From Gum Soles to Gumshoes and Dicks to Kicks
Simple question: What does today’s sneaker culture have in common with crime fiction?
They both have a similar origin in the late 19th Century. Back then the first sneakers were made with gum soles that made for a comfortable, soft step people liked. A secondary feature of these soles was a new level of quiet as the wearer strode or “snuck” around.
It was only a natural turn that some of the first sneaker wearers were the early detectives who wanted to keep quiet on the job. In the early 1900s when the Pinkertons were a big deal, Dashiell Hammett was a wee lad, and “dick” meant private eye, another popular term for detective was “gumshoe.”
My own interest in sneakers began when Michael Jordan dominated the NBA. Back then, Jordan and Nike invented the modern sneaker game, and I had to be satisfied pining for his signature kicks, watching the local rich kids wear them to school.
By college, I made frequent trips to the mall to cruise sneaker stores—Champs, Footlocker, Foot Action—for their latest wares. I could’ve blown a bunch of cash on Jordans, but I had accepted my big man, low-post game and the heavy David Robinson hightops that followed. Though I loved to handle the ball on the wing and shoot from outside, I knew I was no slasher, leaper, high-flying aerial artist. I was grounded. As a Celtics fan, I later swore by the Dee Brown-era Reebok Pumps for my feet.
That was then.
What surprises me now, as you may already know, those same Jordan sneakers from the golden years of 1986-1996 are now the hottest pairs on the street again, sought out by hip kids and high school fashionistas alike. Those Air Jordans that came out when “Sneaker Culture” was first being invented are regularly re-released in “retro” colorways and new twists. They outsell the signature shoes of Kobe, LeBron, Kyrie, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry combined.
And now I can “afford” them. Sure, I could put $200 into something more useful than an eighth or ninth pair of mint-condition top of the line sneakers. Especially now that I have a daughter. On the other hand, my budding collection of Jordans—the ones I wanted twenty years ago—makes me happy, even inspires me.
Take for example my new pair of Jordan V’s in signature black with red trim and a silver tongue. When Tinker Hatfield, the man behind many of Jordan Brand’s iconic designs, went to find inspiration for this fifth iteration of the Jordan shoes, he looked to WWII fighter planes, most notably the P-40 Warhawk with its signature shark teeth on the front. Check out the trim along the sole of these when you have a chance to see what he did.
For a few months I wore these exclusively in my study to write. They gave me a lift I really needed. Ultimately I started wearing them outside, onto the streets of San Francisco that Sam Spade first strode in 1929 when Hammett published The Maltese Falcon. Later I wore them around Spenser’s Boston, the streets he patrolled in pre-“Air” Nike running shoes. Once I’d worn these V’s outside, though, their writing spell (and use for inside) was broken.
So a few weeks ago I purchased a new pair of blue and orange Jordan IV’s with white trim and gum soles. Now I slip on these shining beauties each morning, when I’m ready to write a new, exciting scene. Their soles have been banned by the NBA for what they might do to arena floors, but in my office the rug doesn’t scuff. So I’ve got my gum soles on now as I write this. Just looking down at them brings me joy.
I rock the sneakers for sneaking as I create my own private dicks and dick-ettes. My newest character is Clara Donner, SFPD homicide. She chases a serial killer down the same San Francisco streets that Sam Spade trailed Floyd Thursby. In Everyone Pays, she doesn’t wear sneakers to the job, but when she haunts a certain Potrero Hill rec court at night, she keeps it true to the game of original sleuthing. She rocks the gumshoe Jordans from my golden days, keeps her steps soft as she drains threes from the perimeter, beating the men at their own game.
Seth Harwood received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and went on to build a large readership for his first novel, JACK WAKES UP, by serializing it as a free audiobook online. Currently audio versions of Harwood’s novels and stories have been downloaded over one million times.
He is the author of four additional novels, EVERYONE PAYS, IN BROAD DAYLIGHT, THIS IS LIFE and YOUNG JUNIUS, as well as two collections of short stories, A LONG WAY FROM DISNEY and FISHER CAT & OTHER STORIES. A novella in the world of Kurt Vonnegut dealing with the themes of time travel, writing, religion, love, and fatherhood is available in paperback here: AS MUCH PROTEIN AS AN EGG.
Harwood currently lives in western Massachusetts and is at work on a second Clara Donner novel.
He teaches creative writing and English classes at City College of San Francisco, Stanford Continuing Studies, and Harvard Extension. Other jobs throughout the years have included commodities floor trading clerk, bartender, copy-editor, rare book cataloguer, high school English teacher, basketball coach, and freelance journalist.