They say you always remember your first.
For me, it was the Nike Air Max 90 that started it all.
We were somewhere in Manhattan. Perhaps along 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen.
The storefront was small, but the window display blew my 13-year-old mind: Dozens of pairs of shrink-wrapped sneakers, each emblazed with a neon sticker boasting a monstrous price reduction. These sneakers were begging to be bought, and I wanted each and every pair. A sneaker addict was born.
As I gazed into the window, aware for the first time that sneakers could be cool, my parents must have seen something illuminate inside my soul. We entered. Every fiber of my being told me this was my chance, an opportunity to finally own a coveted pair of high-end sneakers, which until this point, my parents had shielded me from.
But who were they protecting? Me from the absurdity of material objects or themselves from financial hardship?
Silver Boomers have never been able to wrap their heads around expensive sneakers. And in the late 80s/early 90s, when sneakers could still be had for an inflationary $20, the thought of spending over $100 for a pair of shoes that would inevitably wear out, was Crazy Town, USA.
Maybe that’s why all my shoes came from Fayva.
The footwear chain, which dominated the northeast, carried their own line of low-end, low-fashion footwear. But as the years went on, I recall them having “real” brands such as Kangaroos and Puma. I never hid my feet under my school desk or on a public bus, but these junky shoes didn’t propel my confidence.
“You’ll go far in Fayvas,” boasted the joyful tagline.
“No, no, you will not,” I shouted at my Zenith TV set.
I wasn’t completely deprived. Somewhere along the way, I did acquire a pair of Air Jordan 1s, the style with the black toe. They were released in 1985, but I didn’t have them until around 1988, when they were probably purchased from Filene’s Basement, where outdated fashion went to die, and suburban moms stalked for discounts. I’m sure they were marked down. And I should have been grateful, but those lessons in gratitude did not kick in until years later.
For me, I don’t think “fancy” sneakers were about status or vanity, at least not at the beginning–my burning desire centered around the iconic air bubble. It was about optimizing my sports performance and looking for an edge that would fuel my competitive side. If I could run faster and jump higher, I needed these sneakers. Logic dictated that the extra “air” would enhance performance; it was scientifically validated! Wow, what a marketing masterstroke.
That day, standing in the narrow aisle of that NYC sneaker store, my hopes and dreams were answered.
I did the obligatory try-on, walking five paces in the Nike Air Max 90s, and realized it was destiny. My teenage life would end if these kicks did not make their way back to Queens on my feet.
I begged and I pleaded and I won.
The Air Max 90 was coming home with me.
I don’t remember how the negotiations went down, but that feeling of victory, the satisfaction of wearing the Air Max out of the store while my old Fayvas were placed in their orange casket of a Nike box, felt like winning Olympic gold.
But now, this story shifts from childhood glory to adult obsession.
Perhaps my parents were protecting my finances more than their own because this was a pivotal afternoon in my life–it was the day that my sneaker addiction began.
I had my first taste of premium footwear, and I was hungry for more.
The balance of art and sport and self-expression all came together, cascading over me, pushing me head over heels for sneakers. But just because my parents gave me the green light on that fateful day didn’t mean I’d get the go-ahead for future pairs of sneakers. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They had scratched my itch and lived up to their end of the deal, so why go down that expensive road again?
Any name-brand sneakers that I wanted in the future would be mostly bought on my own dime. Perhaps that’s why I, like so many other Gen-Xers, go into a sneaker-buying frenzy when they finally have the disposable income to buy the shoes they want at will, with nothing more than their parents’ distant voice echoing in their head. Well, maybe an annoyed spouse, too.
Let’s look at a few of the pairs of footwear that make the Drewography Sneaker Hall of Fame.
Have you ever had an item of clothing or a piece of art or other material objects that just made you happy when you saw it? That’s the only way I can describe my aqua blue and neon yellow Converse X-Hi that could be worn as a hi-top sneaker or mega-hi canvas boot.
The vibrant colorway, coupled with the ability to convert into two completely different types of footwear, checked all of my boxes. These knee-high Chucks that extended midway up my calf were killer with tapered Bugle Boy pants and a roomy BUM Equipment sweatshirt. It was a sad day when the sneakers wore out beyond repair and took on that icky stench that only canvas Converse can. RIP X-Hi.
Ponys and Pumas and Thrift Stores
During my years taking the subway to see Nirvana, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and tons of other 90s alt-rock bands, I had more velvety, suede sneakers than you can shake a stick at. I’d replace the included laces with something funky and “X” them all the way to the top. Since I was cutting my jeans short and hiking up my argyle socks about chest-high, my sneakers tended to get a lot of attention. All fashion trends come back around, though this one, I’m not sure will ever see the light of day again.
And not all of my socks were argyle. One pair was traded with Wilco Hagen, a Swedish(?) counselor who worked at a sleepaway camp I attended one summer. Why I thought these green socks with black elephants were cool–I can’t say.
I also had a brown suede pair of Pro-Keds that I was quite proud of. And Velcro black and gray Pumas I wore during my first week working for VH1.
The bottom tread of these sneakers was deep, almost bordering on a soccer cleat with narrow spikes placed close together. The last thing in the world you would want to do in sneakers like these is step into a steaming pile of fresh dog shit, which is what I promptly did. Standing on the train platform, using a used popsicle stick I found in the trash to clear out the dog poop, is still a memory that is etched into my brain. In fact, it’s still so close, that I almost dry heaved typing this up.
Another memorable pair of sneakers from this time were a pair of pre-owned Adidas shell top knock-offs. I nabbed them for $5 at a Salvation Army store in Astoria, Queens. But they were the classic white and black–boring! So I spray painted them black with silver stripes and black laces. They held up surprisingly well!
Nike Air Max Triax 96
These USA colorway sneakers were a big-budget purchase made at Modell’s Sporting Goods, where I worked part-time. Navy blue and maroon and white with hints of gold, I still feel like these sneakers look modern and relevant today. As a rule, I don’t do matching sneakers or matching shirts with anyone. But I made an exception for these sneakers, making it the only time that I was willing to have the same sneakers as my wife.
Also a result of an early 90s trade, I came to own a pair of Reebok Pumps. They were black and green and purple, and so beautifully ugly, that I would kill to have them back today. The only thing more bullshitty than the Nike airbag was the Reebok Pump. But allowing the wearer to control the amount of air they needed was a clever marketing ploy.
The Cole Haan Years
For over a decade, I would only wear Cole Haan shoes to work. We can also refer to this time as The Corporate Cog Years. And you can also call me a shoe snob. But when you graduated from old school Florsheim shoes, where the shock of every step travels up your spine like the puck on a high striker strongman carnival game, you embrace the shock absorption. I spent more time than I’d like to admit trolling stores like Nordstrom Rack to get Cole Haan on sale because unless you were at the outlet, these shoes could easily run you $200. But the ability to wear a shoe that feels like a sneaker to work…priceless.
Nike Cortez – 2001
One pair of sneakers that hold a special place in my heart, because as we already know that I fall in love with inanimate objects, are my Nike Cortez.
They were so bright white that I thought about walking in dirt and grass before wearing them to work for the first time. But I put them on, shiny and new. The sky was so blue, you could see forever. The air was crisp, just the way late summer intended.
And then planes flew into buildings, and I was forced to put more miles on those sneakers than I would have ever expected. These are my 9/11 sneakers. I will never forget the feelings from that day or my walk over the 59th street bridge, but I keep these sneakers for nostalgia. I wasn’t even mad at them for the blisters they forced on me. I was probably too numb to care.
The Importance of Sneakers
Sneakers have always been a status symbol. From Armenians in caves or ancient Romans at the Forum–heck, even the Ice Man wore deer-hide shoes. And this symbolism was further propelled when Converse brilliantly started using basketball players to hawk their gear. But let’s not lose sight that good shoes can also help keep your feet healthy.
I’ll never forget walking into the podiatrist’s office and him telling me that he was going to call an ambulance. Apparently, my big toe was infected. It was so bad that he showed me an X-ray of my bone corroding. This situation resulted from getting my foot hammered down on thousands of times while moshing in the mud at Woodstock ’94 and then ignoring all of the warning signs that something was wrong.
So young. So stupid.
I escaped serious injury. And the doctor gets a shout out here because he echoed a message I had heard previously from my dad, “Invest in good footwear and swap out your shoes regularly.”
Music to my addict ears. I needed to buy better sneakers? And more of them? Yes, please!
I’ve never looked back. Sneakers have always played a role in my life. I have sneakers for walking, running, running on a treadmill, playing tennis, walking the dog, playing pickleball, hiking, hiking in the winter, hiking in the rain, and on and on and on. Thanks to the rise of second-hand platforms such as Poshmark, Mercari and Offer Up, sneakers have turned into a full-blown commodity. For every five pairs I sell-off, I allow myself to buy one new pair. See, I have this completely under control–I am a sneaker addict…in recovery…kinda.