Monday, December 25, 2006

It's Gotta Be The Shoes

First of all…fuck Michael Jordan! I don’t really mean that, I guess. But the hater in me does. I’ve heard it said that Michael Jordan played basketball better than anyone has ever done anything. That is an arguable point to be sure. But how many people in the history of humankind would even qualify for the argument. That’s pretty rarified air (pun intended – please excuse). After all, he was so good at what he did that he has become the gold standard – or platinum standard, if you will -- of greatness. “(fill in the blank) is the Michael Jordan of (fill in the blank).” And that’s what I’m musing about this Christmas.

I never owned a pair of Air Jordans. Not as a kid. Not ever. It seems a little silly on some level. I’ve always wanted a pair…real bad.

I was thirteen years old when the first Jordans hit the market and changed everything. Until then, the pinnacle of must have ghetto shoedom for me were shell toe Adidas. They cost about sixty bucks. I owned a pair. They were white on white. I wore them for the first day of school in sixth grade even though it rained that day. I had been planning that outfit for a week and neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night was going to keep me from making my desired first impression on the niggas at Jackie Robinson Intermediate School.

Yes, I had MY A-DI-DAS! Before that I had blue on grey suede Pumas. I wore those with the fat laces. Before that I had burgundy canvas Keds that I hooked up with burgundy and white laces, checkerboarded to the most precise standards. The relationship between a nigga and his kicks is a ridiculously precious thing.

I still clean my sneakers with a toothbrush – not the one I use on my teeth, but a toothbrush nonetheless. As I consider the obsessive quality of dipping a toothbrush in mild soap and water in order to keep my dogs white, I take some solace in the fact that -- at the very least -- I no longer walk the streets with a toothbrush in my back pocket ready to address any scuff or smudge.

Yes, I always did and always will love my sneaks. That’s just the way it is. But I never owned a pair of Jordans.

I remember when they hit the market at the then astronomical price of $100. I remember all the adults around me scoffing at the exorbitant cost. I remember my mother telling me stories of kids being killed in the streets for their Jordans. I remember the coolest of the rich kids at Polytechnic Preparatory Country Day School having Jordans. I remember all the kids in my neighborhood who’d made all the “wrong” choices having Jordans. But I never had no muthafuckin’ Air Jordans.

I remember my moms, in her bedroom on the phone, talking to my godmother…or my aunt…or somebody…borrowing the money she needed to pay for me to go to Poly Prep. And I remember not having the heart to ask her for $100 to buy no muthafuckin’, stupid-ass Air Jordans. But I wanted those muthafuckas…real bad.

Since then, I’ve grown up. And the man I’ve become could’ve – at some point, I guess – bought some Jordans. I mean, my cellphone cost me more than some Jordans ever would. And I’ve bought a pair for my nephew. (Had to make sure he was stylin’ as he walked into his new high school.) But they’d come to represent something more for me over the years. I’ve never bought a pair for myself.

Somehow, I’d convinced myself that they were not for me, that I’m better off shopping off the “CLEARANCE” part of the wall in the sneaker store. “After all, I’m not some young’un tryin’a impress the girls,” I thought. I had better things to do with my money than buy some Jordans. But I always stopped to check out the latest as I browsed. Deep inside the man I’d become, the boy in me still wanted some Jordans…real bad.

“I’ll buy some of his sneakers when he pays to see one of my movies,” I’d scoff, struggling to puff my chest out. I would reason and rationalize my way past them, fighting the po’ boy complex in me, fighting the sadness of a kid who felt it was so basically un-fucking-fair that, for all that he tried to do right, everybody in the goddamn world seemed to have some Jordans except him. I tried to stifle the lingering ache of inadequacy that swirled in my gut as I tried to dress up the team sneakers we bought for varsity basketball. I wanted some Air Jordans as a boy…and as a man…but I never got them.

Mrs. NMN knows all about my po’ boy complex. She knows all about the house I wanted to buy my moms, my way of saying thanks for toiling and borrowing and saving and scraping to send a nigga to private school. She knows all about the crushing regret that engulfed me when my mother died before I could crack the Hollywood nut that was supposed to make all that possible. Mrs. NMN knows that I’ve bought her a Coach bag worth way more, but that I’ve never been able to bring myself to buy myself no muthafuckin’, stupid-ass Air Jordans.

“Close your eyes,” Mrs. NMN grinned on Christmas morning. I did. A box was placed in my hands. I opened my eyes to see that familiar and elusive silhouette. I opened the box to find my first pair of Air Jordans.

It is fucking goofy as hell that it meant so much to me. It really is. But I had to leave the room to compose myself. I couldn’t let the entire gathered family see the tears in my eyes. I couldn’t fully explain what it meant to me that after all these years of “right” choices that I’d finally reached the most absurdly ghetto promised land anyone could imagine. I couldn’t explain why I seriously considered keeping those pristinely white sneakers in that box forever, aware that the moment I wore them they might get scuffed…might get smudged…might be any less perfect than they were in that box on Christmas morning. I doubted that anyone could possibly understand why that gift, as much as any I’d ever received, said, “I know you”…said, “I love you.”

A pair of sneakers…given to a grown-ass man…You would think there’d be better ways to sum up a life struggle. You would think there’d be better ways to celebrate success in high school…college…film school…career…marriage…family. You would think that twenty years after their introduction, the significance of a pair of Air Jordans would be diminished by the perspective of an adult who knows better than to believe that “It’s gotta be the shoes.” You would be wrong.

A pair of sneakers…given to a grown-ass man…unlocked a lifetime of memories. A pair of sneakers…given to a grown-ass man…was a soothing salve on wounds that have festered for twenty years. A pair of sneakers…given to a grown-ass man…

Mrs. NMN is the Michael Jordan of wives.

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