Puttin’ the realness in

It has frequently occurred in my life that I will pass by an opportunity or service being offered an hundred times, noting to myself that I would rarely if ever make use of that service or product and wondering how such a person or business can continue to operate when the service or product they offer is so manifestly uncompelling, later to discover a need for just such a service or product and then be unable to find it.

I used to wear what I have always called “tennis shoes” all the time, Reebok’s classic white during my thirties and New Balance in latter years. Hard leather shoes, what I call “man shoes”, have always hurt my feet. If I had to wear them for a wedding, I was irritable and couldn’t wait to get out of them. My company’s dress code is Seattle Software Startup; T-shirts and sneaks by summer and fleece and sneaks by winter, jeans the year long. But I decided several years ago that I wanted to look my age, not like someone trying NOT to look his age.  I thought I’d try to find a comfortable pair of man shoes, at least for my workday, and I landed in a pair of brown Rockport Margins, size 10.

I have lived in these shoes ever since. They’re unbelievably comfortable, and I walk a lot so I’m the one to ask. In my travels around the city I have never felt like I had to get them off my feet, in fact never thought about them at all, except, when passing an angled glass doorway, how dashing I look in them.

About six months ago I realized that my Rockports were starting to look pretty beat up, and it occurred to me to go looking for a sidewalk shoe-shine man. I’d seen several over the years, or maybe I’d seen the same guy on different occasions. They’d be sitting on a low stool against a wall and as well-dressed professional men would walk by they’d say, “hey, brother, let me brighten those up for you!” After I started wearing my Rockports, the offer was extended to me. If I was not in a hurry I smiled and said no thanks, and if I was I ignored their pitches. Now that I could see myself availing myself of the services of a shoe-shine man, I reasoned that it would be easy to find them precisely because it had lately been so hard to avoid them.

Months went by, however, and I saw no sidewalk shoe-shine men. I walked everywhere looking for them. Or rather, everywhere I walked I kept an eye out for them. I had a visual memory in my head but couldn’t remember which street it had been on. I stumbled across a photo on Flickr of an old man who, according to the caption, used to sit at First and Pike, near the Market, but the photo poster couldn’t remember seeing him around in a long time. Others suggested I step into Nordstrom’s, Seattle’s  famous upscale clothier, because they had a bank of chairs there where shoe-shine men operated. But I didn’t want the shoe-shine factory experience. I didn’t want to read the paper in a chair while someone worked quietly on my shoes as though I were not attached to them.

I wanted a sidewalk vendor. Because that’s how I roll, that’s why.

Today on my lunch break I came out of Barnes and Noble at Seventh and Pine, where I’d been doing research on an author I thought I might want to read (in the end, not), and my cell phone rang. It was my wife, Angela, to remind me that I’d be on my own for sustenance tonight, since she and my daughter would be getting home late from some friends’, and would I mind drawing a bath for Mara around 6:30? Just past Sixth Avenue, while I was focusing on Angela’s words to translate and log the salient data (“eat solo – bath 6:30”), I became aware that someone I was passing on the sidewalk seemed to be shouting at my feet.

It was a shoe-shine man, sitting on a stool (I assume, or a bucket; his jacket covered it so I couldn’t see it). He was a middle-aged black man, with a close-cropped grey beard, lean face and brightly sparkling eyes. He had a metal shoe post in front of him. Around him on a blanket or cloth he had laid tubes of lotion, brushes, rags, tins of Kiwi polish of various colors, and other tools of his trade. From the ground up, he was dressed in a pair of black shoes (Echoes, he said) that shined like the chrome on a limo, black trousers, a black shirt or sweatshirt, a long black coat, and a black cap. He looked like a crow, perched there, and he made the movement of a crow with his head when he cawed at me.

“Shine!” he was yelling, as though he might induce my scuffed shoes to change their appearance merely by commanding them verbally. “Shine!” he yelled again. “Right here, brother. Shine!”

I stopped and turned, finally noticing him fully. “Oh, honey I gotta go. I just found a shoe-shine man and I’m going to get my shoes done”. The man heard what I was saying and started reaching for his gear as I signed off.

I asked him how much.

“Aw, man just give me a tip,” he said. “Something. Anything. Five bucks. Just help me out.”

I asked how long it would take. I was already late back to the office.

“‘Bout a minute and a half. Just want to shine them up for you.” He patted the shoe post and I put my foot up in front of him. He squirted some Cadillac Boot & Shoe Care leather lotion on the toe and started working it in with his hands, which were strong and dark and creased.

Anything you do good, brother,

you do with your hands.”

From this moment on he did not stop talking. He spoke in a pleasant mix of descriptions of his process, assurances and exclamations, and paraphrases of what he’d said the instant before. I don’t recall a lot of what he said at first, because I was a little preoccupied with trying to figure out how I should comport myself during this transaction. Physically, I mean. What I should endeavor to have my bearing look like. I’ve said before that while there are plenty of blacks in Seattle, I haven’t mingled with a lot of them. The Seattle brand of racism is polite disregard. My awareness of this gives me an absurd Woody-Allenish neurosis whenever I’m in company of color, a fear that no matter what I do, I will do or say something offensive. In this case, I doubted this man was thinking about black or white, but rather brown, the color of my shoes, which he was trying to bring out with his lotions and sprays. But I was hyper-aware of how things looked to passers-by. I felt a discomfort in standing over someone who was working at a lower level, and attending my person, as it were. The thought of people ministering to your very person, your body or clothes, as though you are a king, or a god — well, it’s a little creepy.

Thankfully, in this country it’s a service someone offers and that you pay for, not a dishonor loaded onto the backs of the oppressed. But then again, standing tall there as a black man toiled beneath me just had that sort of lordly feel, and after all, we did have slaves in this country. I wondered what to do with my hands. It was a gorgeous day that made me want to breathe deep and place my arms akimbo, but that felt as though it might look impatient. I tried resting one hand on my upraised thigh and the other in the pants pocket of the leg that was straight. That felt better; it brought my shoulders in a little. It helped that we were conversing, or at least I was listening. He needed only the merest promptings to continue.

“See that? You know what I’m doing? This here, you know what this is? I’m bringing out the natural color of the leather. See that? I’m working it in like that. I’m working it into all those little cracks and places. That’s gonna put life back in the leather. Make it last. I do it by hand. That’s the right way. Some people think they can do this with a brush. They just brush it in. But that’s just superficial. Anything you do good, brother, you do with your hands. See how I work that in? I’m puttin’ the realness in.”

First he worked the Cadillac lotion into the leather, massaging and spreading and lifting flaps and laces to cover all parts of the exterior of the shoe. Then he spritzed the shoe with something. Then he passed a stick of black polish around the edge of the sole. Next he put the brown Kiwi polish on, again with his fingers, then mixed some tan in as well. Then while that was setting, he did the same to the other shoe. While that one was setting, he took brushes and a rag to the first one. He chattered the while.

“It goes backwards. Business is actually better in the winter. People start wearing shoes again. Stop wearing tennis shoes. I work until 5:30 or 6, you know, people gettin’ out of work about that time. And I get people at lunch time. I figure I work six or eight hours, I’m done. But I like to put my hours in. Especially now. I got to work a little more for the holidays coming.”

I asked him his name. “They call me Shoe Shine Eddie,” he replied. “But you can leave off the Eddie and just call me Shoe Shine. I’ve been shinin’ shoes for nineteen years. I’m always out here. This is my spot. Either here or down there in Pioneer Square. You know where them clubs are? The J&M that just closed down? I go down there. Right on First. First and Washington. Here’s First. And here’s Washington. I’m right there by the J&M. Or by the Bread of Life. I shine shoes over at Occidental too. It’s allright if I get a little black on the brown part. I’m gonna be brushing that. It’s alright. It’s going to be just the right mix of color. This is the brown. I’m putting that color back in. This is about as brown as a shoe should be.”

I said I bet he could tell a lot about folks by their shoes. It was cliche, I knew, but he loved it. His hands stopped moving and he looked up sharp and smiled. “Hohhh. You got that right. I can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. I look at your shoes, now. You get a lot a walking in these shoes. You might be like a reporter or something.”

“I am a writer.”

“Ah, you see? That’s close. That’s the thing about it. I don’t think about it too much, I just say it. And I might be wrong, but I say it anyway. You see this? This is a little bit of tan. I work that in after the brown. Not too much, just a highlight. I know that brother you’re talking about, but he ain’t there no more. First and Pike, that’s right. But he passed on.”

After brushing the shoes, he snapped a grey-brown rag taut and then dove in with it repeatedly, then away, as though he were shining the hood of a cobra — one stroke of the rag each time. Here his whole upper body leaned in quickly and he voiced a loud “hooph” sound, a sound that made people turn and look.

When he was done, the shoes gleamed as they had never gleamed before. I thanked him and gave him a fin. He asked my name and then used it several times while telling me once more the various street corners where I might find him.

I need to do some research on what a fair price is for a shoe-shine because I have a feeling I underpaid. Eddie was really working, and it wasn’t any minute and a half, more like twenty minutes. And he knew his stuff, or at least he put up a convincing bluster. But the bottom line was, the shoes looked good. Walking back to the office, I felt underdressed.

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19 Responses to “Puttin’ the realness in”


  1. 1 Louis November 4, 2009 at 03:05

    “I wanted a sidewalk vendor. Because that’s how I roll, that’s why.”

    I laughed at this line. You had to have been wearing a fedora to go along with it!

  2. 2 jstwndrng November 4, 2009 at 10:47

    I can definitely see my fedora’d hero Joseph Mitchell getting a sidewalk shine, getting the lowdown on doings around lower Manhattan from Willy the Shine or Two-Bit Bowery Jones. I don’t know that I could pull it off. I’m more the driving cap sort. Or maybe the aviator cap sort. Or maybe the propeller-beanie sort.

  3. 3 Marni November 4, 2009 at 11:31

    I disagree- you’ve grown into being a fedora kind of guy, you just don’t see it! Great story- I was going to ask if it was really just a few minutes because it sounded longer…and then you took my question away by answering it. I hope you find him again.
    Just for the record…and don’t hate me for this, but I do know what of I speak…it’s Nordstrom. There are many Nordstrom stores. It’s never Nordstrom’s. It tends to be a small peeve of certain people I may or may not know (or be related to)!

    • 4 Ben November 12, 2009 at 01:41

      Marni:

      Just wanted to note that the plural form of many things really tends to leave me ruffled as well. As in the old guy I used to work with on the aircraft in Bothell. He’d always refer to the Boeing plant or aircraft as “Boeing’s”. It sounded bleedin’ ridiculous and made him out an oaf.

  4. 5 jstwndrng November 4, 2009 at 12:23

    No hate. My apologies: I forgot you were a princess of that venerable house. Nordstrom it is. Still and all, you can’t keep old-timers from talking about what’s going on “over at Boeing’s” right now. It should be considered a mark of achievement to have a business name that people ransack with abandon and yet everyone still knows the referent because the name is so famous.

    Funny, now I think on’t, I believe that I say “Nordstrom’s” because it was at one time “Nordstrom Best” (= Nordstrom + Best, as in two fine houses under one roof), but as a kid I thought Best referred to “top of the line” as in “the best Nordstrom had to offer”, so I remembered it throughout my early years as “Nordstrom’s Best” (like the Rack would be “Nordstrom’s Second Best”). I know, this fine and cogent thesis doesn’t excuse my crass misusage. But what are you gonna do, knock my fedora down over my eyes?

    • 6 Ben November 12, 2009 at 01:43

      Hint for the younger brother. Always read all the comments in the blog before blurting out your thoughts. You’d already mentioned the “Boeing’s” vernacular before I saw Marni’s comments. I’m a bit of a dolt.

      • 7 jstwndrng November 12, 2009 at 10:29

        No worries. I do the same thing; I’m constantly embarrassing myself over on VintageSeattle.com. Your comment simply added veracity to mine (and I’m always kind of charmed by the mispronunciations — they signify for me a community taking ownership of something through their language). Glad you’re here.

  5. 8 scott November 4, 2009 at 22:40

    I just got a pair of Rockport moccasins! very comfortable.

  6. 9 Louis November 5, 2009 at 04:07

    Didn´t some of the Nordstroms attend BHS?

    Matt, I can see you wearing a fedora in a media scrum – perhaps after a big sporting event or political rally. You would stay silent in the back of the pack. Then just as it seems all the questions have been asked and the press conference is about to break up, you would ask that one loaded question, that one question that makes the athlete/coach/politician give pause and remark, “That´s a good question..” Or that perhaps makes the interviewee feel so uncomfortable, that he/she would blurt out, “This interview´s over!!” and leave in a huff…That one question that makes your cronies envious and collectively think to themselves, “Why didn´t I ask that?” Yes, I see you in a fedora.

  7. 10 jstwndrng November 5, 2009 at 10:51

    Scott – you’ll never take them off! You should walk them over to Sixth and Pine after you’ve scuffed them up for a few months and let my man Shoe Shine Eddie “brighten them up” for you.

    Louis – I think we had a Jim Nordstrom. Marni would know better. Hey, I love that scenario you painted. It was like you were seeing right into my own mind, that part of my mind that doesn’t know reality from… well, a musket, for instance. Coinkadinkly, I went into Bernie Utz’ hat shop on Union yesterday, thinking I might explore what a decent quality fedora runs and how much it might cost to put one on a boat to Salvador – because I think YOU need one, Mr. Fedora nut – and what I learned was interesting and dismaying. I won’t be sending you a fedora, sorry to say. A decent rabbit felt one starts at around $145.00, and why bother with something of lesser quality? The woman who works in there put about a dozen fedoras on my bean (not all at once, mind), explaining the difference between rabbit and beaver, between a center pinch and a porkpie, and what makes a fedora a fedora (turns out it’s just the fact that the brim in front is made so that it can be flipped up or down, which I didn’t know). I thought I had owned several fedoras in my youth, such as the one in the Pear Grape Shot I posted a month or so ago, but it turns out these were not fedoras because both the front AND back were made to be bent down a la Indy Jones. The hat lady showed me why I should not put a hat on my head the way they do in the movies, and why I SHOULD do the little zip thing across the front of a fedora after I put it on (which they also do in the movies and I thought it was just for the coolth but it’s to set the downward bend). I found a fedora I like for my head, which is a long and narrow head that in my opinion doesn’t support a very wide brim (nice as it is to have a wide brim when you’re tackling a mountain like Desolation in the June sun). It was a brown (“cordova” to be precise) center pinch that goes by the name of “Saxon” and is in the “Royal Stetson” line, which means it’s their starter quality rabbit. Stetson has several grades indicated by different insignias, like Royal and Sovereign, before you even get to the beaver hats, which are most expensive. Rabbit fur comes not only from farmed rabbits but from wild rabbits, too, which makes me hesitate. And the beaver is ALL wild. At least (some of) the rabbit fur is a by-product of the rabbit-as-food industry. Unfortunately, wild rabbit fur has more water-repellent oils in it than farm raised. The different grades Royal, Sovereign, etc. indicate the mix, increasingly wild as you go up the price scale. The beaver hats start at about $500, which still seems cheap to me considering it is an unsustainable and inhumane product – unless someone can show me a menu with beaver consomme on it. Anyway, looking in the mirror I could see that the fedora looked pretentious with my sage-green twill “everyjoe” cotton jacket and jeans, even with the shine on my shoes. My quest to become Joseph Mitchell will have to wait until I’m willing to rock the entire suit. Which may happen, but I might have to age a little yet. Louis, I mostly see you in something tan or ecru with a festive red band, matched with a short-sleeved linen shirt as you sit on a balcony overlooking the Atlantic, but in cooler, foggier climes I have you in a black porkpie with a grey band. I could be wrong.

  8. 11 Kip November 5, 2009 at 18:07

    I am not sure which discussion I enjoyed more, the shoe or the hat. I feel teh need for both Rockports AND a fedora, but I still get to rock the tennies at work. I fI wore anything more upscale from dirty sneeks, people would think I was looking for a job. That’s not to say……

  9. 12 Louis November 6, 2009 at 07:45

    Matt, thank you for the thought. A good fedora does set one back a bit. And in this tropical climate, I fear it would also be a bit too hot for my cranium. I do have a fedora sitting in storage back in Vancouver. I purchased it at a wonderful hat shop on Granville Island called Edie´s Hats. I could not tell you what brand it was or of what it was made, but I am certain it was not made with animal as it was quite affordable (I think I paid $65 Canadian). It was a classic grey number with a black band, that I wore with the brim zipped down on cold, clear fall/winter days. But when I wanted to do a little Art Carney (“Hey, Ralphy boy!”) I would bend the brim up. I also have – back in Vancouver – a black summertime porkpie hat with grey band, I kid you not. I often wore it to the beach while listening to Sinatra on my iPod…

    Aside from all my baseball caps that I brought with me to Brazil, I also brought one hat that I had purchased at the Levi´s store in the Premium Outlet Mall just past Marysville. It´s light and offers good protection from the sun.

    (by the way, how do they put a hat on in the movies? It seems to me there are/were various ways..)

    http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/photo.php?pid=30481846&id=1073243751

  10. 13 jstwndrng November 6, 2009 at 12:09

    Kipper, you will not regret it if you chase down some Rockports. I just saw them in the L.L. Bean catalog if your local independent family-owned corner shoe store — struggling in the heart of the old downtown Boise while business is siphoned off to the volume shoe warehouses in the megaspread stripmalls over by the freeway — doesn’t have them. Margin is the name. I got chocolate brown. You actually commented on them when you were here. Said you, “Those look like work shoes!” Ha! The illusion was successful.

    Louis, black porkpie with grey band, I totally pegged it. I saw it as in a vision. Maybe your fedoras (the porkpie is still a fedora if you can drop the brim, I’m hearing) are wool felt. Utz’ had some of those and they looked real fine, too, and didn’t cost as much. *** The way I always see Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant don the headwear on is to pinch the crown between the thumb, index finger and middle finger, but Hatswoman Nicole said this wrecks the form in short order. You’re supposed to do it the way Stan Laurel did it. Both hands, using the rim. Hard to do with a heavy overcoat, or a dame, slung over one arm. Maybe there are other Hollywood ways to put on a hat, but I tried this one, which prompted the lesson. The only other way I know about is the way Michael Keaton did it in Johnny Dangerously…the flip up and roll-on. *** By the way, thanks for the link. I’ve seen that photo before and it’s one of my favorites of you. That’s the kind of narrower brim I was talking about. A lot of them are much wider.

  11. 14 Kip November 6, 2009 at 15:21

    I just HAD to Google pork pie hat, as I was a bit unclear as to what they were. I also found a website called withaswing.com, that sells a fedora for $30! Prolly wouldn’t last as long a the more expensive ones, but it is a good looking hat!

    • 15 jstwndrng November 6, 2009 at 15:45

      I checked it out. I like the brown center pinch that they show but apparently do not sell. Those are wool felts. The cool thing about those is that unlike the animal felts they are crushable, to an extent. You can grab ’em and go, get them caught in the taxi door, etc. and they snap back to shape…UNLESS (says my hat source at Utz’) they get crushed AND wet at the same time, like if you sit on it for a while at a baseball game on wet bleachers. Then the hat is permanently misshapen and they can’t reshape it. Nobody can. Not even a wizard. So it’s a calculated risk that you’ll never crush it wet and long — if you don’t, then the wool felt is a wise buy, and one you can feel good about considering that instead of dead rabbits it requires only sheared sheep — woah! I just now figured out why the New York gang was called the Dead Rabbits. It was because of the felt bowlers they wore…wow! You learn something new every day if you’re not careful.

  12. 16 Louis November 6, 2009 at 19:58

    I think you should get it, Kip! You can´t go wrong with a fedora. Porkpie hats are great too…especially if you´re in a ska band..or Las Vegas…

    Holding a fedora with both hands on the rim. That calls for a line like, “Well, gee it´s nice to see you…” “Shucks, that´d be swell..” or “I only wanted to…but I..I see.” Whereas, pinching the crown begs for: “You better come with us…”, “I´ll be seeing ya, O´Malley…” and “Yeah? Well, we´ll see about that!”


  1. 1 Shine me on, shine me off, just don’t run me down « Just Wondering Trackback on November 11, 2009 at 00:45
  2. 2 More about the trees « Just Wondering Trackback on June 4, 2010 at 14:05
  3. 3 A friend for the streetcorner « Just Wondering Trackback on February 23, 2011 at 23:19

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