Do You Know the Shoe Shine Man?

Don Ward: Classic New York City shoe shine man

Don Ward: Classic New York City shoe shine man

Do you know the shoe shine man, the shoe shine man? Do you know the shoe shine man, the one on first avenue?

Okay, not quite as cute as “Do you know the muffin man” but I got my shoes shined yesterday. While you may not think that’s a big thing (anyone can buy shoe polish and rub it on their shoes), it’s a big thing to me. I suck at shining shoes. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s just a “practice makes perfect” issue, but it seems like all I do is create a mess when I try to rub polish on my shoes and take it off. I’m not talking about the little squiggy bottles you buy for your $10 shoes, I’m talking about the hard polish in the can.

So I pay to have my shoes polished on occasion. In Houston, I found a couple of shoe shine guys working at local car wash/detail shops. For $5 you’d get a great shine, but the car wash business is so competitive that one shop bought out the other and fired one of the guys. And the other guy was in such high demand I stopped trying to get my shoes shined. It was just too expensive to take my car in for a wash every other day.

The first guy, the one who was fired, knew shoes like no one I’d ever met before. He was an older gentleman and had obviously been plying his trade for a few years. He could clean your shoes and polish them while carrying on an interesting conversation. The sun had trouble outshining my shoes after he got finished. He spoiled me.

I remember I couldn’t find him one week, so I took my shoes down to the Houston Shoe Hospital. They did an okay job on the shine but when I saw the shoe shine man again he took one look at my shoes and said (as if his wife had just betrayed him), “Why, these shoes have been electric buffed….”

How do you tell the difference? It must be the cracks in the polish.

So imagine my pleasant surprise as I was walking down first avenue near Pioneer Square in Seattle yesterday when a guy sitting on a little wooden bench beside the street hailed me. He looked at my shoes, first. “Sir, you want a shine?”

I looked down. Yup. My shoes were glum. Every woman looking at my feet would have known what he saw instantly. Me, I didn’t pay no heed to the problem until he called out to me. But there was his gear all set up beside him. The dude may not have a fancy rig, but he clearly was serious about shining shoes because he was sitting in the cold shadows of a building. And most of the people walking past us were wearing sneakers (I still cannot get over how many people in Seattle wear sneakers with dressy casual slacks).

I obviously needed a shine but I also needed to eat and the clock was ticking. “Maybe tomorrow,” I promised. “Are you here every day?”

“Every day,” he replied, looking disappointed. He must be turned down by a fair number of people with ugly shoes, but at least he knows which shoes should be shined. I took hope from his established knowledge and the fact he said he would be there.

Moving on, I found a pizzeria that wasn’t as crowded as all the other little eateries, got my pizza, and ate a quick lunch (the place started to fill up as I left — I have that effect on people). I looked at my watch and noticed I still had about 15 minutes left in my lunch hour. So why not see the shoe shine man? It had been so long….

He did a good job. I’ll be walking his way with a few more pairs of shoes. And when he finished, I asked how much. “Oh, just make my day!” he said, “Just make my day.”

Well, Seattle is an expensive place to live, in my opinion. But I didn’t want to pay too much for ten minutes’ work. So I said, “Well, in Houston I paid the guys $5.”

“Just whatever you feel it’s worth,” the shoe shine man said. He’s good, I’ll give him that, but I held the line at $5. He couldn’t have been doing too poorly, since several people stopped to say “Hi” to him as he shined my shoes, and because when I came back to him, he was eating a burger and fries even though he had packed his lunch in his little carry-bag.

I’ve been wondering what to do about my Pronto Uomo shoes here in Seattle. The Houston Shoe Hospital is a long way off and eventually I’ll have to get these shoes reconditioned and resoled. But at least now I know I won’t have to get them electric buffed….