Sunday, October 18, 2009

Boat Shoes and Other Serious Concerns

My sophomore year of high school I went cold turkey on sneakers. We had a dress code at Deerfield--khakis and blazer--and I decided that my dirty New Balances were forcing me to do what I least wanted to do: stand out.

I switched them for Boat Shoes, a variation of which I have been wearing ever since.

Boat shoes were and are just so easy to slip on. As a tall man, I can't be bothered to involve my hands in the shoe-putting-on process. A wiggle of the foot is all I can muster, lest my auto-static hyper-tension (laymen's term: my fat man's headrush) kick into high gear.

Since I wear them in all conditions and not just on yachts, my boat shoes come untied a lot. This doesn't usually bother me; overzealous tying of one's shoes indicates an uncreative mind. I--thinking on the nuances of agri-business and the sex life of deposed Nepali princes--can't bend and bunny-loop just because society calls for it. And I have never once been sucked into an escalator.

(Shortly after writing that last sentence, I nearly tripped over a lace off the top step of an airplane staircase. This I believe to be both an irony (unexpected) and a coincidence ("a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent casual connection"). Isn't every coincidence ironic? Maybe not. Irony is something that is "deliberately contrary to what one expects." A coincidence can be something other than that, a sort of harmonizing that's not so much unexpected as it is semi-miraculous--the semi-miraculous being, in this semi-lovely world, not wholly unexpected).

I still hold that my near-trip off the airplane was "deliberately contrary" on account of the fact that I never freaking trip on my shoelaces. See Dave Eggers on this question of irony (pgs. 33 to 35 in "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making," which is itself in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius).)

And now back to live action.

I was talking about how I never get sucked into an escalator because of my untied loafers.

When it's a rainy day, though, and the leather of the laces turns wet and flaky, I do relent--ironically, my boat shoes don't take on water well. In these instances, I find the nearest stairwell and put one foot up on the railing in order to tie. In this contorted way, I maintain a gentleman's upright posture.

I will not bow to pressure. Most of the time.

This tying method may seem ostentatious to some, but, as I said, my initial decision to switch to the boat shoe came from a desire to fade into the background. My high school was very status-y and, since I didn't board there and was accepted primarily because my mother was an employee, I trended toward the lower class of students.

Us locals never flew to London for lunch, for instance, and couldn't afford the Ferragamo's of the elite.

My boat shoe choice wasn't an attempt to keep up with the Joneses, though, or a social-climb away from the sneaker wearers. I just wanted to be nondescript, of no class. It's not that I wanted to be deliberately unlike the goofy kids--I loved them--it's that I didn't want to be goofy myself.

Boarding school causes this kind of neurosis in a teenager, and I know now that thinking about this as much as I did--fashioning a non-identity--meant I was just as much a class-monger as the Vanderbilts I derided. But I don't want that Breakfast-Clubby moral to overwhelm the issue here.

And that issue is that after I switched from NBs to BS's, I became super-conscious of Matt Kelvis's bright-white sneakers. Matt was a decent-natured day student, very outgoing, very sporty. He ran from class to class for fun, so his Reeboks made sense, even if they looked silly with nice pants.

I compared myself to Matt pretty often. We'd been to elementary school together, and now here we were in fancy-town, trying to get by. He was a year ahead, and he'd been friendly in a sense, showing me some ropes, even as he was annoyingly unimpressed by how difficult those ropes were to traverse.

A been-there-done-that pose sometimes leads to empathy, but most often breeds contempt, and Matt had a laughing contempt for me, especially when it came to my saying-sorry-at-the-water-fountain discomfort with sophomore women.

It should have come as no surprise, then, when Matt told me that some girl told him that I "had no friends." This was a nasty thing for him to repeat, the sort of gossipy body blow that can define an entire teenage-hood.

My relative friendlessness hurt enough without me knowing that it was now fodder for lunchroom discussion. I blamed my shyness, my zits, and Matt himself (shouldn't he have been introducing me to these mythical girls he knew, to friends? In fact, wasn't he my friend?)

All I could think was, At least I don't wear those goofy bright-white sneakers.

A few years later, after he'd completed a triathlon, Matt Kelvis, who was beloved by many people in many ways, died of a heart attack. He was 23.

Matt was a buddy. He was always the wide-receiver to my quarterback at fourth grade recess. We shared quite a few jokes and, as it turned out, pined after the same circle of quite a few formerly sophomore girls. When I heard he had died, I was stunned, of course. But, though I'd long since forgiven the small thing he said to me so many years before, remembering him hurt me.

If I'd been asked at 7:30 if I liked the guy, I probably would have said "not all that much, no." At 7:31 he was suddenly dead and changing my mind didn't seem an appropriate tribute.

A good friend of mine was once punched hard in the face by a classmate who later died. My friend's mother wanted him to go to the wake and I think he did. The gesture meant something, I guess, but so did the punch in the teeth.

If I am to remember the dead in an enriching way, I can't just glorify. To make them real, I want to remember their lives as full speeches and not merely as sound bytes. Matt was good--sometimes troubled, sometimes cocky, sometimes kind, sometimes not.

Why should I forget the small descriptors that made the sentence that he was a unique read? I can't skim him.

I could say something here about the beauty of an imperfect heart. I'd rather talk about shoes, though. What I remember of Matt is small, maybe even petty; but the memory's breathing.

He had a mischievous laugh that took three inhales to get started. His bangs were as straight and black as a midnight interstate. The kind of guy who climbs out on a ledge before he's thought about why he shouldn't. He gets a rise out of me, Matt does, wears silly sneaks, will always be unashamed.


Joe said...

I like this tribute to the dead. A la Tobias Wolff's response to George Orwell's "better to die in your boots" misstep as a youngling.

You realize that the mere act of calling them Boat Shoes aligns you with a significant portion of the population called "Jimmy Buffet fans"?

Coincidence, karma, divine mischief, it's all in the same ballpark yeah. Whether it rains or shines on your wedding day, you can only see the weather as a confirmation. Of what? Whatever you need confirmed. Are we the center of the universe or aren't we? Of course we are. Of course we aren't.

Dave said...

Joe, we'll discuss Wolff, karma, landsharks, and hot brisket over hot brisket sometime this weekend.

Thanks for your patronage of Dr. True's Soup and Read.