Shoe Shining

In retrospect (2011), I am somewhat amazed that I did what I did. Even though the world was different and the streets were safer in 1958, I cringe now at the risks I took carrying that shoeshine box around my circuit at the age of eight into the wee hours of the morning. Today, when I see an eight-year going down a street alone, I wonder where are the parents. If it is nighttime, I call the police.

I wonder what I thought about during the walks in between taverns and barbershops. I do recollect many unpleasant moments. One's attention shifts from shining shoes to flight when chairs, tables and bodies start flying. One particular fight had me trapped in a corner with nowhere to go till one drunk had pulverized another with fist and feet into a motionless mass of cuts and blood. I think it was instances like that which prompted some bartenders to tell me I could not solicit customers in their bars. I learned which nights those bartenders had off so as to try my luck--can't carry that ugly box and pass up an opportunity.

About once a year, my shoeshine box would be stolen so it was back to the hammer and saw. One time I saw another shiner with my box that had been stolen. I said nothing. He was much bigger and older than me. He knew I knew as he smiled at me. Beyond the cost of replacing paste, rags and brushes is how the ease of the job is tied to the tools being broken in. New rags and brushes require a lot of work to get them in shape. A new can of polish is a pain until it has that dip.

The money was good, about $40 a week. A good day on the weekend was $10 or $12. Some nights the take was less than a dollar. Amusingly, if my memory serves me right, my monthly pay when I joined the US Navy after high school was $39 a month--one fourth of what I made at half the age! I bought a violin to "culture" myself but soon realized I was tone deaf. I bought a nice pair of roller skates for the Saturday afternoon circuit break which someone stole.

High points were the Saturday kielbasa and dill pickles (3/.25) at a downtown butcher shop, me sitting on my box on the curb chewing away. Friday nights was a deep-fried fish sandwich. Saturday night was hard salami with mustard and limburger on rye ... and onions--didn't have time for friends so my breath did not matter. If people noticed, they might think it was their feet. I appreciated my food which I bought with my labor and embarrassment.

While there were many kind people, I now realize that most of the kindness came from pity for that scrawny little ragamuffin with a terrible speech impediment. Some made fun of me. Only an evil, dysfunctional adult would mock a little kid working instead playing. Some gave me the cost of a shine without the shine saying their shoes were ok as is. More than one girl told her drink-buyer to let the boy shine the shoes. One family was really nice. I envied the three daughters who had the luck to sit every night in the bar with their parents. Wow, did I ever have some bad values back then. I don't envy them now--if they escaped the dysfunctionality of being forced barflys it would be a wonder.

My circuit: Locations of taverns (mostly gone) where I made a night circuit except for Friday and Saturday nights with two trips. On Saturday and Sunday, I did one or two midday circuits.

  1. 1584 No. Broadway (now MLK Boulevard) Grandma's house
  2. Division & Water
  3. Water & Garfield
  4. Garfield & Jaspers
  5. Jasper and El Dorado
  6. Downtown, Lincoln Square
  7. Water and Division
  8. Grandma's house.

The circuit took three or four hours. Grandma always wanted me home by 10pm on school night. Weekends ended at 1pm. The circuit seemed big back then but now it, like my hometown, seems small.

I stopped signing shoes when I started high school. Classmates made fun of me on the street and in the classroom. Attempts to work as dishwasher, etc., were fruitless. So, I learned firsthand how jobless time becomes jobless crime. Yes, the idle minds of the unemployed are the workshops of the devil, a consequence of how adled minds are the wasteshops of habitual politicians, tenured economists and corporate myops.

While I think my early years fortified me for later life--don't sweat the small shat--I would commit suicide rather than relive the angst, anger and uncertainty. For the politicians and businessmen who play the ploy that they cannot plan for the future because of uncertainty, I say, "You don't know uncertainty." They are like the man who cried because he had no shoes until he saw the man who had no feet.

When I hear their stories of challenged upbringings, I wonder, "Where's the beef? Do they believe their own PR and teleprompters?" They are like the well-heeled kids who complain that they cannot buy the latest, most expensive tennis shoe. They emote on lacking wants when they have never lacked any needs. I polished shoes. They polish lies.