Nice shoes

This weekend, Joe Posnanski posted a syrupy sweet story about how his daughters just love to compliment strangers.

Here were all these strangers wearing nice clothes; she was in heaven. I love your dress. Your earrings are beautiful. Your shoes are nice. Of course, everyone then returned the compliment, not realizing that this was like trying to trade jabs with Ali, and she would come back with a follow-up compliment and another — you’re pretty, you’re handsome, you have nice hair, I love your glasses, your teeth are so white, on and on, infinity.

Good for Joe. As a father of three daughters myself, I instinctively want the life stories of my girls to be filled with nice and sweet and beautiful and magical things, too.

And it’s not just dads who feel this way. Last week, I had this sugary exchange on Twitter with Amanda McCarthy, wife of Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy:

@Mrs_McCarthy32  Amanda McCarthy
I will never be too old for a pb&j with apple slices.
@kenarneson  Ken Arneson
@Mrs_McCarthy32 My four-year-old daughter would like to eat at your restaurant.
@Mrs_McCarthy32  Amanda McCarthy
@kenarneson my apples are always served with caramel! I am a kids dream!!

And isn’t that a lovely thought?

Don’t we all want a world where a child’s natural gifts are appreciated and developed to their maximum potential? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a world where everyone can have all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they want?

* * *

But somewhere in the back of my mind is a voice telling me to be careful of such sweet desires. I guess I worry that a society that desires sweetness and purity will treat violations of purity with, well, a puritanical harshness.

The flip side of saying that if you’re good and sweet and pure and innocent, you can have all the pb&j you desire, is this: if you’re not pure, if you’re tempted to check out a dangerous hole and fall in as a result, then you’re on your own. Nobody’s going to be bringing you any ladders to get yourself out.

The line between innocence and guilt in a puritanical culture is very very thin. It becomes difficult to distinguish between genuine innocence and a fake innocence for appearances. For the genuinely pure, one minute you’re a cute, sweet, precocious kid who loves to give compliments to strangers, and the next…

* * *

This story is about one month old.

I drive to the Home Depot on the border between West Oakland and Emeryville to buy some mortar for a brick wall that I’m repairing. I get out of my car and start looking across the sea of parked cars for one of those flatbed shopping cart to put the bags of mortar on. I spy one a couple aisles over, and head for it. As I get there and grab the cart, I hear a voice behind me.

“Hey, man, I like those shoes!”

I turn around and see an African-American man, maybe about 50 years old, standing beside me. He’s a small guy, skinny, maybe 5’7″ and 150 lbs dripping wet.

“Wow, is that leather?” He bends down and touches my shoes. I’m wearing some casual loafers, nothing fancy, but they do have a strip of brown that at least looks like leather. I have no idea if the leather is real or fake, but I can’t really think about that, because, well, there’s a guy touching my feet.

“Mmm, hmm!” he says enthusiastically, as he stands back up. “Those are nice. Where can I get me some of those?”

“I got them online,” I say. “They’re called Keens. If you Google ‘Keen shoes’ you can find them.”

He is smiling at me. His smile has gaps, he is missing some teeth. At that moment, two things occur to me: (1) a guy with dental problems probably doesn’t spend a lot of time online, and (2) even though this conversation is really bizarre, I can’t help but like the guy.

I start pushing the cart towards the store entrance. He walks with me. He says, “Say, listen, man, I just got out of Santa Rita. You know what that is?”

“Yes,” I say. Santa Rita is the Alameda County prison.

“Ha!” he says. “I bet you’ve never been in there, have you?”

I chuckle. “No.”

He says, “I could use a little help. Could you spare a dollar so I could buy a taco for lunch?”

“Sure,” I say. I reach into my pocket and pull out my wallet. I look in and — crap. I don’t have a dollar bill. I don’t even have a five. So I pull out the smallest bill I have and say, “Here, here’s a ten.”

I close my wallet, put it in back my pocket. I look back up to tell him, “You have a good–“. But I don’t get the chance. He’s already gone, vanished back into the American wilderness.

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  • I guess I don’t follow what you mean by “such” sweetness. Overall I got the feeling that you were kind of distinguishing between the sweetnesses on display above and below the asterisks.

  • Ken Arneson

    I debated whether I should spell out the connection, or just leave them juxtaposed. I guess I made the wrong choice. Or I didn’t write the connecting paragraph well enough. Maybe I’ll edit it some more…

  • No, I’m sure you’re fine–I’m notoriously bad at picking up on things that, in the grand scheme of things, probably don’t need to be spelled out.

  • Ken Arneson

    Well, maybe I’ll leave the post as it is then, and spell it out here in the comments.

    Anyway, reading Posnanski’s blog about his daughters made me think about the Home Depot guy, for obvious reasons. I imagined that this guy was once a sweet little kid who loved to give other people compliments, like Posnanski’s daughter.

    I thought about how this guy had textbook salesperson skills: he could establish a connection with a person, he could get them to like him, he could make them sympathize with him, and he could close the sale.

    Then I thought…where the hell did it go wrong? Why was this guy in jail instead of the head of sales for a major corporation? How did our society let a talent like that just fall into a hole and be wasted?

    So I guess that’s what I’m worried about…our puritanical American society wants to make the lives of our children perpetually innocent, all sugar and spice and everything nice. Which is all well and good, until you stray from that innocence. If you fall into a hole, tough luck, you’re on your own, kid. Handing out ladders to people who fall into holes is something our society thinks we cannot afford to do.

    But maybe if we don’t expect such innocence in the first place, the holes won’t be as deep or as hard to climb out of.

  • Ken Arneson

    I changed my mind, and decided to spell it out some more. It’s a George-Lucasian sin, I know, but I’m not a sweet, pure, innocent boy anymore.

  • But it’s us dumb little kids like me who need stuff spelled out for us! If you’re catering to little kids, that’s gotta be sweet.