THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE - 23 JULY 2015
The first time I even considered buying a pair of New Balances, I was 27, bronzed and lean, standing in a frigid sporting-goods store in Biloxi, Miss., having walked there from New York. The year was 2007. Four months earlier, I had experienced that spiritual crisis stereotypical of young people — the one in which you can’t seem to square the scope of your ambitions with the limits of your daily life, which in my case was spent in a Midtown Manhattan cubicle. So I packed a bag and said goodbye to everyone I loved, including my wife, who was ecstatic to see me go.
My plan was simple, even if its motivations remain hard to articulate. I would walk 30 miles a day, every day, until I made it to New Orleans. One day, halfway down the Jersey Shore, I tried walking as far as I could, until the sky turned black and one of my toenails did, too. Another night, I made camp on an abandoned floating dock I found washed up on a small island. Later, as the surf heaved beneath me, I realized, much too late, that the dock was adrift. When the tide took me back in, I admired the sunrise, laced up my cheap shoes and walked the final miles to Cape May. From there, I boarded a ferry to Delaware. A few miles into Virginia, I felt the first of many blisters.
I suppose looks prevented me from buying New Balances before my walk. There’s something aggressively earnest about them. New Balance initially made only arch supports, and slowly moved into manufacturing entire shoes. In 1982, the company debuted a new model that would go on to become one of its most popular: the 990. An early advertisement featured a picture of a clunky gray sneaker alongside copy that declared, semimodestly, ‘‘On a scale of 1,000, this shoe is a 990.
It was the United States market’s first hundred-dollar athletic shoe and, perhaps owing to the company’s inside-out approach to shoemaking, was designed in a style you might call medical grade. Both the price and aesthetic seemed to say: ‘‘I find L.L. Bean very fashionable and have no need to rent out the beach house when I am not using it.’’ They became, arguably, the least memorable part of Steve Jobs’s uniform.
As a young urbanite, I rarely had any reason to think about shoes in utilitarian terms. But then, all of a sudden, I was a guy walking to Louisiana. That first inexpensive pair of running shoes gave out somewhere in the Carolinas. I bought a second pair, and with these I limped across the Florida panhandle. By that time I had pounded my feet so profoundly that my shoe size had actually increased. Weeks later, I found myself in that shopping mall in coastal Mississippi, ready for something better.
It had required a long walk — not to mention losing 40 pounds and testing my marriage to its breaking point — to get me there, contemplating those shoes, those simple, dull tools surrounded on all sides by showier models with their zany colorways and whimsical laces. When the clerk brought me a pair, I laced them up and took my first steps around the store. I knew I’d never buy another kind of running shoe again.
The thing about 990s is this: Not only are they comfortable to wear, their whole history speaks to the value of comfort — comfort with yourself, comfort with your surroundings. Nothing about the 990 has ever really changed: not the high price (they’re now $179.99), not the design, not the fact that they’re made in America. Plenty has happened since 1982, but nothing that has managed to make the 990 budge. (Well, maybe a little. The most recent pair I bought was black.) To me 990s symbolize the simple fact that it’s O.K. to just make up your mind about something and never look back.
Through Gulfport and Pass Christian and Pearlington, wearing these new shoes, I walked with an odd new feeling — a mix of contentment, resignation and maybe something like comfort. Made of genuine pigskin, the sneakers felt like silk compared with what I had been wearing. The heel cushioning was intense, and springy; walking with them was like wearing flippers in the water. Even the thick, supple laces were made with a care and quality well in excess of any I’d ever encountered.
Back in New York, I realized, the problem facing me was the tyranny of choice: wanting this job or that, to go to this restaurant or that, to live in this neighborhood or that (or maybe on a boat off City Island?). It never stopped. I had too many options, and yet I never gave myself time to enjoy one success or another before I started racing around looking for more. Trying to sate all this hunger, I had become a kind of monster.
When I finally reached New Orleans, I stopped at a French Quarter bar called Molly’s at the Market. At that point, I had walked 1,500 miles, all the way from the Lower East Side. I ordered a beer, and then I ordered a shot, and then I picked up the phone. I thought maybe I had earned the right to call my wife. Maybe I could try being an adult once more.
Today, I’m still married to the same woman, and I am still wearing the same shoes. Could I have made the final miles with lesser ones? Sure. Do I still go on long walks? Yes, and when I do I put on my 990s — and try my best to make it back home.
This piece was published by The New York Times Magazine. Read the original here.