Commentary By: Dean P. Johnson, Follow South Jersey Managing Editor
I’ll never forget my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. What’s-Her-Name, because her prominent overbite was always tinted red from the lipstick she abused. Sixth grade. When half of the kids are still playing with toys and the other half are starting to play with each other. Sixth grade. It was in the sixth grade when I first learned that hand-me-downs are the barometers to real friendship.
Art and I were best friends. We had known each other since we were around two and were inseparable. We would talk about everything: private things, personal things, and meaningful things like girls and parents and girls and school and, well, girls. We swore these talks were our property and no one else’s. We’d often find a place where no one was likely to find us, and a time when no one was likely to come looking, and communicate. For the odd possibility that someone might find us, we would strategize on what to do if interrupted. Readied was the banal topic to be interjected, as though that had been all we were talking about, completely baffling our intruder. And when it did happen, we pulled it all off so well. We made a great team.
It was Sunday night, long after the Wonderful World of Disney, but during the ABC Sunday Mystery Movie, which was always McCloud and never Colombo when I watched. My mother, young then, with hair so brown it was black, walked in the back door (We never used the front door, only company, even though it was closer to the car.) carrying two brown paper bags which said “Why Pay More—Shop Rite” on them. She had been visiting my grandmom and when I saw the bags, I knew it could only mean one of two things: tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, onions and egg plants from grandpop’s garden; or hand-me-downs from my older cousins. Since it was the middle of winter, I knew I was about to be bestowed with the most fanciful new clothes. And because my older brother was nowhere in sight, I’d get first choice, a truly rare occasion.
From the bag with the rip on the side from being overstuffed, my mother pulled out the most marvelous pair of shoes I had ever seen. Their soles were flat and smooth with just a small heal. The laces were striped in the colors green, red and white. The surface was bright and soft like felt. When she handed them to me I took them with pride as if I’d just won an award. I eagerly tried them on and even though they were only a little big on me, they were perfect. These would be the coolest things I had ever had. I’d show them. Them with their Puma, Adidas, Nike and I with my Pro-Keds. Them with their Wrangler, Lee, Levi and I with my Sears Toughskins. Now, tomorrow at school, I would show them all.
The next morning getting up was just a bit easier. No snooze button hitting or ceiling light flashing or Dad standing over the bed until my feet were on the floor. The alarm buzzed only seconds before my feet were on the floor. I dressed quickly then strutted out to the kitchen.
It must have been quite a hectic morning for my mother. Perhaps the electric fry-pan hadn’t worked or maybe the percolator didn’t perk. Whatever the reason it must have been big for Mom never once said a word to me. I kept waiting for the praise of how stunning my new shoes looked, but it never came.
As I leaped like a gazelle on league night to the bus stop, I couldn’t help but to strut with chin to chest gazing in awe down at the red, blue and white velvet wonders wrapping my feet. As I strode down the street, I anticipated the envy of everyone at the bus stop, especially Art. He’d be so impressed.
“Cool!” He’d say. “Where did you get them?”
“Whoa, are they those new one’s I’ve heard so much about?”
“Man, I gotta get a pair of those.”
But to my disappointment the conversations stuck to weekend math homework and somebody’s something-or-other.
Still, bouncing on the bus to school, I kept an eye on those sleek, fuzzy sensations. I was so excited. I still could not fathom why Art had not said anything. Even now as I lean back in the corner of my small back seat on the bus with my leg up on the cushion sticking the over-sized, multi-colored, velvet marvels out in the walkway, I was sure he’d see them. He kept glancing over and away. I couldn’t wait to get off that bus, though, it seemed neither could Art. He appeared so jittery. He looked more anxious than I did.
The moment we first stepped on that public school soil, Art darted for the group of boys who always leaned on the “cool wall.” Some days I hung around the “cool wall,” but rarely leaned. I usually stood by the wall and talked with all the guys. Some days, when our bus was early or when no one was on the wall yet, I’d lean. But as soon as they came, I was always usurped. Art laughed clumsily as he ran across the playground screaming, “The shoes! The shoes!”
I smiled because I wasn’t yet sure what was happening. But when the entire population of the cool wall broke free from their lean and sprinted directly toward me, there could be no mistaking it. They encircled me, laughing, mocking, humiliating, calling the girls over to witness. I smiled now because I wanted to cry.
Bowling shoes. They were bowling shoes. Here I am in the middle of my overweight, overbite, over-awkward stage of adolescence wearing crushed velvet bowling shoes to school.
I made it through the entire day with those shoes that beamed the bright colors of Italian nationalism. Now each time I glanced down on them they looked less like the magical transforming wonders that would propel me to new found popularity, and more like jumbo clown feet at King Pin Lanes. They made me sick. They also made me angry: Angry at my mom for bringing them home, angry at my aunt for handing them down, angry at my cousins because they’re just stupid and that’s all. But mostly angry at me because I knew the next day I would be standing by the “cool wall” again, laughing at comments I never found funny. I knew I would be walking with the crowd in the halls and to and from the busses. I knew I would act as though nothing at all had happened. I was angry with myself because I had failed to be angry with them.
Friendship is never having to say, “but it’s a hand-me-down.”
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