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.