Chicken soup for the sole

One very clear memory from my early childhood is idolizing a kid in my class named Brendan Usher.

He was taller and faster and better at sports than anybody in my grade: y’know, all the shit that makes one 7-year-old kid the coolest in his peer group.

This was a good 25 years ago at least, but I also remember that he seemed to always have cool sneakers. And that definition of “cool” really just meant he had brand-name shoes: Nike and Reebok, rather than the decidedly non-designer stuff I ran around the schoolyard and cricket field in.

At that same time I was growing into an NBA fan, which of course exposed me to more cool footwear on the likes of Shaq, Penny Hardaway and Michael Jordan. But as much as I begged my parents (well, my mother) for a pair of shoes with a swoosh on the side, they rightfully said no. Hell, my feet didn’t stop growing for another decade. Why burn perfectly good money on kicks that wouldn’t fit in six months’ time?

But one summer, during school vacation before the start of fourth grade, my mother finally acquiesced and bought me a pair of Nike runners that were, as I recall, steeply discounted.

I was so excited that I wanted to write Brendan Usher a letter telling him about them. This was 1994, when pen-to-paper was about the only medium of communication I had easy access to.

And one more anecdote about those shoes that will never be lived down: after the first time I wore them, I got home, took them off and cleaned every inch of them, soles included. My family still gives me shit about that one.

That seemingly innocuous set of memories has bounced around in my consciousness more and more over the past few years alongside an ever-growing sneaker habit that, surreally, crescendoed into securing employment at one of the biggest footwear store chains in the country.

I think my love for kicks was reignited in 2009, after a 15-year hiatus, by a roommate who had a nice collection of classics that he’d wear in regular rotation: a pair of Nike Cortez in the OG colorway; clean adidas Stan Smiths with green trim; the iconic shell-toe Superstars popularized by Run-DMC in the ’80s that brought athletic footwear into mainstream pop culture for the first time.

As I started to advance in my career and earn a little more disposable income, my own sneaker collection started to grow, with Air Force Ones, Jordans and classic adidas models gracing my own closet. A wide range wasn’t as easy to come across in Australia, but mailbox catalog-cum-online retailer Eastbay provided international shipping both cheaply and quickly, so I was able to get my fix without too much hassle.

By the time I packed up and moved to the U.S. in mid-2013, I had a closet of shoes big enough that I simply couldn’t bring them all with me, and a lot went in the donation bins or just the dumpster. “Not getting attached to material things” really has been a hallmark of my last five or so years.

Immigrating smack-bang into the middle of a Maine winter meant I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to break out the remaining pairs until the snow melted anyway, but I clearly remember being elated to throw on my white Jordan mids on an unseasonably warm spring day to pair with shorts (!) to visit Baxter Brewing once the mercury reached the mid-40s.

The other roadblock getting in the way of refreshing my sneaker rotation was, of course, a lack of funding with which to purchase them. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it in these pages, but my paychecks got considerably smaller once I moved out here and waded into the newspaper business, and every city I’ve lived in has seen me taking a second (and sometimes third!) job to have some extra spending money in my pocket.

It wasn’t until I moved to Denver in the spring of 2017 when I really started earning a more livable wage and was able to expand my disposable income a little. Worse still, I’d slowly started to wade back into the sneaker world after picking up a couple of pairs of adidas Boost shoes when I was in Australia for Dad’s birthday in 2016 with the exchange rate firmly in my favor.

It started as a trickle — “oh, my tax return is $1,200. I can spend $200 on sneakers and put the rest into savings!” — and snowballed from there. Soon enough I was secretly glad to be working at 8 a.m. every Saturday, which corresponded with the shoe releases that kicked off at 10 a.m. east coast time on Saturday mornings.

Returning to bartending after Christmas that year was probably the turning point, and making a few hundred extra bucks in cash each weekend was more than enough justification for “well, what’s the big deal? I’m not blowing rent money.”

Alex, bless her soul, has not only been stunningly patient with this absurd hobby, but has displayed an eagle eye for the comings and goings of new shoes. (Alright, mostly the comings. None of them ever seem to go.) The official word is, as long as I get rid of ones I never wear, and keep them in an orderly fashion, it’s fine.

And there have certainly been times where I’ve looked at my ever-growing collection and thought “that’s a lot of money. They’re shoes. You’re an idiot.” But as my friend Mikey put it, quite succinctly, “hey, it could be worse — you could be spending a couple hundred bucks a month on drugs, but sneakers aren’t gonna kill you.”

It really all started to come full-circle in October last year, when during my daily search for a new job – any job! – I saw a familiar name crop up in the list of companies looking for digital content specialists.

“Finish Line?” I thought. “Can’t be the sneaker chain. What would they need someone with my type of experience for?”

Turns out I’m an idiot. I read over the position description, and it was about 90 percent up my alley. Obviously going from the journalism world to retail would be a big leap, but a lot of the required experience fit skills I already had. There was one seemingly gaping hole, but I figured if it wasn’t a big deal to them, it was something I could certainly teach myself on the fly, and so why not throw my hat in the ring anyway?

So “fuck it,” I thought, and at 9:45 a.m. on October 9, a Tuesday morning I submitted my application to work at one of the nation’s biggest sneaker retailers. An hour and 20 minutes later, I got back a request from HR for a phone screen, and just about had a heart attack.

I spoke with the HR rep two days later, and went away from the conversation thinking that was the last I’d hear from them, but oh well — no harm in trying. Man, was I wrong: The following Friday I spoke to the hiring manager, and again I thought “well, that’s the end of that.” But I couldn’t get rid of them that easily: they asked for an in-person meeting…scheduled for the day after Alex and I left for our trip to Australia.

That proved to be absolutely no hurdle, and I spent a couple hours meeting the team and learning more about the role via videoconference at 2 a.m. Brisbane time. By the time the scheduled chats were over, I was exhausted and (AGAIN) wasn’t confident that I’d hit the mark they were looking for. I didn’t hear back for a couple weeks, but when I did, it was the start of our final weekend Down Under, and I was already dreading going back to work just a few days later.

But then I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to see an email subject line reading Update – Offer Letter. Best believe I didn’t get much sleep after that. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Six months ago, sneakers were a passion of mine but ultimately I never thought they’d be anything more than an expensive hobby. I’d wear a different pair to work every day and they were some of the few bright spots of working a job I had increasing difficulty waking up in the morning for.

But now my work day literally revolves around them, and it’s still entirely surreal. We see pre-release models in the office, there are brand banners and posters everywhere, and some of my coworkers are on a casual first-name basis with athletes and other literal household-name stars who represent Finish Line. Fringe benefits include “getting seven hours of sleep a night” and “working for a company that gives a shit about its employees.” Wild!

When I was looking for a job throughout 2018, desperate to find a way out of journalism and out of my present situation, I fed myself a spoonful of bullshit about how it didn’t matter what company I worked for or what type of product it created, “digital content management is all the same regardless.”  Now that I work with a product that I have a keen personal interest in, I realize how wrong I was.

And the employee discount doesn’t hurt either. I just wish we sold more closet space.


4 thoughts on “Chicken soup for the sole

  1. Mate, that’s awesome! Congrats on being able to follow a true passion. I’m resisting the urge to make shoe gags because I don’t want to make light of something truly amazing. Well done.

  2. Great read mate. Those parents of yours sounded a bit tough on you, but pleased you have overcome the ‘burden’ to fill a closet full shoes. Imelda Marcos would have been proud of you!

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