Nick Van Exel: The J.C. Penney Prophet

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“That’s right. That’s right. Yea. I know. Oh my, oh my. It’s me, it’s me. It’s Nicky Van E.”

He’d just walked into JC Penny’s and he was pointing at me. He was headed straight for the shoe department.

I’d started 3 weeks ago. Junior Sales Associate was my title. My older brother worked at the Game Stop a few shops down in the same mall and he’d got me this job. It was the summer before my junior year of high school and I had been going crazy at home. More than that, though, I needed a car. Cars lead to girls. Girls lead to fun. To get a car, though, I needed money. That’s why I spent my days trying to talk the old women that would visit the J.C. Penney’s into buying a package of socks when they bought their Reebok Princess Classics.

Now, the man himself, Nick Van Exel, was in need of my services.

He wore an oversized white T-shirt and a yellow pair of Jordan brand shorts. On his feet, a pair of black Nike sandals with no socks.

He was chunkier now than in his playing days. Not as lean as he used to be. He was 40 pounds from his Laker years and 20 pounds from his Mavericks era. Still, he oozed with confidence. He didn’t walk. He strutted.

He had picked up a pair of Hushpuppies and held them up to the light, rotating them to view them at every angle. The glow of the bulb bounced off the light brown of the shoe and, as he stared at them, he spoke the word, “Nice.”

Again. “Nice.”

Over and over he said it.

“Nice.”

He finally looked up and turned to me. Training kicked in.

“Hello sir. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“My man. You ain’t gotta be all professional with it. You got these in a 13?”

“A 13?”

“Don’t make Nicky repeat himself, homey. Yea. A 13. Joints is fresh.”

“Alright. Be right back.”

I walked into the back room and grabbed the box.

Nick Van Exel is in my store. I’m about to sell a pair of shoes to Nick Van Exel.

On my way out I grabbed one of the socks we always used when people without socks came in to try on shoes: Roundtree & York tube socks. Gold at the toe. Gold at the heel.

I turned the corner out of the storeroom and he was sitting in one of the chairs in front of the Polo shoes display.

“Oh you brought out the gold for Nicky’s toes. I see you. I see you with the bricks.”

I sat the shoe box down in the chair to his left and pulled the right shoe out. I filled the last four loopholes, adjusted the tongue, pulled the paper out of the toe, and handed him the shoe. He was admiring the socks, wiggling his toes, making his foot bounce.

“I’ma have to cop me a pair of these on top of the Pups. Like my feet’s in clouds right now.”

He put the shoe on quickly, refusing the shoehorn, choosing instead to stomp the heel down into the shoe. He stood up to tie them, double knotting them and then turning them to the side to look at them in the foot level mirror sitting on the floor.

“I done did it again,” he said while looking down at the shoes, “I’m on my Tide flow. Too fresh.”

“They look good, sir. Do you have enough room?”

I bent down to check how much space was between his big toe and the end of the shoe.

“Sir? Oh no, my Pops is here?”

I looked up at him. He started looking around frantically. Ducking in and out of the sale racks of shoes to my left.

“Pops showed up in JCP?!”

I was confused.

“Sir? I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“I’m sayin. You sayin ‘Sir’ got me thinking my Pops is in here. Call me Nick, homey.”

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes, Nick.”

“Alright then, give me these and a six pack of these socks.”

I walked him over to the register and started to ring him up. I scanned the socks, then the shoes. I felt him watching me.

“Yo. Lemme ask you something. How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Sixteen?! Whatchu doin working?”

I looked around to see if the volume of his voice had attracted any looks. It hadn’t.

“I’m trying to get enough money to get a car.”

“A car? Shoot. When I was your age I stayed at the courts all day. Didn’t leave. Didn’t need no car. You got legs, boy.”

“I need a car.”

“Why you need a car?”

“I just do.”

“That ain’t a reason. Why you need a car?”

“Girls like cars.”

“Girls like buckets.”

I put my head down and bagged his shoes and socks. He paid in cash.

“You play ball?”

“Sir?”

“Nick. And I asked you if you played ball.”

“Yea. I play. Why?”

“I figured you played. Dudes that can play always got that attitude. Get all pissed when you ask them questions. And I could tell you knew who I was. I read the eyes, young’n. What position?”

“Point.”

“Alright then, show runner. I see you. You know you should be in the gym, though, right?”

I stared back up at him and handed him his bag. I didn’t say a thing.

“Yea. You do. You know.”

He turned to walk out of the building and into the parking lot. As he was nearing the door he turned back and faced the store. He held the bag up with one hand and pointed at me with the other.

“Yo! You want a cheerleader? Get in the gym.”

I quit that day.

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