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[Text by Piri Thomas, Photographs by Leroy Henderson]
It's a helluva feeling to stand on a street corner with a shoeshine box filled with hope that you're gonna make some money and bring a brightness to something thas is dull even if it is only a pair of shoes.
"Shine, mister, good shine, only 35 cents. Shine, mister?"
Diggit, it's hard, man, to shine shoes and harder to keep your corner from getting copped by an early rising shine boy. You've got to be prepared to mess a guy up. That corner spot isn't yours; you've got to earn it everytime you shine shoes there.
When you get a customer, you both play your roles. The customer, tall and aloof: "Gimme a shine, kid," and you reply, "Yessir, I'll give you one that you'll have to put sunglasses on to eat the bright down." You adopt a serious business-like air of "Wait in line, please, first come, first served."
Sitting on your little stool in your jeans, you confidently snake out your rags, polish and brushes. You give your cool breeze customer the treatment, rolling his pants cuff up--"That'll keep shoe polish off"--straightening his socks, patting his shoe, assuring him he is in good hands, and loosening and retying his laces. You wipe your nose with a delicate finger, pick up your shoe brush and scrunch away the first hard crust of dirt. You open your bottle of black shoe cleaner, dab, rub in, wipe off, pat the shoe down. Then you open your can of polish, dab on with three fingers, pat-a-pid, pat-a-pid.
He's not looking. Spit on the shoe, more polish, let it dry, tap the bottom of his sole and smile up at Mr. Big Tip (you hope). "Next sir." You repeat the process on the other shoe.
You are now getting to the finale. You pick up your brush and rub the bristles very hard against the palm of your hand, scientific-like, to warm the brush hairs up so they will melt the black shoe wax and give a cool unlumpy shine. You peek up out of the corner of your eye to dig if Mr. Big Tip is watching your modern shoeshine methods--but he isn't.
Now the shoe begins to gleam dully, more spit, more polish, little more spit, little more polish, and a lotta tag. You repeat this on the other shoe. Now both shoes shine like crazy.
As Mr. Big Tip starts digging into his pocket, you prepare for the climax of your performance. Just as he finishes saying, "Damn nice shine, kid," you say, "Oh I ain't finished, sir. I got a special service." And you plunge your wax-covered fingers into a dark corner of your shoe box and bring out a bottle of special shoe lanolin cream "for a better preservation of leather." You apply a dab, a tiny dab, pausing long enough to say very confidently, "You can't put on too much of it or it'll spoil the shine. It's gotta be just right."
Then you grab the shoe rag firmly, like a maestro with a baton and hum a rhythm, slapping out a happy beat on the shoes. A final swish here and there. Finished! Sweating from the effort of your creation, you slowly rise from your knees, bent from the strain, your hand casually extended, palm up and murmur, "Thirty-five cents, sir" with a look that says, "but it's worth much more, don't you think?"