On a couple of occasions recently, in the line of duty for ADCO, I have found myself out on the court at USC basketball games. A nonprofit client of ours has been blessed with donations that it has received in the form of oversized checks presented in front of the fans at Colonial Life Arena. (The client is the SC Center for Fathers and Families; the generous donors are TD Bank and Colonial Life.) I was there to help publicize the donations.
There are a lot of things a person might think as he steps out in front of a crowd like that, some relevant, some not: Do I have a good angle for the picture? Is my focus good enough to read the check? Cheerleaders are cute, but they wear a lot of makeup. Is it hard to smile that much? They’re also smaller than they look from the stands. The players are not. Am I standing in anyone’s way? Is my fly zipped? Who that I know is seeing me down here and wonders what I’m doing?
But the one predominant thought I had on both occasions was, I’m standing on the gym floor in my street shoes! This made me very self-conscious. I felt guilty, furtive, a scofflaw who was going to get yelled at by coach any second. (And in my day, coaches yelled what they pleased at us with impunity.)
Young people, and even some not-so-young-anymore people, are wondering what on Earth I’m on about. But when I was a student at Karr Junior High School in the suburbs of New Orleans in the mid-60s, it was deeply impressed on us that you never, ever walked on the shiny gym floor with street shoes on.
Perhaps I should explain what “street shoes” are. They are dress shoes, made of hard, polished leather. Like what your Daddy wore to work at the office, if your Daddy was old enough to go to the office back when men wore suits and hats. If he wasn’t, then your granddaddy.
We did not wear sneakers, athletic shoes, or whatever you want to call them to school. Or zoris, either (on the Mainland, y’all call them “flip-flops”). Nor did we wear jeans, or shorts, or T-shirts. We dressed in a manner that today is called “business casual,” only less casual than a lot of business people today.
Except in gym. In gym, we wore gym shoes. And shorts, and T-shirts. That’s how you knew you were in P.E. — you wore things that would be strictly verboten in English class. To participate in P.E. was to “dress out.” If you were sick and had a note from the doctor, you didn’t have to “dress out.” The rest of the time, you did.
And you wore those special shoes in P.E. shoes because you never, ever, for even one step, touched the gym floor with street shoes. Because gym floors were extremely delicate, and taxpayers shelled out gazillions of dollars to keep them perfectly shiny, and your parents couldn’t possibly make enough money to pay for the damage that street shoes could cause. It would be like mixing matter with antimatter, or crossing the streams (Egon!).
Stepping on the gym floor in street shoes was, in 1965, the civilian, junior-high equivalent of being a Marine and calling your rifle a “gun.”
We had dances in the gym in our street clothes on Friday nights, but it wasn’t a problem, because we were all completely conditioned to remove our shoes before stepping onto the gym floor. I have somewhere a Polaroid picture I took once of the pile of shoes under the bleachers. If I can find it, I’ll post it. Today, the kids would just wear casual shoes and clothes. But for social occasions that involved girls, you dressed up.
We spent the rest of the evening in our socks. We did the Jerk, and the Monkey, and the Boogaloo in our socks. We engaged in the delicious mystery of slow-dancing in our socks (we waited and waited for the band to do “House of the Rising Sun,” which was the only slow song they knew). If we were total rebels, with no respect for decency and societal mores, and no teachers were in sight (a rare occurrence), we did the Alligator in our socks.
It was what used to be called a “sock hop,” although I don’t recall our actually calling it that. It’s just that when you danced in the gym, you did so in your socks.
Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about while standing in front of all those basketball fans at Colonial Life Arena. I have no idea who is going to pay for the irreparable damage that my Johnston and Murphys surely did to that floor.
No wonder coach was yelling.