To say that Robert Ward loves his sneakers is an understatement. He adores them.
Almost every night, the 12-year-old Baltimore youth spends 20 minutes cleaning and caressing his black high-top Filas. He slowly scrubs the orange soles with a rag. He bleaches the laces and lays them flat to dry. He flattens the tongue with his hands to work out the creases. He dries the shoes and laces with a soft, clean towel.
Then it's on to the insoles. He pulls them from the shoes and meticulously washes them.
"These aren't the only ones I've got, but I like these, you know. I want these to last," says Robert, who lives in the Lexington Terrace public housing development. He looks fondly at his shoes, made of a soft, suede-like material called "New Buck" and gives another reason why they are so important to him: "You also want to look good when you see your friends."
For Robert, and many others in the MTV generation, dressing begins with the shoes -- the sneakers, that is. Imagine a world where you don't think -- you "Just Do It!" -- and your heroes soar through the "Adventures in Dickland" with shiny new rocket-powered Cadillacs on their feet. A world where it doesn't matter if you wear your pants backward as long your feet point the right way -- in Nikes, Reeboks, Converses or Adidases.
As Robert kneels to polish these limousines for his feet, his thoughts are at least 10 feet off the ground in the rarefied air where the Concorde, the space shuttle and Air Jordan fly. The old folks on the ground may believe that clothes make the man, but Robert knows the truth -- "It's The Shoes."
"It's The Shoes," according to Chapter 1, first verse of the Book of Nike.
"It's The Shoes," those big, bulky and often hideous-looking things that aren't necessarily worn for sports, but are to be seen in and to look sporty.
"It's The Shoes," the ones that pump up, light up, wind up, zip up, strap up and come with endorsements from Spike, Dominique and Grandmama. And like the shoes, parents pump up, light up, wind up, zip up, and strap up when they see the price tags -- from $50 to $150.
Style and sneakers are synonymous. Being caught in off-brand sneakers is like being dissed for wearing white socks and black hard-soled shoes.
"The cost really doesn't matter," said Juwan Robinson, 15, who wears the Charles Barkley-endorsed Nike Air Force Max as he shoots hoops on the newly surfaced court at Hanlon Park in West Baltimore.
Juwan's shoes cost $130. He wears them only to play basketball. He's careful when he jumps so as not to scuff the black soles. If someone steps on his foot during a game, he calls time to brush his Barkleys.
At courtside is a pair of Shell Heads by Adidas, the ones he wears just to "hang around." They cost "only" $70.
"I'm telling my mother that buying the Barkleys for me is an investment in my future, right. I feel that I have a chance to play ball in college," said Juwan, who is 5 foot 9. "The shoes will help me realize my potential for her."
Juwan is a student at Frederick Douglass High School and does not play for the school team. Three times this school year, he has told his mother that he needs a new pair of athletic shoes, and each time she's doled out at least $60 for new kicks.
One pair is for basketball and the other two for school and parties.
"I don't have much money to buy sneakers all of the time -- $100, $130, $125, $100," said Juwan's mother, Edna Wiggins, who works at Security Square Mall.
"It's expensive, but he'd rather have a nice pair of sneakers than have a girlfriend. I can't imagine him caring for a girl anymore than he cares for his sneakers."
Since the early 1980s, when youngsters started dressing more casually for classes, the athletic shoe industry has become a thriving multibillion-dollar-a-year business.
Last year Nike, with now-retired Michael Jordan as their main spokesman, garnered 30 percent of the U.S. athletic footwear market, had sales of nearly $4 billion and profits of $365 million. Reebok, its closest competitor, had sales of $3 billion and profits of $115 million.
Although the market has decreased slightly recently, crowds of youths flock to the shoe departments of sporting goods stores.
At the Rudo Sporting Goods store in Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore, all the latest styles of athletic shoes line a wall in the shoe department. It's a vast display: low tops and high tops and shoes with colored soles and fancy laces.
Among the shoes on the wall are pictures of well-known professional basketball players like Isiah Thomas, Chris Mullin and Magic Johnson.
Harold Rudo, known affectionately around Baltimore as "Mr Shoe," said that the athletic shoe market has dropped off a bit, but it's still strong. Someway, somehow, youngsters are coming up with the cash to purchase their dreams.
"It's a status thing," Mr. Shoe said. "As long as the product is right, they want to buy it."
For Donte Arman, 17, dressing begins from the bottom up, when he selects one of the nine pairs of sneakers in his closet.
All the shoes are new or nearly new. He has shoes that pump up and ones that fasten with Velcro and have fluorescent tongues. And his Deion Sanders by Nike have the football and baseball numbers of the two-sport athlete.
He never laces his shoes.
"Laces tend to get crooked if you leave them in the shoes, and I want them to be fresh, look new," says Donte, who lives with his grandmother in the Oliver community of East Baltimore.
"I think I cover all bases. If they're hot, I'm going to get them. I'm getting these Pumas next. They don't have no laces to worry about washing. Just put them on and wind them up."
Many youths say it is common to own at least three pairs of athletic shoes. One boy in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood has five pairs of Reeboks to make it easier to match them with other clothing.
A Cherry Hill boy has four pairs of high-top basketball sneakers. Which pair he wears depends on the surface of the basketball court.
And Ciarra Jones, 9, of Lexington Terrace, has five pairs of athletic shoes -- none cheaper than $50 -- that she uses to coordinate her wardrobe. Her newest pair is the L.A. Tech models that light up.
"At night I can see where I'm walking," Ciarra, a third-grader at Lexington Terrace Elementary School, says of her $90 shoes.
Ciarra lives with her mother and grandmother in a two-story rowhouse on West Saratoga Street. In the closet of her bedroom, three pairs of K-Swiss sneakers -- red and white, blue and white and all-white -- spill onto the floor. She also has multicolored L.A. Techs and a pair of pink Nikes.
Zina Jones, Ciarra's mother, buys her daughter's shoes. She is not happy at the cost.
"If I could, I would have bought a light and put them on the back of one of her old pairs," Ms. Jones said. "She wants them every couple of months, and I'm always the one who has to clean them."
Many youths said it is not uncommon for students to mock those who wear shoes that are not stylish.
Proof is Karom Stevens, 15, who wore a new pair made by Stadias to Mondawmin Mall earlier this month. Although closely resembling Nike, Reebok, Fila and Adidas, the pair of relatively unknown Stadias that Karom wore drew a lot of attention.
"Everybody laughed, so I haven't worn them again," Karom said. "I'll wear an old worn-out pair of Nikes before I wear them again."
Although wearing a major name shoe is important, many youths claim that it is equally important what a shoe can do.
For example, John Harris, 15, said he has tried all of the major name-brand shoes, but none makes him feel as special as his battery-powered black high-tops by L.A. Gear with the orange soles.
"They light up when I walk," John, of Northeast Baltimore, said. "It's different, and that's important.
"I got them on sale for $96, and every time I walk I get noticed," he said. "Every step, flash, flash, flash."