Why do you see pairs of shoes hanging by the laces from power lines?

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Dear Cecil: Why am I seeing pairs of shoes tied together by the laces hung up on power lines? Lloyd S., via AOL


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Been getting this question a lot lately. Lacking a proper way to investigate it, I figured I might as well cast aside the pretense of science and post it to the Net, specifically, the on-line Straight Dope area on AOL and alt.fan.cecil-adams. A sampling of the answers I could read (with a lot of stuff on AOL, you can’t tell if what you’re seeing is bad spelling or Esperanto):

  • I heard tennis shoes hanging over a power line meant you could buy crack there.
  • It’s a time-honored tradition to throw your sneakers over the power lines on the last day of school.
  • When I was a lad of 13 in Nashua, New Hampshire, we used to steal pairs of shoes that had been carelessly left on the sidewalk by kids who had popped open a fireplug. At this point we would play “over the wire keep away” until (a) the kid’s mother, brother, father, or a passing police officer put a stop to the game, or (b) shoes went up but didn’t come down.
  • When I was in the military and guys were getting ready to get out and go back to a “regular” life they would take their combat boots and paint them up all funky before tying the laces together and throwing them over a wire.
  • I agree with the drug theory. I saw a news brief on Amsterdam, and there was a pair of shoes hanging in the ghetto where everyone does drugs. So I assume it means “stop here.”
  • Either they’re meant to increase visibility for low-flying aircraft, frighten rattlesnakes away, or just for the hell of it.
  • I read in the newspaper that shoes would be thrown over the power lines to serve as a reminder/warning of a murder that occurred nearby. This seems proven to me: as I was traveling past a home in which a drug-related murder had occurred about three months prior … a pair of shoes were hanging from the power lines in front of the home.
  • Depending on what part of the country you are from, one shoe from a light post or sign represents the death of a gang member. Usually seen in the inner city.
  • When I was a kid (late 60s, early 70s) the boys would tie together (1) their own sneakers that they hated or (2) sneakers of the weak and/or overweight kids and toss them over the telephone wires for fun. It usually took a number of tosses to get them up there, so the boys took this as a challenge.
  • The fact about the shoes hanging across the overhead wire is: my wife won’t let me bring them into the house after I walked across the barnyard. This is a certified true fact.
  • Used to be a gang sign — sneakers hanging over telephone or electrical wires were to designate gang turf.
  • I’ll admit to being a former shoe thrower. After getting a new pair of sneakers, it was a common ritual in my neighborhood to tie the shoelaces of your old pair together and throw them up on the telephone wires. What else are you going to do with your old pair of sneakers?
  • I used to teach inner-city youths in Washington, D.C., and witnessed older children throwing the shoes of younger children over tree branches and telephone lines, or a gang of children would take a single child’s shoes and toss them. This was, as far as I could tell, an exclusively male pastime. The kids did this to be mean and make a difficult time of life even more difficult. One fun part about this type of kid is that if an adult tells them to stop, the adult is “disrespecting” their right to do whatever they want. The other fun part about some of these kids is that they are armed. I am not restricting my criticisms to children in inner-city Washington either.
  • There is no solid cause-effect going on here. Just your everyday kid hijinks. I suppose you could say it’s a way of marking territory. Shoes can be seen hanging all over the beach area here in San Diego, over lampposts, power lines, trees, etc. It’s as pointless as jamming gum in water fountains or throwing water balloons at cars. Just one of the things kids do.

So there you have it. It’s either a harmless prank, a rite of passage, or a sign of the end of civilization. You figure it out.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.