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Lots of Soul Left on These Shoes

Personal Assets is an occasional feature about our Stuff.


I really don't think I ever got over the first horror. I was about 16, and I'd slunk out onto the service porch to do a load of dark colors.

There, lo and behold, resting near the top of the trash bags, tangled in a nest of old wire hangers, Essence and Time magazines, and my brother's paint-and-Testors-glue-sticky Revell model boxes, were my beloved sneakers, my Jack Purcells. A victim of spring cleaning. On their way to their last lap. Retired way, way, way before their time.

I shouldn't have been surprised. There'd been hints. Threats. Even arguments.

"You're not going to wear those outside of the house, are you?" my generally calm mother said, carefully edging into the question. (She preferred to reason things out of us rather than demand, but I wasn't biting. This would be a polite test of wills, since at that point I'd only had my beloved sneaks for about three or four years.)

They were a little scuffed up, sure. A couple of loose threads around the ankle. And the rubber had started to pull away from the side of the shoe, but . . . they were my first basketball shoes. Back before basketball shoes could fly.

Yes, I'm well aware that Purcells are truly tennis shoes. But I'd always been more fond of the extra rubber and that little blue smile at the toe tip. Mine were white, a counter to my dad's Chuck Taylor Converse low tops in black.

His had been displayed as long as I could remember hanging on a nail on the garage wall. They were his basketball shoe of choice through college and then later when he briefly coached and taught P.E. He'd take me down to the park, and we'd practice my dribble, my layup. I wasn't so great at either, but since my Dad is 6-foot-3 and at the time I measured in at 5-foot-9, I made ballet out of defense.

At the end of our session, we'd walk back home, where he'd hang his shoes back on the nail and I'd place mine on a shelf close by.

This had become our afternoon ritual, in the months after I'd been "discovered" by the varsity coach during a half-court game, throwing bricks no doubt at the link-chain net. Coach, though, saw what those types like to call potential--(which translates into a vision he had of a 17-year-old 6-footer). Whatever the reason, the thinking behind it, my father, no question, was dedicated to our trips up and down the asphalt.

I had dreams. It would be me, the daughter, who would catch the pass, take it down court. Shoot. Swoosh. Screams.

Well, that never did quite happen.

But the shoes survived. They followed me to college, where I had limited my workouts to more centering pursuits--swimming and yoga. By then the whole new wave-mod-punk fashion was in, and Converse became de rigueur within the liberal arts set. My Jack Purcells, however, gave me a certain edge because they were a smidge different from the Taylor high-top version (most popular) in screaming yellows, greens and reds.

I fell in, bought a pair of Taylors--low tops, just like my Dad's, in basic black. But I never was as attached to them as I was to my Jacks.

Which puts us back in front of the trash bag.


Snatching them out, I headed straight to the culprit, who is sitting feigning innocence. Reading, nonetheless.

"How did these get in there?" I asked, in that way that 16-year-old girls question their mothers.

With my left hand, I thrust the shoes toward her; with my right thumb, I jabbed at the general direction of the service porch.


"I'm waiting. . . ."

"I'd thought that you meant for them to be thrown away when I saw them out there. . . . Didn't you buy new ones? . . ."

"No, I wanted to wash them. . . ."

"I don't think they're going to make it through a wash, baby," she said, in her most sober-lined-with-compassion voice. Like the one she used when my goldfish died and I thought it was just sleeping.

Of course they'll make it through! They always do!

And they did. The Purcells graduated with me. They went into a master's degree program with me. They went to work with me (on weekends, of course). The shoes had juice of their own. People sent me postcards of that famous James Dean shot with him in horn rims and sweater resting his tattered Purcells on table just right of center of the frame. They looked startlingly like mine.

And once in a photography class we were told to "create an autobiography through images." They shouldn't be of us but, rather, should tell about us. That afternoon I snapped it: Portrait of An Artist and Her Old Shoes.

A couple of years ago, Jack Purcells made a splashy comeback. Men wore them with pressed khakis and big sweaters; women with flowery sundresses long and short. I pulled mine out--they had now turned the color of old bones and newspapers. I put them on with sweater and jeans for an afternoon of movies.

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