A sneaker, by any other name


Can someone tell me what makes a shoe a sneaker?

Wikipedia says “a term used in American English for a casual athletic shoe”; while (from my iPhone) defines it as “a high or low shoe, usually of fabric such as canvas, with a rubber or synthetic sole.” Um, I’m feeling like I can drive a bus through those definitions. Maybe I’m better off asking what isn’t a sneaker. Anyway, whatever the true definition is, I’m going to talk about sneakers, ’cause my latest pair of shoes is what I call sneakers.

They aren’t the trendy, classic sneakers. I’m not really a fan of classic sneaks. I’ve never been able to sport the Top Sider, Chuck Taylor, or Jack Purcell with any conviction. And I never thought they were even remotely comfortable. Their thin waffle soles made me feel like I was walking on a real waffle – spongy and soggy with zero support. Back in the day I did love me some Stan Smiths though, and they were classics. Went through six or eight pairs as a kid. I loved the look and they were cushy and comfortable. I especially loved their weird sole pattern, like someone cut a thin slice off a wad of rubbery spaghetti noodles and glued all the little bits to the bottom of the shoe. They gripped like crazy and left the coolest print in the playground sand. Pretty sure you can still get them. But white sneakers on a guy in his 40s is a sign you still live with your mother.

Since those days, there have been very few sneakers that have really quickened my heartbeat. With two notable exceptions. The first was a pair of Nike Lava Domes I got in 1985 before I hiked the Grand Canyon. They were the first true “hiking” sneaker on the market and, man, did I love them. They were grey on grey with a black sole – totally BA and outdoorsy and awesome. I wore them for about 13 years, no shit. I just couldn’t wear them out. I’m not sure what happened to them – I think I’m blocking the memory of letting them go.

The second exception was a pair of Adidas skate shoes I got in about 1995, black suede with three thick white stripes and pink-flesh-colored soles – they were all the rage during the Pearl Jam days. And I loved the look of them with a pair of green cargo pants – I felt so in the moment. Whatever, old guy.

Other than those two pairs, my sneaker history has consisted of basic running shoes and an occasional pair of tennis shoes and maybe some other randoms. But nothing sticks out in my memory and certainly nothing more worth mentioning here. Maybe that’s why I don’t consider myself a sneaker guy. I mostly wear what I call “hard shoes” during the day, and sandals, boots or Birks on evenings and weekends.

Well, I’m feeling another special moment in sneaker history is upon us. Recently, after seeing my 74-year-old father-in-law (one of the coolest dudes around) wearing a bright yellow pair of Tiger sneakers to our house (I know, can you imagine?), I started to get a hankering for something bright and new and shiny and cool like that. They looked so great with his faded 501s that the seed was planted in my shoe-fetish brain: must have cool yellow sneakers.

So, when I received a coupon from Zappos after visiting their offices in August, I decided to make it happen. I searched the site starting with my favorite new tool – – and found a whole bunch of cool yellow shoes. After days of return browsing, I chose a sweet pair of Salomon Trail Runner SWs, in bright yellow. When they arrived a day later, I couldn’t have been more psyched – they are comfy and cool, exactly as a sneaker should be. Maybe that’s the definition of sneaker, a comfy and cool shoe. Whatever the case, I am in – I’ve worn them to work a few times and have gotten comments every time. Now that I’ve broken the seal on sneakers, who knows what pleasures lie ahead?