I like to wear jeans and running shoes (some people still call them sneakers). But one spring day as I walked down Broad Street I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to have on a pair of dress slacks and leather shoes. There was no way to have known that I would run into Drake. If you know Drake you will know that this a true account of two brothers from another time feasting on the delicious realities of yesteryear.
As Drake and I stood in front of what used to be McCrory's five and dime store, a young man swayed past us with his pants falling below his hips with the crotch settling somewhere between his knees. Every two or three steps he had to grab his beltless waistband to pull them up. With his “Fruit of the Looms” in full view he rocked from side to side uttering obscenities at every third word that crossed his lips which gripped a cigarette. Drake looked at me and I returned his bewildered gaze, we shook our heads in unison and we began: “What’s wrong with them?” “What happened to their self respect?”
I had the usual responses about loss of community pride, children raising children, fallen standards and failed leadership. Drake, however, was having none of that. He reduced the problem and its solution to four words, “Shoes man, it’s shoes.” “Shoes,” I said, “What do shoes have to do with it?” Then he took me on an intellectual excursion that could only be led by a brother from yesteryear.
“If we take these young boys out of those sneakers, stuff would straighten up,” said Drake. “We need to get them to put on some shoes.”
I was stunned with humor. I thought I had left reality. But Drake persisted and his reasoning was fascinating. Here goes: When we were young men we wore shoes. Sneakers were for athletic activities. We would not have been caught wearing sneakers unless we were on the way to the playground or a gym. On all other occasions, we wore shoes. We wore split toes. Winged tips, double winged tips and even biscuit toes…we wore shoes. But it wasn’t just the shoes. It was the Italian Knit shirt and the Banlon shirts. We were hooked-up when we rolled out. And when we were hooked up we had to behave accordingly. Even our walk had to be cool enough to match our shoes.
I thought hard as Drake spoke and looked directly into his eyes to be sure that he was not pulling my leg. He was dead serious. He talked about the creases in our pants, cuff links and alligator belts with passion. He even extolled the virtue of the velour hats and flat caps that we wore. But he kept coming back to the shoes. He reminded me that the brothers were serious about our kicks (shoes). Keeping your kicks ragged was essential. In fact one of the first things that you checked out when you met a brother was his shoes.
Now there was more than one dress set in the neighborhood. We started to notice it when we hit our teens. On one set tailor made four button waffle-weave suits from Wolmuth’s gave way to three button suits with vests from Jack Briedbart and other New York Ivy League outlets. And cardigan sweaters took the place of Italian knits and Banlons. And though biscuit toes made room for loafers and dessert boots, shoes were still important. The loafers were always shined and dessert boots were clean. “Even buckle in the back pants and chinos required creases,” Drake reminded me.
After all this reminiscing Drake had become quietly livid as we stood there, his own shoes glowing in the sunlight. We looked again deeply into each others eyes before we parted. I walked north, he walked south. I looked down at my shoes which were neither stylish nor shined. I wondered for a second if Drake had not been chastising me for abandoning the creed. I dismissed the thought as I considered the seriousness of his theory. I was worried though. Could we be missing something so simple yet so critical? Could limiting the wearing of sneakers play a major role in restoring civic pride?
Then I remembered my father and how well he dressed every Sunday as he prepared to assume his role as Chairman of the Deacon Board of our church. Blue striped suit, crisp white shirt that my mother had starched and ironed. His selection of ties was creative but his shoes, boy were they shined—sometimes I shined them. Those shoes and the shoes of every other man in the church were dazzling with glow. Drake was haunting me now.
I pressed on with memories of my pops who near the end of his life had become the smartest man in the world that I knew. I remembered how his jackets no longer matched his trousers and his plaid shirts matched neither and his straw hat was completely out of place in the fall. I asked him about his clothing discord. He said, “Son, the older you get the more you realize what is really important. It’s not what’s on your back, it’s what’s in your heart and head.”
With that I could put Drake in perspective. I could also enjoy my walk in the sun with my dusty shoes.
I do find myself looking at shoes more than before my encounter with Drake. But each time I see an old gent in the hood with a checked shirt, polka dot tie and a suit made of that fabric I personally choose to forget, I say thank God for freedom and long live polyester.
September 13, 2007