As a young boy, I always enjoyed watching my father shine his shoes. The ritual fascinated me and many men of his “greatest generation” served in the military and shined their shoes on a daily basis.
Getting a “shine” was as American as apple pie and although the shoe shine boy has gone the way of the 8-track player and black-and-white TV, many households probably have a shoe shine box tucked away somewhere in the cellar. Today, you can buy a pair of chorofram shoes which have a permanent gloss and require no polishing at all.
My dad, who often whistled a marching tune while shining his shoes, began his routine with a standard-issue shoe shine box. Built on top of it was a small inclined platform on which to place a shod foot. The box usually contained a variety of well-used cloths, brushes and cans of polish. Kiwi was the preferred brand of shoe polish and brown, black and neutral were the tones most commonly applied.
My father would use the largest brush in the box to clean the shoe of any dust and debris that had accumulated from the day’s wear. Next, he’d dab a circular brush into the preferred tone can and liberally coat the shoe with polish. A miniature brush, similar to a toothbrush, was also used to apply polish into the hard-to-get-at stitched seam which connects the shoe to the sole.
Before proceeding to the cloths, my dad used a smaller-sized brush to vigorously brush the polish into the shoe. In my opinion, the shoe always looked fine after this process and was ready to be worn. However, as I discovered, a shoe shine isn’t complete without the finishing touch of a cloth.
My dad would hold a cloth firmly at each end and press it against the shoe using a rapid motion, not unlike that of playing a snare drum, to establish the initial shine. For the finishing “spit shine,” he’d wrap a different cloth around his middle and index finger, twist it tight and dip his covered fingers in a cup of water. In a small area starting at the front of the shoe, he’d rub tiny circles until the desired “magical” shine appeared.
When I was a pre-teen, the Charlestown Navy Yard was a bustling center of commerce and naval ships would often dock there as part of their “port-of-call.” On these occasions, the YMCA at City Square would be filled to capacity with midshipmen. The sailors were required to maintain a snappy military appearance at all times and, hence, were always in need of a “shine.”
In a spirit of entrepreneurism, I took my father’s shoe shine box to the YMCA. Even though I had a paper route and also used my red wagon to collect and cash-in recyclable bottles, my dad’s shoe shine box became my primary source of income.
No sooner had I “set up shop” outside the front entrance of the YMCA when a horde of sailors exited the building, many requesting my shoe shinning services. My rate was a quarter per shine. Sailors, in my opinion, were polite and courteous and, as a rule, extraordinary tippers. More than a few would pay me with a dollar bill and go about their business with a “thanks kid, keep the change” spoken in the drawl or accent native to the area of the United States they came from. It didn’t take long, however, for other likeminded entrepreneurial kids to show up. With the “booty” substantially divided, my days as a shoe shiner became numbered.
On one occasion, in pursuit of business, I ventured into the Blue Mirror Lounge on Chelsea Street, shoe shine box tucked under my arm. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, the inside of the lounge was very dim. The floor was covered in sawdust and a Conway Twitty song was playing on the jukebox; also, no one seemed to notice or care that I was traipsing about plying my trade. A patron, sitting on a stool at the end of the bar, requested a shine. After I finished shining his shoes, he handed me a ten dollar bill and instructed me to keep the change.
Later in the day, while counting out my shoe shining proceeds at home, I noticed that the ten dollar bill the customer had given me had an image of Bobby Orr, not Alexander Hamilton, on the front.