Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Shoes on the line

Old shoes hang from an overhead telephone cable in Thokoza, on the East Rand. Residents are not entirely sure why the line is festooned with the shoes - one said they advertise the fact that dagga can be bought in the area, others said the shoes are thrown onto the cable by recovering dagga smokers. Most residents said children throw them onto the cable when they are beyond repair. - The Times, Johannesburg, 24 August 2010
The photo on Page 2 of the Times shows dozens of old shoes hanging from a phone line. Intriguing? Only if you believe in the urban legends.

The idea of shoes on phone lines identifying drug-dealers or gang activity goes back decades. In 1996, Cecil Adams, author of The Straight Dope (book, web site and column) listed more than a dozen theories for the "truth" behind the phenomenon. Barbara Mikkelson over at urban legends oracle Snopes adds eight theories of her own.

Urbanlegends.about.com's David Emery admits "up front" that "there's no definitive answer":
Like most people, I've noticed the darned things dangling high over virtually every neighborhood I've ever lived in and always assumed it was an artifact of one of those adolescent male challenges or rites of passage — e.g., let's see who can fling a pair of old sneakers over the highest wire.
But he also quotes a report that gets closer to the heart of the matter than most urban legend theories:
... an Associated Press story out of Tucson hoisted up the conventional wisdom that dangling sneakers are an emblem of gang activity and knocked it down with a quote from the police: "This is another kind of urban myth," a spokesman said. Like law enforcement officials everywhere, Tucson police have found no correlation between dangling sneakers and crime.

Tucson Electric Power officials added that in any given week, 5 to 10 pairs of sneakers are removed from power lines all over the city of Tucson: "The highest periods of activity seem to be after school lets out for the summer break," as well as holidays.
The South African versions of the phenomenon that have cropped up from time to time have shared the same characteristics - and the same theories - as the American ones. This, at the very least, shows that this country is sharing in a global urban legend.

However, there is one additional element that has been tagged on in South Africa, going back to the days of illegal shebeens in the townships. In the 1990s the urban legend was current that a white flag flying at a house meant it was a shebeen. But if that was too obvious, "look for plastic bags in trees with their carry handles both neatly around branches - in a way the wind could not have done".

Those legends, in turn, come up in the context of the colour-coded crimes discussed on this blog in 2007 (and included in my new book of urban legends, The Burglar in the Bin-Bag, out from Penguin Books in October 2010).

Among certain sectors of South Africans (usually those hankering for the old days), there is a near-emotional belief in the idea that trash left lying or hanging around is an indicator of crime. However, there is no evidence to support the belief. And there is plenty evidence to support the urban legend nature of the belief.

Taking all the evidence from all the global debunkers together, let's debunk this once and for all: old shoes hanging from telephone lines do NOT denote gang activity, drug dealers or shebeens. As dull as it may sound, they are merely ... old shoes hanging from telephone lines.
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