Being a Good Sport: Adventures of a Sneaker Salesman

I work in a sporting goods store. Of course, it’s always nice to have a paying job, so I won’t say anything negative about the sporting goods store at which I work. There are certainly positive aspects of working there. For example, do you know the holes you put your shoe laces through are called “eyelets?” That factoid is the kind of vital information the job has afforded me, and for that I am extremely grateful.

That said, it is most likely not a job I will devote my life to. And despite spending multiple hours a week in the vicinity of running shorts, I don’t consider myself a master of the craft of sporting goodery. In fact, sometimes I feel as though I am a 21-year-old recent college graduate who is working at a store part-time before he can find a better opportunity to advance his career and do wonderful things with his life and if that means he has to talk about running sneakers all day then so be it, you know what I mean? Anyway, let me tell you a story. Back when I was only a couple months into the job, a young woman walked into the store. I was placed on the shoe floor that day, which was something of an honor. The shoe guys are at the top of the food chain, much more important than the apparel junkies and the weirdos relegated to the register. But of course, with great power comes great responsibility. To be a shoe guy one must not only talk to customers, but venture into the depths of the store to find the size and color they are looking to try on. It’s real confusing, I swear!Anyway, on this day I was building up my confidence. “Oh, you want those Mizuno Wave Inspires in a size 9.5? Done!” “You’re looking for something in which to train? Might I point out our trainers?” Not to brag or nothin’, but I was on fire. Enter that young woman I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago.

It started innocently enough. She seemed to be yet another professional who worked in the area, which in that section of DC is our most common customer. She had red hair and glasses. If you want to picture her being pretty, you may. If you want to give her the face of Satan and a puffy red clown nose, you may. Her face wasn’t important on this day.

Through my intensive questioning, I gleaned that she was looking for sneakers. Running sneakers. She was the type who runs a few days a week and talks about running the rest of the days.

The young woman, shall we call her Lola, had been experiencing some pain in her shins, yet was adamant that she didn’t have shin splints. So, wanting to help her through her unfortunate situation, I engaged in a dialogue with her to try to establish the proper strategy to avoid further aggravating her shins. The conversation went something like this:

Me: There are a few paths we can go down. I can bring out a few different kinds of well cushioned shoes, so you can try them on and compare, ensuring that you walk out of here today with the optimal sneakers.

Lola: (Breathes fire, decapitates me with her monstrous claws)

Me: Oh no!

Ok, that wasn’t really accurate. Her claws weren’t that monstrous. But all right, here’s how it went down for real:

I told her that she probably needed sneakers with extra cushioning. I told her that Asics sneakers tend to have the best cushioning. So I walked her over to the Asics column, where five different sneakers proudly gleamed forth from the shoe wall. And I asked her if any of those sneakers caught her eye.

I said, “do any of these catch your eye?” I said it, I really did. You can quote me on that. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the brightest thing to say at the time. I probably should have said something show-offy about heel strikes, or socks, or about how it’s a lot better for your shins to run on grass than to run on concrete. I could have said any of those things, but instead I asked “do any of these catch your eye?”

She glared at me, and that isn’t an exaggeration. I’ve made some mistakes in my life, and I’ve hurt people’s feelings, and sometimes I’ve been glared at for perfectly explicable reasons. But she glared at me like I shipped her cat to Liechtenstein and ate the last pizza bagel without consulting her. Here’s what she said:

“Why did you say that?”

It’s a curious thing when someone asks you in everyday life why you just did what you did. For example, you might be eating a burger, a perfectly common thing to do. Yet if someone asks why, there’s no simple answer. Because you need to survive? Because you prefer burgers to other types of food, such as plantains? Because you want to avenge your uncle’s death (he was trampled by cows)? Asking someone why they are doing or did something can send them into an existential spiral. Because I am human, and I was programmed this way? Or perhaps because there is a Big Man in the sky who controls my every action?

She repeated it: “Why did you say that?” But by this point I was too lost pondering the workings of the universe to give her a proper response.

“I was just thinking… you could try them on and see how they feel… burgers are good…”

She went on. She was exasperated that I could disrespect her so egregiously as to value aesthetics over functionality, even for a second. What if I sold her two lumps of cardboard that happened to be pretty?

She said that what mattered most was her health, and that she thought it felt irresponsible that I would imply otherwise. And while she was saying all these things I got that strange feeling you get when someone is saying things people usually silently feel. There’s a line in social situations that, when crossed, leads to nothing good. It’s the point of no return, and it’s eerie in a sense. You can feel it when you see two people fighting–really, really fighting. There’s this unspoken code of conduct that exists between strangers, one of the main rules being that one really shouldn’t cuss the other out over silly things.

And when that line is crossed, there’s this weird feeling that comes up in your throat, and it makes you make noises instead of talking, and when a young woman is yelling at you at your part-time shoe-peddling gig, well, that’s just the worst.

I could say people take this whole running phenomenon too seriously. I could call Lola mean things, or even call into question why people trust silly 21-year-olds like me with their athletic needs. But I won’t do any of those things, because what’s done is done. She walked out that day lost in a cloud of self-righteousness, and I just kind of stood there, still processing what happened.

My boss walked up to me a little while after that. “So what’ll ya do different next time?”

I didn’t really know–maybe try to sell the Nikes?

Part of life is brushing off the annoying little things that happen to you in sporting-goods stores, so I took a deep breath and walked up to the next customer, an older man in a suit.

“Can I help you find anything today?” I asked.

“Why did you say that?”