were in the suburbs, so I assumed that meant a trip to a shopping center, and a clean, well-kept and generally uninteresting store, maybe even part of a chain like Thom McAn or Kinney's.
Instead, though, my mother drove the Dodge Coronet into the older part of town. It was, like my home city, a bit rundown and would continue in that downward direction as the heavy industrial plants in the immediate area closed down one by one. This was about as close as there was to the downtown area in which we once shopped when we lived in the city. It included an old-style supermarket at one end and a men's clothing shop at the other end. There was also a relatively large furniture store, a pharmacy, a hardware store, an abattoir (which you could smell at a considerable distance from time to time), and a non-trivial number of taverns.
And there was a "department store." If you're thinking of Sears at the time, or similar, back up a few decades fom there. This one sold only clothing as far as I remember, and its demographic was definitely the working class that staffed the nearby factories. It had wooden floors, narrow aisles, and product from floor to ceiling, reminiscent of Molly's Shoe Store but with more variety. I couldn't decide whether the place was organized or not. School uniforms were alongside jeans which were next to long johns. Glass displays were filled and merchandise was stacked high enough atop them that I was afraid to sneezeŚnot easy considering how much dust was around.
This store had its share of, let us say, interesting personalities. It was very much a family business, and at least two generations worked there. The man who I believe actually ran the place also sold shoes, and so we made our way to the middle back of the store where there were four seats, two shoe ramps on which you put your feet at an angle to be fitted and one shoe sizer on which your foot was measured.
My foot was measured and within a couple of minutes I was presented with several different styles and brands of sneakers from which to choose. Or perhaps I should say my mother was presented with those choices.
"Try this one first," she decided, opting for the lowest priced pair. They were cheap and they looked it.
The right sneaker was laced on by the salesperson and I was instructed to walk a couple of steps.
"Does it fit OK?" the salesperson asked.
"Not really, it's too tight." I could also tell from just those few steps that it had about the same support as the cardboard box it came in.
Off came that first choice. The second selection didn't look much better. I tried it on anyway. Also too tight and felt like it would fall apart if it got wet.
My mother was already losing patience. "What was wrong with that one?"
"Perhaps he needs a larger size," the salesperson suggested.
I didn't need a larger size. I needed a sneaker I would like. I hadn't been paying much attention to the boxes that the sneakers came in, but then I noticed one brand: Converse.
Wait, Converse, like "Cons"?
Is that what the big kid in the playground meant?
The salesperson was about to gather up all of the boxes to exchange them for a larger size. I knew that meant that he would bring out the ones I didn't like again and then I would have no option but to take the cheap ones.
"Can I try on those?" I pointed to the Converse pair.
"Sure, if you want."
"No, he doesn't want to. They are too expensive," my mother retorted.
"You get what you pay for, though," the salesperson defended.
I grabbed the box and put one on. These were not nearly the same style I was used to. They were "high-tops" which went way past my ankle. I later learned that they had been developed for basketball players, a couple of decades after basketball itself was invented. Not knowing this then was yet another example of a sheltered life.
My mother's budget number was safe. This Converse sneaker felt funny in a different way. I didn't think I would be happy wearing it.
So back went the salesperson with the previous stack of shoes, and out he came from the stockroom with a new selection a size larger. This time I recognized a green and white box and a name: PF Flyers. I didn't know this then either, but the "PF" stood for Posture Foundation, which made the insole more comfortable. All I remembered about them is that I had a pair from Molly's Shoe Store, and I liked them, until one day they mysteriously disappeared after I was told that I had outgrown them.
"I want to try these on first," pointing to the PF Flyers.
"How much do they cost?" my mother asked.
Fortunately, they weren't much more than the off-brand sneakers which, as I feared, were also available in the larger size. My mother aquiesced.
I tried one on and found it fit better, which was verified by the salesperson. "There's enough room in it for him to grow but he won't get blisters in the meantime." That made my mother happy as it would delay the next trip to buy sneakers by at least a few months. I put on the other one, which also fit, and that made the sale. I was allowed to wear them right out of the store, so that I could start breaking them in immediately.
About two weeks later, our school class had a rare morning field trip. Better yet, we were allowed to diverge from the usual dress code and wear sneakers all day if we wanted to. Of course, I wanted to; I usually had to be threatened to be strangled with a tie before I would wear one. My almost brand new PF Flyers were my footwear of choice.
After we returned from the field trip, we were dismissed for lunchtime in the playground.
Who should be waiting for us, but the big kid, the Judger of Sneakers. With him was an entourage of five of his classmates. Some of us first graders had learned to simply walk away when he approached, but this wasn't going to happen when the first grader in question could be surrounded, or when a group of us could be as well.
I hoped they wouldn't notice that I was not wearing my usual shoes. The call on whether Buster Browns were superior to Thom McAn had not yet occurred to him.
And of course, I was not only not ignored...
"Hey, you've got NEW SNEAKERS!!!"
...I was first.
Quickly he and his posse corralled me right near a corner of the playground fence.
"What do we have here..."
Certainly not Converse, I realized.
And they didn't look like Converse, either, so they weren't Fake Cons.
Which left only one possibility. I prepared for the taunting.
The big kid took a long look, walking all the way around me. He stopped for a moment at the back of my feet, where the trademark of the brand I had picked was displayed.
"Hey, PF Flyers!" he announced without a hint of derision. "Those are alright!"