I remember the first cool pair of shoes I ever bought. In August 2011, I wandered into NikeTown Seattle after my shoes fell apart on a family vacation. I was your classic eighth grade wannabe athlete: I made the track team (there were no cuts), wore basketball shorts to school (I didn’t play ball), and my parents’ friends could call me “young man” with only a hint of irony. I joined the high school swim team because my friends were doing it, then preceded to skip half the preseason workouts because I knew I’d look slow next to them. I wore the same pair of shoes 24/7 until the soles cracked and tongues split, then replaced them. Full stop. In the eighth grade, caring about anything was uncool. But caring about how you looked? That was a cardinal sin, and I had a lunch table full of expectations to meet.
I remember looking around at a wall of running shoes and searching for the exact same pair I was wearing. I remember not finding them. I also remember feeling immediately lost when the pair of generic blue-on-white Air Maxs I had on were suddenly – and permanently – out of reach.
I remember my mom’s ultimatum: I was not leaving without a shoe box. I had wandered a room lined wall-to-wall with shoes, declared I had found nothing, and headed toward the door. Her words halted all 130lbs of wannabe mid-step: my only escape was arbitrary choice. I wheeled toward a display of runners, ready to grab the first pair I saw – and then I saw them.
I remember the exact size, color, and shoe: Men’s Free Run 2.0s in Sport Red-Blue Glow, size 10. In fourteen years of life, those Free Runs were the coolest things I had seen. Time slowed down; light reflected differently off of these shoes. Cue West Side Story stage effects. I tried them on. A bored employee told me they liked the colorway; my mom wondered if I could keep them clean. Her passive disapproval was all the vote I needed. I wore the Free Runs out of the store.
In the two weeks between their purchase and my first day of high school, I cleaned my Free Runs twice. I was still a “young man” who wore basketball shorts (but didn’t play ball), but suddenly, I had cool shoes. So when I wore them to school in early September, I got made fun of by my other friends who were still rockin’ the blue-on-white trainers they had mowed lawns in all summer. I was asked if my mom picked them out. If I had gone soft over break. If I realized I was trying too hard.
But I didn’t care – imagine a new haircut mixed with your favorite song distilled into a shot of whiskey. I felt immense confidence no acne-ridden young man ever deserves to feel. For the first time, I felt fresh.
That feeling of freshness stuck with me for weeks to come. Fall became winter, the Blue Glow faded under December slush, and eventually I had to replace the shoes. By this point, my friends had even run out of clown shoe jokes! The stage was set. I had nothing to lose by buying something else just as fresh if not (audible gasp) even fresher.
When the moment came to bid my Free Runs adieu, I played by a whole new set of rules. I didn’t throw them out and buy the same pair: I spent hours trolling Nike.com for other Free Runs in other colorways, consulted a few sneaker blogs, and found the freshest ones on the market. I wasn’t dragged into my local Nike Store: my Free Run 3.0s in Gym Red-White shipped right to my house, on my terms. So when the cute sophomore at the marching band party told me she liked my shoes shortly before we exchanged numbers, it was me who had directly caused it. I stood out – but if I felt good and the ladies noticed, then I wasn’t going to stop standing out. Lunch table be damned: the pursuit of freshness was my life’s mission.
That fundamental realization – that I could stand out and flourish rather than fear the exposure – fueled me becoming a better person. I stood out because I gave things in my life the attention they deserved. To the chagrin of my lunch table and their blue-on-white Air Maxs, I realized I had to start caring in order to be fresh. I had to care about how I looked. I had to care about the relationships that mattered. I had to care about grades. I had to care about everything I found important. From the Flyknit Chukkas on my feet to the way I treated the bus driver, looking effortlessly fresh meant putting effort into the world.
Over the next two years, I pursued freshness at every turn. I browsed sneaker blogs until midnight, unless I had a big test the next day – because good grades are fresh.
I saved every cent I could to buy new pairs of shoes, unless my friends had upcoming birthdays – because showing the important people how important they are is fresh.
By the time I crossed the stage at graduation, I had gone from wannabe athlete to a conference medalist swimmer. I had positive relationships in my life that pushed me to be better, not a lunch table full of blue-on-white Air Maxs who sought to discourage my growth. I was off to the University of Michigan, one of the top public universities in the world.
My outlook on life had changed permanently for the better all because of some sneakers and the lust for freshness they had inspired. So when newscasters and politicians cast a negative light on young people who care about their shoes, I’m less hurt than I am disappointed.
Ignorant kids don’t clean Jordans with a toothbrush – ignorant kids bring down their peers who dare to be different. For every Sports Illustrated feature that equates sneaker culture with violence and fear, there’s a Yaovi Maluwi waiting to prove them all wrong. At age fourteen, a wannabe fell in love with fresh and never looked back. A young man now stands in his place, but the love of fresh remains.