TRUE STORIES — Shoe shine boy
“Look J.T., my ankle boots you shined a month ago still look great,” Linda said as she donned them to head off to work last week.
“I’m a very good shoe shiner, Ginny,” I replied in my best Forrest Gump imitation — then went on to say I’d recently been having flashbacks to my early shoe shine days because of the recent cold and snow.
Picture this: It’s the winter of 1962. The temperature is in the teens and when I go to pick up my bundle of newspapers on the front porch I see snow is drifting over the steps. No way to ride my bike — so walking my route is the only option.
Except for … my 18-year-old brother, Johnny, who’s asleep in the top bunk in our room. He has a driver’s license.
“Johnny … Johnny,” I say as I nudge him gently. “Johnny … Johnny.”
“Huh … eh … what?”
“The weather’s really bad. It’s cold and there’s lots of snow and I can’t ride my bike. Will you drive me?”
“Come on Johnny.”
“I’ll make you cocoa and toast for breakfast.”
Another silence followed by, “Not enough. You have to shine my black ROTC shoes.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll go fold the papers and then come back,” I say as he rolls over and goes back to sleep.
It wasn’t just that scene I remembered with Linda’s comment. I also recalled the weekly rite of shining my heavy, black, altar boy shoes in preparation to serve Sunday high Mass at Sacred Heart.
The process hasn’t changed since then; spread newspaper on the floor to keep from staining it; wipe the shoes with a damp cloth (most times, as a boy, I’d also have to scrape crusted mud off with a butter knife before I could do this); lift the lid on the shoebox constructed in Mr. Quenoy’s woodshop class; select a worn toothbrush for the grooving application of the paste where sole meets uppers; then, with an old green washrag, apply KIWI polish in a slow, circular motion.
Then, with a cotton sock turned inside out and pulled over my hand, finish the shine with brisk, rhythmic strokes. For a ROTC “spit shine” I had to use damp cotton balls to apply repeated layers of polish and an old nylon stocking for the final buff to a high gloss.
Harry’s Hat Shop, located between the Fox Theatre and Crowell’s Drug Store in Pittsburg when I was growing up, had a swell, old time shine parlor where a droopy-eyed, built low-to-the-ground, shoeshine master known as “Possum” could make the oldest of leathers look like new.
When waiting for a ride after summer matinees at the Fox, I sometimes lingered by the doorway watching Harry (always well groomed in high-waisted slacks and dress shirt with a bolo tie) as he cleaned and blocked hats at the steamer and Possum (in jeans and t-shirt) as he crouched over shoes on brass footings below a row of raised seats and methodically shined cowboy boots, loafers, captoes, wingtips and more.
Possum applied the paste with his fingertips and snapped his cotton shine cloth — just like the Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy in the Red Foley song — to signal the gleaming shoes were finished. I loved not only the vision of it but the shoe polish smell flowing out onto the wide sidewalk to mingle with the perfume and soda fountain scents of Crowell’s and the popcorn smell lingering near the Fox.
When I was a high school junior, I bought a pair of cordovan and black saddle shoes at Ramsay’s and climbed up one afternoon to place my feet on the brass footings for a professional shine; the passersby through the shadowed plate glass on the sidewalk looking in at Harry, Possum and me in a vintage hat shop / shoeshine scene reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.
Sometimes my dad, who sold Knapp shoes to supplement his railroad income, let me go with him on sales calls when I was a kid. He sold mostly to workers who worked on their feet all day long – waitresses, nurses, barbers, salesmen and mechanics — and bought them because they were easy on their feet. I remember him saying that one pair of good shoes, even if they’re a little more expensive, is worth two cheap pair.
My earliest memory of getting a new pair of shoes, though, is of coming out of a shoe store (I think it was DeNeve’s) in Pittsburg as a small boy, letting go of my mother’s hand, and beginning to leap up and down on the sidewalk. When my mother asked what I was doing I informed her that I was “testing my new Jumping Jacks!”
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or firstname.lastname@example.org