I begged my mother over the Christmas break to get me a pair of Timberlands. She said no. More depressing than her no, was what “no” meant: we did not have money to spend on a $135 pair of construction boots, especially when “any other boot would keep your feet warm just fine.” That, even if we did have the money, she still wouldn’t buy them because “you go to school to learn, not impress your friends.” That she wasn’t going to enculturate me with vacuous values. But above all, it meant “No.”
She gave me fifty dollars to buy a pair of winter boots, and made sure to let me know to appreciate it because even that was a “blessing.” I went to the sneaker store, already dreading my return to school—because I knew what was going to happen: “They are going to go in on my ass.” Although there were particular people who organized these public executions, “they” existed because I didn’t—or wouldn’t. When someone holds a gun to your face, all you think about is the barrel. It’s capital punishment for a reason: we are punished if we don’t have capital, and I was about to learn a very expensive lesson.
Since Timberlands were out of the price range, I decided that if I could buy a pair of look-alikes, I would be good. This was the worst idea that I ever nurtured and allowed to mature. I thought I would buy a pair of look-alikes, wear baggy jeans—which was the style in the eighth grade anyway—cover the heel of the boot (where the logo was), and throw them out by spring. But, winter had just begun.
I didn’t want to go back the first day but, with a mother like mine, I went. The first few hours weren’t bad but I could feel eyes—staring. Kids were peering over their desks to look for the roots of my feet to see if I was grounded. There was suspicion building in their faces because there was an immutable law amongst poor kids with nice things: if you had something, you let everyone know. I wasn’t showing off, and this could only mean one thing. By lunch, people were hungry.
“My boy got Timbs.”
“Those ain’t Timbs. If they were, he would have said something.”
“Those are Timbs, aren’t they?”
The curtain was pulled, the illusion was shattered.
What killed me more than a table full of laughter was deafening silence, I wasn’t ready for that. And it was the silence that crushed me. Laughing in my face was too obvious; therefore it was not cruel enough. They waited until I left the table, and leaving the table I heard the exploding laughter behind me with the shrapnel sentiment– “Bum ass nigga”– left in my back. I left in pieces that day, promising myself that that would never happen again.
No longer was my mother buying my clothes. I was a host at Dave & Buster’s which, in the pantheon of employed seventeen year olds, made me a minimum wage deity. Most kids were making $7.15 an hour, I was making $10. And four years removed from those Timberlands, no one could understand why, when most were renting their tuxes and shoes for Senior Prom, I was buying everything. The answer was simple then as it is now, “I’m not a bum ass nigga.” A patent leather pair of Ted Bakers, an Yves Saint Laurent tie, a tailored three piece suit—with the tail and mother of pearl cufflinks. Mother of God, my time had come.
I looked in the mirror an thought to myself, “I wish ‘they’ were here to see me now. ‘They’ wouldn’t have shit to say.” I left the house, fresh to death, with dangerous pretensions, “I’m going to kill they ass at this prom tonight.” In a room full of rentals, I owned the room.
“They’re from London, chill.”
“Is that an Yves Saint Laurent tie?”
“You know it.”
“How much you pay for that?”
“Chill, don’t worry about it.”
“The shoe doesn’t make the man, the man makes the shoes” they say. Well whoever that “they” was, lied. I am beyond proverbs and admonitions from bystanders who I do not know. I know about a group of kids who went to work on my fake construction boots. I know that if I had a real pair, that wouldn’t have happened. For that “they” who think that “shoes don’t make the man,” show me a man who still makes his own shoes because I don’t know any cobblers.
—Yahdon Israel, Live from Bed-Stuy.