My younger brother’s old Reeboks were my go-to work shoes. They were black, laces and all, so I never truly knew how dirty they really were except for the soles. The soles were a bright yellow and ran along the entire bottom of the shoes in the shape of a heart monitor. They were tattered and scrapped from years of experience as hiking shoes, working shoes, and more; anything that required me to have footwear that I didn’t care about being scuffed, stained, or scathed.
The last time I ever wore those shoes was summer of my freshman year, on a mission trip in Atlantic City. I was assigned to a demolition site; the man’s house had been flooded by Hurricane Sandy nine months previously, and it hadn't been touched since. The walls, which I assumed had been a shade of white at some point, were a moldy green-blue, and it smelled like rotten fish guts and ear infections and urinals in the New York City Subway all put together, so much so it was hard to stay for more than five minutes at a time without gagging. Needless to say, the combination of the two was repulsive. After a few days of pulling rusty nails out of planks, punching through walls with various utility tools, and carrying trash bags ten times our weight (or at least my weight) four blocks away, my Reeboks looked just as tired as I did. On the last day, right before I was about to sit down and eat my intensely-desired peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I thought I felt a rock in my shoe. So I took it off and turned it upside down to empty it, but instead of a rock, I saw an eight-penny box nail wedged in between the folds of the zig-zag sole of my sneaker. Had it been a ten penny nail, it would have gone right through my foot.
And that was the day I realized my poor Reeboks weren't going to cut it anymore.
However, the thought went passively in my mind. I didn’t really think about it until the following year, when preparing for my mission trip to Jamaica. In fact, I wasn’t even the one who really came up with the idea. One day I walked in the door and there was a pair of Timberlands sitting in my bag. My mom said she got them for me so I wouldn’t get any more nails stuck in my shoes. Figures, because I’m prone to accidents. Safety precautions are a necessity with me.
They sat in my mudroom for three months leading up to the summer, in which I was going on a more serious mission trip with harder work and longer days, but it was the best week of my life. I was just a sophomore then. I went to Jamaica during that summer. I worked on two sites this time, one being an orphanage located on top of a mountain for kids who were physically removed from their previous homes. We made friendship bracelets with the girls, one of which I kept on my wrist for 6 months until I had to take it off for Prom, played soccer with the boys, painted their bedrooms, etc. I heard incredible stories and learned amazing things. I got to know one girl very well, because she wanted to know everything about me- what sports I played, who I had a crush on, etc. My second site, however, will forever remain as clear in my memory as it was the days I was there. It was a clearing in the woods and a cement foundation on which we built a house for a woman whose daughter had committed suicide and her family. Thank god we had something so special to fight for, because it was not a pleasant place to work, even worse than the asbestos-ridden basement in Atlantic City. The smell of burning trash and marijuana came in waves every half an hour. I felt the skin on my shoulders burning even though they were covered in a greasy layer of sunscreen. At one point our jug of water ran out, and there was no running water within 5 miles of our worksite, including bathrooms. We ended up using the neighbors’ bucket, who openly invited me, a stranger, into their home with smiles on their faces. Like I said, amazing.
One morning, a little boy came out of the jungle. He followed me around for a good ten minutes like a mouse- quiet and shy. I was painting the back side of the house, and he never stopped staring at the paintbrush moving back and forth on the bare wood. I stopped for a moment and held the brush out to him, and slowly he stepped towards me, avoiding eye contact, until he had his tiny hand wrapped around the handle. He walked up to the house, but couldn’t reach the unpainted parts. He looked back at me, right in the eyes like a puppy, until I picked him up. I sat him on my hip, and he painted, mimicking the same motions I had been using before. Whenever he needed more paint, he would scoop it up, as if the brush was a bucket, and as I raised him back up, it would drip all over me- bright blue paint on my shirt, down my legs, and on my boots. By the end of the day, I had “tropical breeze” and “coral reef” worked into my hair. I didn’t get it out for two weeks.
And then there are the three screws in the soles of my right foot. On my West Virginia 2015 trip, I worked on a small farm helping rebuild the inside of a house. We realized that for every mission trip, we wanted something added to our shoes to remember, and the screws were just that. Now this was a group effort, and honestly proves how much trust I have in the people I work with. With a small drill, a couple of us drilled the screws into each other's boots. Not one accident!
Purpose cannot be bought with money. I often retrieve small, tangible objects from my favorite memories. Things that aren’t blatantly obvious, but hold value. A rock from a beach rather than a shell. A braided bracelet woven from three pieces of string rather than bought in a souvenir shop. Paint on work boots from memories of a beautiful country. Material isn't just material anymore when it has value. And that's why I love my work boots. It's right in the name. However, it’s the type of work people do that makes it all the more important. People have asked me before if I “painted my boots like that on purpose”. This question bothers me, because in front of all of the sentimental value those boots hold for me is the undying fact that people do actually “fake” their sentiment in the name of individuality. Antiquing their belongings to make them seem more important or experienced than plain material, when they truly aren’t. Instead of hurrying along the process, I suggest getting out there and living the experience, not just pretending. Of course, I don’t have time to tell the whole story to every person that glances at my feet, so I leave their assumptions up to them. If only there were some way to explain... say, in writing. Hmm.
So really, I understand why people buy them if they don’t actually use them for their intended purposes, because technically, they don’t just have one. I use them for everything I used my Reeboks for, and more, like building, working outside, and hiking. I don’t need them to look new to be satisfied. The paint on those boots is permanent- It’s never going to come off, and I’m okay with that, because tarnished things always have a story to tell. In the end its not really the sparkles or the labels or the colors or the sheer amount of things you have that matter, it’s what you intend to do with it. And in the wise words of Bruce Wayne, I end with, “its not who you are, but what you do, that defines you.”