As I was walking up from the train in Penn Station, I was greeted by conductor Mike from one of my evening trains. Mike said “Tom, don’t look down when you walk, hold your head up proud and look where you’re going.” “Mike,” I replied, “I have two dogs at home, and when I walk outside with them I always look down so I don’t step on anything.” Penn Station is much like my backyard; you never know what is on the floor that you may step in.
This day had me shining my shoes at home the way my dad taught me in second grade. I remember that day clearly, the ritual of it all. From the bottom of the kitchen closet would come the box that held the supplies. Dad never shined just one pair of shoes but all of the kids’ “Sunday best” shoes. Newspapers would be spread out at the kitchen table, along with a can of Kiwi brand black shoe polish, the one with the funny turn thing-a-ma-jig on the side to open the can with. We only had black since all we had were black shoes. There would be two cut-up parts of an old T-shirt, one for the polish and one for the shine—and of course the brush. I would see Dad take out many a frustration on a pair of shoes with that brush.
This day, I sat shining my best pair of shoes for my stepson’s upcoming wedding, doing much of the same ritual in the same manner, Kiwi can and all. I do pass a shoeshine store daily in Penn; it is always crowded with all male shiners and customers. One of the last bastions of the male-dominated world of yesteryear, I imagine. The prices for a shine range from $8 to $25 plus a tip. I am not sure what you get for $25; maybe the shoes put themselves on.
The customers are all dressed to impress: suit, tie, not a hair out of place, a good shine tops off the look. The shoe-shiners are all dressed in white jackets with a clean towel over one shoulder. There was a day when they were called “shoeshine boys” because the job was usually done by a boy on a city street corner; other names include bootblack or shoeblack. Today they are called Jim, Oscar, Pete, or Jose. The customers all have their favorite person they will wait for, as they do for a barber.
I’ve never been in the store myself, I enjoy the semi-mindless ritual at home, and it gives me a sense of accomplishment. I admit I still spit on the shoe to get the dirt off first; my dad taught me that. Then apply the polish from the can, carefully in circular motions getting in all the cracks and up the tongue of the shoe. I set one down on an old copy of The River Reporter while I prepare the other shoe. Next, after allowing time for the polish to dry, is the brush; there is a rhythm to it, and it’s soothing. It soothes me at least; my dogs Toby and Marshall can’t quite make out what I am so busy with. Marshall is there with his ball in his mouth waiting for me to take a break. Finally it’s time to get the shine on with a breath or two on the shoe to warm up the polish. Out comes the clean rag, and I buff them until I can see my reflection. As I admire my job well done I am not sure if this is a $25 shine, but for me the ritual is priceless. I got my shine on.