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My sophomore year of high school I went cold turkey on sneakers. We had a dress code at my well-heeled high school, and I decided that my dirty New Balances were forcing me to do what I least wanted to do in high school: stand out. I switched them out for boat shoes, a variation of which I have been wearing ever since. Beyond the anonymity they offered, I did this mostly for the ease. 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, and by avoiding bending, I avoid my auto-static hypertension (otherwise known as fat man's headrush).
Since I wear them in all conditions and not just on deck (in fact, never on deck), my boat shoes come untied a lot. This doesn't usually bother me. Overzealous tying of one's shoes indicates an uncreative mind, and I — mulling the nuance 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 can proudly tell you, and my mother, that I have never once been sucked into an escalator.
When it's a rainy day, though, and the leather of the laces turns wet and flaky, I do relent to tying—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 maintain my sartorial rectitude. This tying method may seem ostentatious to some, but, as I've said, my initial decision to switch to the boat shoe came from a desire to fade into the background. My high school — with its fancy boarders and jet-setting pre-bankers—was very status-y, and I trended toward the lower class of students. Us locals never flew to London for lunch and we couldn't afford the Ferragamo's of the elite. So, I figured it was best to be nondescript. My boat shoe choice wasn't an attempt to keep up with the Joneses, nor was it a way to distinguish myself from the sneaker-wearers. I just didn't want to be snobby or tacky (though if I had to pick one, give me tacky, give me those sneaks, give me some tangerine suspenders).
A pause here to discuss tackiness. Does the word always have a class connotation? I didn't know then, but boarding school causes this kind of neurosis in a teenager: I asked, "Am I somewhat classy, somewhat passable?" Instead of, "Am I somewhat myself?" Thinking about this as much as I did—fashioning a non-identity—meant I was just as much an enforcer of the caste system as the Vanderbilts I derided.
So after I switched from sneakers to Sebago's, I became super conscious, in a haughty way, of Matt Decker's bright-white sneakers. Matt Decker 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 khaki pants and a blue blazer. I'm not like that guy, I thought, and in some ways I was glad and in other ways envious. In fact, I compared myself to Matt pretty much every day. We'd been to elementary school together, and now here we were in Fancy-Town, trying to get by, so he was a good measuring stick. How was he doing with the ladies? Better than me? Was he fitting in with the blue-bloods? Did I even want to? Why did he think he could get away with cargo shorts and a tie? Come on, Matt, you can do better than that.
He had some of the same disdain for me. We'd come from the same elementary school, the same neighborhood, but Matt was a year ahead of me, a recent immigrant glad to see a newer guy roll in to take some of the heat off. So even though he showed me some of the ropes, he was annoyingly unimpressed by how difficult those ropes were for me to traverse, and he liked to point out the ways that I wasn't quite getting along at our new school. He knew what it was like to be a flailing freshman, but instead of empathizing, he had a giggly contempt for my loneliness, especially when it came to my apologies-at-the-water-fountain discomfort with sophomore women.
It should have come as no surprise, then, when Matt told me that Christine Marcus 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 it was fodder for lunchroom discussion. I blamed my shyness, my shoes, my skin, 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 sneakers. Tacky."
A few years later, after we'd graduated and after he'd completed a very long bike race, Matt Decker, who was beloved by many people in many ways, died of a heart attack at 23. Matt had been a half-buddy, so when I heard he'd died, I was stunned. He was always the wide-receiver to my quarterback at fourth grade recess after all. And we'd shared a bunch of inside jokes. As it turned out, we'd even pined after the same circle of quite a few formerly sophomore women. But though I thought I'd forgiven the small, mean thing he'd said to me seven years before, remembering him still hurt me. Maybe we should be able to smudge out all those small slights when someone dies, but his crack about my unpopularity was my primary memory of him. Had I been asked at 7:30 if I liked the guy, I would have said "not all that much, no." At 7:31, he was dead, and changing my mind didn't seem like an honest tribute.
A good friend of mine once got 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. That gesture meant something, but so did the punch in the face.
To remember Matt in a personal way, I couldn't canonize him. To make him real, I tried to think of him as a whole speech not just a sound bite. Matt was full — sometimes troubled, sometimes cocky, sometimes kind, sometimes not. He had a mischievous laugh that took three inhales to get started, like a motor turning over. His bangs were as straight and black as a midnight interstate. He is the kind of guy who would stand up in the back of a pickup truck before thinking about why he shouldn't. He gets a rise out of me, Matt does, wears snowy-white sneakers, will always be unashamed. I'm not like that guy, I used to think.
This iteration of D.W. Martin is a fake person imagined by a real person who teaches school in Ohio and has many other vague characteristics by which you'll probably not be able to identify him. His work has appeared in [redacted], [redacted], and Quarter After Eight.
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