Five years ago this week, I arrived in South Carolina. It was the 33rd state and eighth month of my year-long 50-state tour. By this time, the trip had reached a certain level of comfort and normalcy. Staying at the house of a stranger was just another day.
My hosts in Charleston were Mark and Lindsay, a young couple who were dating. While taking a break from exploring places like Folly Beach and Angel Oak one afternoon, Mark’s friend Justin came by the house. Naturally, we were amused by having the same name. However, I didn’t have my name tattooed across my abs in gothic letters like I remember Justin having. He was a character. In all the ways I’m an introvert, Justin was an extrovert. Full of enthusiasm, stories and energy.
We visited for no longer than an hour that day, but just before he left, I made a comment in passing, “I’ve always wanted a pair of shoes like that.” I knew nothing about them other than they were a pair of New Balance with a simple retro feel.
Justin was quick to respond, “What size are you?” He offered to bring me a pair the next day. We were delighted to not only have the same name, but share the same shoe size. True to his word, Justin brought me a brand new pair of New Balance 574 shoes the following day, navy blue with white accents.
Here was this guy I met in passing, no longer than an hour each of those two days, and he was generous enough to give a pair of shoes to this complete stranger.
Less than a month later, I was in NYC. I knew that I would be doing lots of walking around the city so I figured it was a perfect time to break out some new shoes.
They served me well, very well. From that point on, I wore them nearly every day through the end of my trip in September. But it didn’t stop there. I kept wearing them. They became so comfortable that all I wanted was one pair of shoes. They were my daily shoes, my clubbing shoes, my running shoes. Even my shoes during an Upper Peninsula winter. As far as I was concerned I didn’t need another pair.
Fast forward three years, and I was still wearing them daily. The seams were falling apart. The sole was worn completely flat. The heels were worn so dramatically uneven that they could probably caused some sort of permanent back damage. They had taken on a story of their own. Countless times while wearing those shoes I told the story of Justin giving them to me.
On February 24th, 2011, my best friend Khalid surprised me and our friend Ian with a late birthday present. He got all three of us a pair of New Balance 574s. He had heard plenty of me talking about how much I loved these shoes and how much he needed to get a pair.
And life became a little more fun as we went crazy with our new shoe obsession. It became our exclusive club. We bought the domain name 574s.com, we got the Twitter handle @574s. There was just one unwritten rule. And that is 574s must be given to you, just as it started when Justin gave me my first pair.
With a new pair to wear, I finally retired those original 574s.
Another year passed and on February 19, 2012, it all happened again. A group of friends met for breakfast at the Fleetwood Diner and Khalid dropped another surprise on us. Are you kidding me? Now we all have another new pair of 574s and my third pair personally.
A tradition was born, and a few friends are now closer than they were before. All because a guy I met briefly in South Carolina offered to give me a pair of his shoes. I never had a direct way of contacting Justin. But that week, I knew I had to get back in touch with Mark and let Justin know how much has happened as a result of that first pair.
That week I got ahold of Mark and let him know the 574s story and asked how Justin was doing. I learned that Justin had committed suicide on New Year’s Eve, 2007, a half-year after meeting him.
For four and a half years, I had told the story countless times of how I got these shoes. During that time I had no idea of Justin’s death. It was a disorienting feeling to know for years I’d been telling a story about someone unaware that the entire time he had already passed away. Justin was 26 years old.
It was a reminder that, so many years after my travels all of these stories are still evolving. I thought about all the people who made a large impact on my life, and in most cases I’ll never know how much of an impact I made on their lives.
I remembered that when I met Justin, his girlfriend was pregnant. At the time of Justin’s death, his daughter was just two weeks old. It was this that especially compelled me.
Justin’s daughter is now four and half years old. Justin did one selfless act for me that grew into something more, and something I never forgot. In fact I was reminded of it every day when lacing up my shoes. I couldn’t let go of the idea that his daughter should know about his generosity and one kind act of giving that grew into many more. I reached out to Mark with an idea as I thought to myself, “The least I could do is pay this forward and buy a pair of shoes for Justin’s daughter.”
Recently, Mark put me in touch with Justin’s sister, Amy. I sent her a message with the idea of buying Justin’s daughter some shoes, not knowing what kind of response I would get. Within minutes she asked me to call right away. I was nervous, but Amy couldn’t have been any sweeter, I think the Southern drawl helped. She told me about Justin and how close they were. She told me about his daughter and I learned her name is Avery. I was in tears. The emotion I felt that night was as raw and authentic as I’ve ever known.
I try to delight in the small things of life. I was delighted that Justin and I shared the same name and same taste in shoes. Turns out that Avery and I share the same favorite color, purple.
Today I got a message from Amy, “She got the sneakers and she loves them!”
For the last several years I never had to buy a pair of shoes. They were all given to me, a chain reaction that Justin unknowingly started. There will be times of adversity for Avery growing up without a father, I hope one small thing I can do is make sure she never has to worry about having a good pair of shoes, because for the last several years I’ve been fortunate to have just that, all because of her father. And, just maybe, we can be pen pals, along with my new friend, Amy.
Every so often I find out something new from a host on my trip. I get to hear about how their lives are changing. Sometimes there is great news like marriage and children being born. Sometimes there is sad news like illnesses and death. And then there are the simple things, like a pair of shoes or a couple that still sends tangerines to my parents every year at Christmas.
There are so many people we meet only once in life. Too often, we give little importance to these moments. But sometimes we only have one chance to make a good impression, to do something generous, or to just be kind. No matter how short a time you may meet a person, or as trivial as a small gift can seem, you may go through your entire life never knowing its true impact. It is often these passing moments where the greatest impacts are made.
* Fifteen minutes after publishing this post I went for a run in pair #2 of my 574s. Within 45 minutes of posting it, I ran into my friend Kevin (almost literally) who was visiting Khalid for a night. Not only had Kevin already read this, but Khalid was giving Kevin a pair of New Balance 574s while I was writing it.
* It is now two weeks since I first wrote this story. While at work today, a box arrived on my desk from USPS. It was from Amy. When we first talked she had mentioned Justin may still have a new pair of 574s lying around. She mentioned she would send them to me. She’s as true to her word as Justin and I now have my fifth pair of 574s. These ones are extra special. She included a kind card, noting that Khalid can take a break. But also, just how big of an impact a small gesture can make.