Talk of the Town - Sneaker of wisdom and truth July 29 2004

Some rare footage

Every day, thousands of Americans experience the anxiety of diagnosis. My turn came last week. The condition is irreversible.

My feet are bigger than I thought.

This was the verdict at the shoe store. I almost fainted, clonking my head on the metal shoe-measuring dingy. (Inadvertently revealing that this correspondent's cranium is an 11 1/2 EEEEEEEEE, and would look good in an open-toed homburg.)

Getting bigger? This is ridiculous. My feet were already the size of kayaks.

And it reminded me of George Washington. A big guy — 6-feet-plus — back when the typical colonial soldier could have run for mayor of Munchkin City. Given the discrepancy, GW was a bit self-conscious. When sending measurements to far-off tailors, the Father of His Country provided vital statistics more appropriate for the Singer Midget of His Country, causing him to then complain of too- small couture.

I've been doing that with shoe sizes. Part of the reason was that Washingtonian unease about bigness. But I also blame the retailers. That walk around the shoe store is the most treacherous stroll you'll ever take. Because everything feels great in the shoe store. They have carpeting a yard thick. When the shoe guy has you slip into a pair of shiny new tasseled loafers, you feel like Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio.

Actual purchase of said shoes, however, brings down the curtain on any dance party. I walk one block in those loafers and they morph into a pair of iron maidens that pinch, blister, rub raw and, in general, do things to your feet that read like the opening chapter to an interrogation manual for Stalin's secret police: "Section One: Getting Acquainted with Enemies of the State."

My most recent embarrassing moment didn't even involve an actual pair of formal shoes. Sneakers were on the agenda, only they're not called that anymore. Sneakers have morphed into "athletic footwear."

Said specialty shoes are served up in chrome-and-white, Bauhaus medical-seeming dispensaries devoted solely to this product. The merchandise is described in polysyllabic scientific terminology more suited to a subatomic particle-smasher.

New running shoes don't have soles — they possess a "suspension system."

They involve innovative technologies that address questions of shock absorption and energy displacement. If Buster Brown were around today, he'd need a degree in astrophysics from Stanford just to sell sneakers.

So do I want a KR-1 running/walking shoe with standard heel and high instep?

Or a DR-3 walking/court model with standard toe box height and wide forefront width? Think I'll try the ZR-19 flying/crawling footwear with built-in bunion remover.

And did I tell you that new running shoes also have graphite built into them? The same substance that gives golf clubs and tennis rackets more power. Now I can break into pro sports just by flailing at a ball with my sneakers.

One more thing, these new shoes have something called a rollbar. Not only can I move at high speed in them, they will enable me to survive an accident if I overturn while jogging.

Which won't happen. Let me make this clear, especially in an election year: I do not choose to run. Unless there's a snake out on the trail.

Because I'd probably trip on my laces. Can someone explain what's with the laces? Some of these floor models have laces that, untied, could be used to retrace every foot of our border with Canada. If you double, or even triple-knot them, they're still flopping all over the place.

Where does all this material come from? I finally figured it out. After they have a race and someone breaks the tape that stretches across the road, it's recycled as sneaker laces.

This is a far more complicated sneaker world than the one of my youth, which offered precisely two choices: PF Flyers and Keds. PF Flyers were cooler, because Keds sounded too cutely like "kids," and a kid does not want to be called a kid.

Now I'm looking at an athletic catalog with running shoes, spiked shoes, training shoes, cross-training shoes, tennis shoes, basketball shoes, adventure shoes, walking shoes, active lifestyle shoes and sandals. Some cost as much as 200 bucks. Given the size of mine, coupled with the cost, I should qualify for an FHA loan.

Newly installed in athletic footwear and on the running, uh, walking trail of my local park, I find a whole new type of etiquette in place. It consists of people bicycling past you at Mach 1 speed, saying, "On your left" or "on your right," as they hurtle past.

Rollbar and protective layer of graphite notwithstanding, it's terrifying out there. At least on the highway I have a seatbelt. Walking around, there's no room for error. So I'm hanging up my running shoes.

Tennis, anyone?


Glen Slattery is on the run in Alpharetta.