Old Soles

For Darryl Campbell, tossing out an old pair of sneakers is like throwing away the only witness to places he’s traveled.


I’m not used to paying much attention to shoes. Until the age of 19 or so, I thought that I could make it through life with a pair of no-name tennis shoes from Payless and some hand-me-down Oxfords from my dad. My sartorial stubbornness left my feet decidedly unhip — I have never owned any Doc Martens, Chuck Taylors, Air Jordans, Pumas, Birkenstocks or Crocs — and, once, it even cost me an upgrade to a business-class airplane seat: sneakers, it turns out, are not allowed outside of coach.

In the hyper-competitive, over-intellectualized world of Harvard, though, it was simply impossible to remain agnostic about footwear. Because no one really stood out from the rest of the class based on academic merit alone, and because no one (or almost no one) wanted to be so nakedly elitist as to judge people based purely on the size of their monthly allowance from mom and dad, one’s tastes — in music, in literature, and especially in clothes — determined one’s social standing. In the first week of my freshman year, I got alternately complimented on my New Balances (a gift from my aunt: I’d provided my shoe size, she picked out the brand) and mocked because my beat-up dress shoes were a shade or two lighter than my “dress” belt. For someone who had up until that point considered shoes based only on how well they fit, this was a lot to take in.

Over the next four years, I listened to, and took part in, a good many conversations about shoe-related topics, from George Costanza’s infamous Timberlands to the merits of boat shoes. I read about the rebirth of the “sneakerhead” and made my fair share of comments about the combination of Uggs and miniskirts. But mostly, I hoped that the shoes with which I’d entered college would stay together, if only to save me from the crippling anxiety of shoe shopping in such a cultural minefield.

Of course, they didn’t. And, midway through my junior year, I found myself at — where else — a Payless at the CambridgeSide Galleria, staring at the Men’s 10 ½ rack, determined to get something a bit trendier than a pair of generic white tennis shoes.

I suppose I succeeded. I walked out of the store about $30 poorer but with my first pair of “casual shoes,” black and white canvas lace-ups from Payless’s in-house brand, American Eagle (not to be confused with the Outfitters of the same name). I didn’t feel as if I’d had some kind of fashion epiphany, but at least I knew that I was no longer the guy who only wore athletic shoes every day.

After five good years together, those poor shoes are on the verge of falling apart. Their bottoms are full of holes, the canvas is torn in several places, and whenever I wear them in the rain, my feet get completely soaked. I’ve clung to them long enough: it’s time to say goodbye.

It’s a well-deserved stereotype that men don’t like to give up on clothes, and I’m no exception. About a third of my socks either already have holes in them, or are a wash or two away from getting them (and that isn’t even the most embarrassing thing about my wardrobe). But it’s more than pure cussedness — and certainly not a retroactive fashion sense — that keeps me from throwing my old shoes away.

It has, after all, been an eventful half-decade for me, and whereas my passport, my Facebook profile, and my credit report document present a public record of my life, this pair of shoes has borne silent witness to all the ways in which my life has changed. They have outlasted a dozen apartments, several girlfriends, and four jobs. I wore them on my twenty-first birthday, on the day that I first arrived in England for my year studying abroad, and on the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. They have touched the ground of six countries and twenty-one states: I’m still fairly certain that sand from the Kuwaiti desert and dirt from the Louisiana bayou are commingling in a wrinkle somewhere.

So to call them my “favorite” shoes would be to understate my attachment to them. They are not mere things: they’re objects of record, memory triggers, the footwear equivalent of Proust’s famous madeleine. Which means that to throw them down the garbage chute in my apartment is just as daunting now as picking them out in the first place was.

During a late-night, soul-searching conversation, one of my roommates in college said that possessions don’t define him, and shouldn’t define us. This kind of mantra pops up in a lot of places, from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism to the sidebar commentaries of lifestyle magazines. And it’s appealing enough, in theory: each of our possessions has a way of weighing us down, until, Gulliver-like, we’re tied down by a thousand little threads. Who wouldn’t want the freedom to pick up and move, wherever and whenever the mood strikes?

Still, in practice I’ve never quite gotten there. No matter how hard I might wish otherwise, things accumulate meaning. Sometimes, it comes from outside: brands, endorsements, cultural cachet in general, and although it might work for makers of counterfeit handbags, I don’t find too much appeal in that kind of “meaning.”

But occasionally, meaning comes from where we take our stuff and what we do with it, and it builds up so gradually that you don’t even notice your attachment until it’s too strong to break.

Photo by Simon Pais

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.