The other night, I did a show in Astoria at a brand new performance space called Q.E.D., which just happened to be right around the corner from the block where I grew up, infamously dubbed “Sneaker Street.” Why? Because back in the day when I was a kid, we were these little athletes with dreams of growing up and becoming the next great Yankee, Met, Knick, Net, Ranger, Islander, Jet, or Giant. We played street ball in backyards, schoolyards, city parks and, most often, in the middle of the street.
Depending on the season, we were hitting home runs, throwing touchdowns, taking slap shots, or driving to the hoop. We tackled each other on concrete and took headfirst dives over asphalt. We played hard and rough; so hard and rough that we would wear out a pair of sneakers in a month.
I took pride in having frayed laces and holes in my sneakers. When the holes got too big, I’d stick baseball cards under the soles, just in case it rained.
At some point, my mother would get tired of scrubbing my white tube socks clean and she’d drag me to get a new pair of sneakers, which weren’t the $150 Nike’s the kids “need” nowadays. She’d drag me to Woolworths, where I would have to dig through a huge bin of “Skips” (what we called cheap sneakers) that were three pairs for ten bucks.
I hated getting new sneakers, and never let my mother throw the old ones out. If she did, I’d wait until she wasn’t looking and pick them out of the garbage. These old, worn sneakers were my “trophies” – and they deserved to be on display. So I would write my name, “MAYO,” in big letters on each shoe, and tie them together by the laces. I’d wait until it got dark, after all my old neighbors would go upstairs for the night, then I’d toss my old sneakers over the elevated telephone wires that outlined the corner of my block: 27th Street and 23rd Avenue.
Every kid on my block tossed their old sneakers over those telephone wires. Soon it became the “thing to do,” and kids from other blocks would walk or bicycle over to toss their old sneakers over those wires. Within a couple of years there were hundreds of pairs of old sneakers hanging from the telephone wires on my block.
One day a reporter from either the Daily News or New York Post did a story about my block entitled, “Sneaker Street.” The photo that accompanied the article wasn’t flattering; it made my neighborhood look like a slum. City Hall deemed the sneakers hanging off the wires a safety hazard, and ordered Con Ed and Ma Bell workers — escorted by cops and the FDNY — to cordon off my corner. Then they hoisted huge ladders up and began the lengthy task of taking down each and every one of our trophies.
All the kids from the neighborhood converged on my corner that day and we booed those city workers incessantly for hours. As soon as they were done and all the cops had cleared out, we all ran home to grab an old pair of sneakers to toss them over the telephone wires once again.
I love going back to my old neighborhood, even though it’s changed quite a bit — mostly for the better. The grocery store my friends and I used to race to for potato chips, 25-cent water, and candy is now a “gourmet deli,” and there’s a “mani & pedi” place where the funeral home used to be. “The Shack,” which was an old converted car garage that sold the best Souvlaki’s you’ve ever tasted, is now a four family dwelling.
Places like Q.E.D. are a wonderful addition to the neighborhood, but while I was there getting ready to perform, I noticed that there wasn’t a single pair of sneakers hanging from those telephone wires.
Ever since that night, I can’t help but think about digging through my closet for a worn-out pair of Skips and driving back down to my old block just to toss them over those telephone wires…you know, just for old times sake…the way we did Back in the Day.
Who’s with me?