The sneakers were beautiful. Nike Air Force Ones with their classic silhouette. A dark, creamy tan and an off-white heel interrupted by a deep pink splashed sparingly and strategically — on the sole, the text at the ankle and heel ("Nike," "Air"), and the mythic swooshes, both large and small, on the sides and southern periphery of the laces. One wondered how any foot could dare defile them.
They’re called Linens. Originally released in 2001 as a Japanese exclusive, they've become a grail for collectors, lusted after for their rarity and elegant, minimalist palette. They were revived last December in a limited release by Kith. The Linens were only available through in-store raffles, but pairs popped up on eBay, and I browsed them longingly during my downtime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. This only lasted a few days before I broke down and pulled the trigger.
An immaculate size 9.5 pair cost me $250. Immediately after the confirmation email arrived in my inbox, I began to feel a familiar mix of guilt and joy.
"Wear it in good health," my grandmother and great-aunt (her sister) would say to me when gifting me clothing as a child, or even seeing me in clothing gifted by someone else. A leather jacket from my great-aunt that I was too young to pull off. Sneakers from my grandmother of an earlier, less-hip vintage. A Yankees cap from my parents with the the World Series emblem (1998-2001) embroidered on the side. "Wear it in good health," from the Yiddish phrase "trog gezunterhait."
Imploring a loved one not to die on the occasion of a birthday or holiday seems a bit alarmist. But for these women, children of the Great Depression and WWII, of a certain Jewish, neurotic origin, the caution made sense. Health was fickle and hard-earned. Illness could become threatening overnight. I imagine them looking down at my prepubescent frame and thinking, lovingly, of the danger that could befall me. "Wear it in good health." It's something you say to someone you love so much that the sight of them legitimately makes you worry about the return of polio.
But I like to think there was an ulterior message the matriarchs in my family were trying to relay. Not just that I should be so lucky to remain alive and kicking while wearing my new duds, but also that the item of clothing in question had a role to play in that effort. The new winter jacket with its puffy pockets of down will keep you from getting that cold. And those sneakers on your feet, colorful as they may be, are keeping your toes warm and protected. God forbid you should find yourself without shoes, or a shirt, or a hat on your head. "Wear it in good health." It’s a blessing, but also a directive.
The phrase serves as a reminder that all clothes, no matter how fancy, possess a fundamental utility. And this utility helps assuage another common Jewish sentiment: guilt. The guilt in knowing that the new, shiny thing you've bought probably cost too much and probably looks too gaudy, and probably could have been eschewed in favor of something cheaper, simpler, more to the point.
It's the kind of guilt that comes with with purchasing a pair of expensive sneakers that can only be worn with very specific outfits. The kind of guilt in knowing that the sneakers look good — maybe too good.
My grandmother and great-aunt weren't sneakerheads, but they did wear fur coats. In their day every woman had a fur coat, the real deal, purchased from and maintained by a furrier — a word they loved to say. They were working-class, still assimilating, but the fur coat was a must. It signaled that you were stylish, Americanized, in the know. And like a fresh pair of Air Force Ones, they made you look good no matter who you were.
The coats were expensive, custom-made. But fur coats were not only status symbols, they were protective barriers. Warm, knee-length, fluffy shields of armor against the biting Bronx cold. At the end of each season, they were sent to the cleaners and put in storage so they would be ready for next year. My grandmother and great-aunt purchased maybe two over the course of their lifetimes and made sure the coats would last for as long as possible. Fur coats were not taken lightly.
In fact, several years ago, while discussing her glory days of fur coat-wearing, my great-aunt mentioned that she still had one in a far-flung closet of her apartment. It was in good shape but needed love — styles had changed over the decades, and my great-aunt, in old age, was going out less. My mom expressed an interest, and my great-aunt suggested digging out the coat so she could try it on. It was a stunning piece of clothing, even to my inexpert eyes — long, rolling waves in an arresting dark brown.
Aside from the need for some slight alterations, it fit my mom well. My great-aunt mandated that she take it, and the two engaged in the requisite battle of refusal and insistence — "Oh, I shouldn't." "Yes, you should!" "No, I really can't." — until my mom relented. The coat was returned to its plastic casing and handed over, formally, from one generation to the next. "Wear it in good health," my great-aunt said. It seemed to me the only thing to say.
When the Linens arrived, I rushed to liberate them from their UPS packaging. They came in the original box, with the correct markings and receipt — everything checked out. I held them under the light of my bedroom and inspected them thoroughly. Fresh out of the box, in pristine form, angled just so, they looked perfect. I put them on, cautiously, and went to a floor-length mirror to view them in context. They were everything I had expected and more. They were supple and sleek, and the leather seemed to pop with color. I quickly returned them to the box they came in, afraid they'd get scuffed up by my own floor.
"Wear it in good health," I thought to myself, since they were shoes, after all. The guilt, the joy, the thrill of the purchase — all recede at the reminder to “wear it in good health.” Life is short, health is precious, and everyone needs a good pair of shoes.