As told by a Shoe Shine Boy

I WAS BORN IN ST. LOUIS IN 1949.  MY PARENTS HAD COME FROM EAST TEXAS LOOKING FOR A BETTER LIFE. I WAS THE OLDEST OF 7 HUNGRY CHILDREN,   MY DADDY WENT OUT ONE NIGHT AND  NEVER CAME HOME AGAIN.  MOMMA CALLED THE POLICE AND WAS TOLD HE WOULD PROBABLY COME HOME AFTER HIS OTHER WOMAN PUTS HIM OUT.  THEY TOOK A REPORT,  AND  PLACED IT IN THEIR COLD CASE FILES, NEVER AGAIN TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY.  MR. WHITMOORE DOWN AT THE SHINE PARLOR,  TOLD MOMMA THAT HE HEARD TALK THAT DAD GOT TANGLED UP WITH SOME BAD PEOPLE AND THEY TOOK HIM DOWN IN THE FLATS AND KILLED HIM. THE FIRST MONTHS WITHOUT DAD WERE VERY HARD.   WE WERE JUST BARELY GETTING BY WHILE DAD WAS STILL AT HOME,  NOW WITH ONLY MOM’S INCOME TO LIVE ON,  WE WERE HUNGRY MUCH OF THE TIME.   WE WERE ALWAYS  A WEEK FROM GETTING EVICTED.  EVEN SO,  MOM LEAD US IN DAILY PRAYER AT SUPPER TIME.   ALTHOUGH MOST OF THE TIME,   IT WAS TURNIPS AND HOT WATER CORNBREAD, SHE GAVE THANKS TO GOD AS IF WE WERE EATING STEAK AND POTATOES.  LATE AT NIGHT I COULD THE MUFFLED SOUNDS OF MOM’S CRYING,   COMING THROUGH THE BEDROOM WALL.  I FELT ASHAMED THAT THERE WAS NOTHING I COULD DO THE EASE HER SADNESS.

I WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD WHEN I WENT TO WORK AT THE SHINE PARLOR.  MR. WHITMOORE GAVE ME THE JOB TO HELP US OUT AFTER DADDY WENT MISSING.  I THINK HE WAS SWEET ON MOM,  BUT THEY NEVER GOT TOGETHER.  AS WE BEGAN TO KNOW HIM,  HE BECAME A SORT OF A GODFATHER TO US.  YEARS LATER,   MOM TOOK HIM INTO OUR HOME WHEN HE WAS NO LONGER ABLE TO CARE FOR HIMSELF.   HE TAUGHT ME ABOUT TAKING CARE OF LEATHER OF ALL KINDS,   HE ALSO TAUGHT ME HOW TO REPAIR SHOES.  BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT HE TAUGHT ME TO DO WAS LISTEN.  HE SAID  “MOST PEOPLE COULD SHINE THEIR OWN SHOES,  BUT THAT THEY CAME TO THE PARLOR TO HAVE SOMEONE LISTEN TO THEM.”   HE HAD THE STORIES OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE,   FROM ALL WALKS ON LIFE.   MR. WHITMOORE SAID “THAT HE DIDN’T JUDGE ANY OF THEM.   THAT’S WHY THEY KEEP COMING BACK.’   HE SAID THAT  “YOU COULD TELL WHERE A PERSON HAS BEEN BY LOOKING AT THEIR SHOES.  YOU COULD ALSO KNOW WHAT STATION IN LIFE, AND WHERE THEY WILL LIKELY GO,  BY THE TREADS OF THEIR SOLES.”   HE SAID “THAT PEOPLE FEEL THEY CAN TRUST THE SHINE BOY.”

I WORKED FOR MR. WHITMOORE UNTIL I LEFT FOR THE NAVY AT 17.  I CONTINUED TO LISTEN AND WROTE MANY OF THE STORIES THAT I WOULD HEAR IN A DIARY, WHICH WAS REPLACED BY A JOURNAL  SO THAT I’D HAVE ENOUGH ROOM FOR THE DETAILS I WANTED TO PUT IN WORDS.   I GOT OUT OF THE NAVY IN 1973. I WAS DISCHARGED AT THE NAVAL BASE IN SAN DIEGO AND GOT A JOB AT A DATA PROCESSING COMPANY IN TOWN.  ONE DAY AFTER MISSING MY BUS RIDE HOME, I WENT INTO A SHOE SHINE PARLOR ACROSS THE STREET FROM MY BUS STOP.   I HAD ABOUT 40 MINUTES TO WAIT ON THE NEXT BUS.

I WENT OVER TO THE SHOP.  I WAS GREETED BY AN ELDERLY MAN ,  WHO ESCORTED ME TO THE ELEVATED BENCH.  A KID CAME OVER AND BEGAN TO INSPECT MY SHOES.  THE ELDERLY MAN WATCHED CLOSELY.  THE KID PICKED HE CLEANING BRUSH AND BEGAN TO DUST OFF  MY SHOES, WHEN THE ELDERLY STOPPED HIM.  “WHOA! WHOA,  THERE SON!  NOW  WHAT DID I SAY THAT YOU ARE  SUPPOSED TO DO FIRST?  THE KID STOOD UP AND LOOKED QUESTIONINGLY AT THE ELDER MAN.  HE STARTED TO SAY  “YOU DUST OFF THE SH………….AW MAN!   I KNOW WHAT I FORGOT!……HOW ARE  YOU DOING TODAY?  I’M TERRY, AND I WILL BE SERVING YOU TODAY!  THE OLD MAN SAID  “THAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING!  LET YOUR CUSTOMER KNOW THAT YOU APPRECIATE HIM AND PUT HIM AT EASE.  HE CAN GO ANYWHERE TO GET HIS SHOES SHINED! ”  MY MIND WENT BACK TO THE FIRST DAY I WORKED AT  THE EMPORIUMBASICALLY,  MR.  WHITMOORE TAUGHT ME THE SAME THINGS.  I STARTED TO WONDER IF THEY HAD GONE TO A SHOE SHINE  COLLEGE.  JUST LIKE THE BARBERS WENT TO BARBER COLLEGE.  IT JUST SEEMED TO ME THAT THIS MAN AND MR. WHITMOORE WERE ON THE SAME PAGE.  THE OLDER MAN FINISHED TEACHING THE YOUNG MAN HOW TO SERVE THE CUSTOMER, I LEFT AND CAUGHT MY BUS WITH A GLISTENING SHINE ON MY SHOES.  I BEGAN TO MAKE THE SHINE SHOP A WEEKLY RITUAL.  ABOUT THREE MONTHS LATER,   I WENT INTO THE SHINE SHOP AND TERRY WASN’T THERE.  I ASKED MR. HAROLD LEE  (THE ELDERLY MAN) WHERE HE WAS,  AND HE TOLD ME THAT HE GOT CAUGHT TRYING TO ROB A LIQUOR STORE AND THEY PUT HIM IN JAIL.  MR. LEE SAID HE OFFERED TO BOND HIM OUT, BUT TERRY SAID HE WAS GUILTY AND THAT HE DIDN’T WANT MR. LEE TO WASTE HIS MONEY.  MR. LEE WAS BUSY THAT DAY AND HE WAS A SHINE BOY DOWN.  BEFORE I KNEW IT I WAS VOLUNTEERING TO HELP HIM OUT.  MR. LEE SAID THANKS BUT HE DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO TRAIN ME TODAY,  HE WAS JUST TO BUSY.    I TOLD HIM I KNEW MY WAY AROUND A SHINE PARLOR,  I THOUGHT I COULD HANDLE IT.

MR. LEE THOUGHT A SECOND AND TOLD HE TO GO AHEAD.  HE COULD WATCH ME AS I WORKED.  HE ASKED ME  “WHAT’S THE FIRST THING THAT I NEEDED TO DO?  I TOLD HIM “ I GREET THE CUSTOMER, AND PUT HIM AT EASE!  MR. LEE FLASHED A BRIGHT SMILE AT ME AND REPLIED ” I SEE YOU GRADUATED SHOE SHINE COLLEGE!”  I WORKED ALL THAT EVENING SHINING SHOES.  MR. LEE CLOSED AT NINE P. M. THAT NIGHT AND CAME AND HANDED ME 40 DOLLARS.  I TOLD HIM  “NO THANKS I WAS JUST TRYING TO HELP OUT.’    MR. LEE  SAID TO ME  ” BOY TAKE THIS MONEY!  I WANT YOU TO COME BACK AND WORK TOMORROW.  YOU SHINED CIRCLES AROUND ALL THESE KIDS AND YOU READY TO TAKE OVER THE SHOP RIGHT NOW! THE DAY I HAVE TO RETIRE IS COMING UP REAL SOON, AND WILL I NEED SOME ONE TO KEEP THE BUSINESS GOING!  I TOOK THE MONEY BECAUSE MR. LEE’S INSISTENCE DREW ON MR. WHITMOORE’S YEARS OF TEACHING.  I KNEW THAT I WOULD BE FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE.

THE BUS RIDE HOME FOUND ME THINKING ABOUT THE EVENTS OF TODAY.  I HAD FALLEN RIGHT BACK INTO STEP AT THE SHINE PARLOR.  GRANTED IT WASN’T THE EMPORIUM,  BUT IT WASN’T MUCH DIFFERENCE.  ALL THE OLD SHINE TRICKS THAT MR. WHITMOORE  HAD TAUGHT ME CAME BACK RIGHT AWAY.  FOR THOSE SIX  HOURS.  THE EMPORIUM FLOWED THROUGH MY VEINS AND TOOK ME BACK TO ST. LOUIS MO. 1958.  I THOUGHT ABOUT THE THINGS MR. LEE HAD MENTIONED.  HE THOUGHT THAT I WOULD BE ABLE TO RUN THE SHOP TOR HIM WHEN HE HAD TO HANG UP HIS POLISH RAG.  I COULDN’T TELL HIM THIS EVENING THAT I WOULDN’T BE ABLE TO QUIT A 12,000 A YEAR JOB TO COME DOWN HERE AND TAKE OVER A DYING BUSINESS.  THERE I SAID IT OUT LOUD.  THE TRUTH WAS THE TRADE WAS DYING OUT WITH EVERY OWNER’S FUNERAL.  MOST OF THE SHINE PARLORS OWNER’S CHILDREN WENT OUT AND GOT AN EDUCATION AND NEVER LOOKED BACK.  TO MANY OF THEM SHINING SHOES WAS A THROWBACK TO RACISM AND NOW IT WAS BENEATH THEM.   ALSO,  PEOPLE HAD CHANGED TO THE HABIT OF JUST DISCARDING SHOES THAT HAVE RUN THEIR COURSE.

WHEN THE SHOE PARLORS WERE IN THEIR HEYDAY,  SHOES WERE EXPENSIVE AND HARD TO COME BY.  WHEN THE SHOE MANUFACTURERS FOUND CHEAP LABOR IN THE FAR EAST,  THEY CAME OUT WITH A LOWER QUALITY PRODUCT AT A REDUCE PRICE AND FLOODED THE MARKET WITH SHOES.  NOW IT WAS MOSTLY PROFESSIONALS, SEMI- PROFESSIONALS,  AND THOSE WHO GREW UP IN 50’S THAT STILL PATRONIZE THE PARLORS.  I DECIDED  THAT I’D HAVE TO TELL MR. LEE TOMORROW,  BEFORE HE GOT HIS HOPES BUILT UP TOO HIGH.  IT’S SOMETHING THAT HE MIGHT NOT WANT TO HEAR, BUT IT WOULD BE BETTER TO BE UPFRONT WITH HIM.  I ENJOYED WORKING THERE TODAY,  THE INTERACTIONS WITH THE CLIENTS WERE REFRESHING AND UNTIL TODAY,  I DIDN’T  KNOW HOW MUCH I MISSED IT.  IT WAS SORT OF LIKE EATING SOMETHING THAT YOU HADN’T HAD SINCE YOU WERE A CHILD,  THEN REMEMBERING HOW MUCH YOU LOVED IT SO VERY LONG AGO.  YES, TODAY WAS A TRIP TO ST. LOUIS IN 1958,  WORKING TO TAKE AWAY MOM’S SADNESS.

THE BUS DRIVER STARTLED ME, YELLING FROM THE FRONT.  “HEY JOE! YOU GETTING OFF HERE TONIGHT OR WHAT!”  I LOOKED UP AND NOTICED THAT THE BUS WAS AT MY STOP, WITH THE SIDE DOOR STANDING WIDE OPEN .  I HUSTLED MYSELF OFF THE BUS,  APOLOGIZING TO THE DRIVER.  THE NEXT DAY,  I STOPPED AT THE CORNER GROCERY AND BOUGHT A FORTY DOLLAR MONEY ORDER.

……………TO BE CONTINUED

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