I miss it.
I didn’t even know how to open a can of shoe polish when I took the job, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. If you truly want to learn something, they say that the world is your oyster.
I fumbled with a paint key, trying to pry the can open. Maybe I just have to twist the metal thing on the side of the can. Maybe? No paint key? Twist. Pop. Magic. Step one–checkmark.
I talked to Robert, the old man who worked the desk at the hotel. He knew I was nervous. He gave me so many tips, kindly and discreetly.
“I’ve never shined a single shoe in my life. But I wanted this job for the pay and the hours.” I had worked 8-hour shifts at the front desk for 2.5 years, making $8.50/hour.
I started on the desk when I was only 20 and pregnant with my oldest daughter Margaret. I worked full-time during the day 7am-3pm Monday through Friday, and went to college full-time at night from 5:25-8:05pm Monday through Thursday.
I remember stretching my black tights over my big pregnant belly early every morning, never feeling like I had rested enough. The front desk during the day was constantly hectic, and I was on my feet constantly.
But after I had Margaret, I only worked one 8-hour evening shift on the front desk on Saturdays, from 2-10pm…still finishing up my BA during the week.
Shoeshining was the best job at the hotel, especially for a young mom, now pregnant with my 2nd daughter Hazel. I could teach myself how. For the difference in pay and hours, I could learn. $150 per week for 10 hours, 6-8:30am Tuesday-Friday. Plus tips. And I’m telling you–as a pregnant mom, I got some decent tips.
“I would get yourself some saddle soap.” Robert nodded encouragingly, telling me this as if I would know what that was or what to do with it once I got some. Okay, I can do that.
He talked me through the process and let me practice on his shoes. I’m so grateful for his support and instruction.
A nice hotel, the lobby was newly renovated–new draperies, new furnishings, new carpet in the dining area, new granite counters at the desk. And a bit of old world charm in my little corner of the new world–my shoeshine stand and I.
In my wooden arm chair with leather cushions, I worked crossword puzzles during my down time, always dressed nicely–my black apron with large pockets over my slacks and blouse.
The shoe shines were complimentary for hotel guests, so they usually tipped. A shine only took me 5-7 minutes. Some days I didn’t have many takers. But usually one customer inspired others, and some days I had them lined up back to back for nearly the whole 2.5 hours, maybe 12-18 shines for my 2.5 hour shift.
A $5 tip was probably the most common, but $2-5 was the typical range. I had some who didn’t tip at all. I remember one guy asking me to break a dollar, and he gave me 50-cents.
One regular customer tipped me $10 every time and came once a week. I felt almost embarrassed at first because I felt like the tip was too much. But we became friends, and eventually it wasn’t weird for me.
I had several $20 tips over the 2.5 years that I shined shoes. I remember one guy gave me $40 around Christmas when I was pregnant with Audrey. I assumed it was a mistake and tried to return one of the twenties, but he was insistent.
My biggest tip ever from one customer was $60. The man worked out a deal with me, he asked if he could bring all his nice shoes to me the next time he came through town. I said–of course.
This man had 12 pairs of Cole Haans and other nice dress shoes with shoe keepers in each pair. I barely had time to finish them between my customers from that day. So it wasn’t the best tip per pair of shoes, but it was biggest tip from one person at one sitting.
I don’t mind small talk, rather like it usually, or I can work in silence. I would follow their lead on that. You cannot be a proud person in a humble position of serving. But you can take pride in your service. And I did. I became very good at shining shoes.
A plastic ice bucket of clean water. Saddle soap and a small circular brush with a wooden handle. I wore thin plastic food service gloves. Wet the brush, tap off excess drops back into the bucket.
Saddle soap was a good suggestion. Most shoes have crevices full of dust that needs to be removed. I would lather up a small amount with my brush and scrub the shoes lightly but thoroughly. I would use a damp cloth to wipe of the excess suds, never too wet…barely damp.
The drying was possibly the best part of the shine. I used a clean, dry lint-free, cotton cloth. I would rub the soap into the leather, and I know it was pretty much like a foot massage. I would think of how much I enjoyed a pedicure, and I would take extra time on this step.
The shoes would look so much better even at this point, cleaned and dried with a slight luster. But there is so much more to be done.
Neutral, brown, black and cordovan, I had a different applicator for each. Just as I’d never opened a can of polish before, I’d never heard the word cordovan either. I learned quickly that it was my favorite color of dress shoes. I also wish I didn’t Google the word, wish I didn’t know that it was horse hide.
I applied polish in small circles, a thin coat is plenty. More polish does not make more shine, only more mess.
Brushing the polish is a lost art, I’m sure. I found that light, quick contact from the brush produced the best results. And lots of it. Quick, quick, quick, quick, quick. Bristles barely flicking against the shoe.
I could brush to such a beautiful shine that I am sure they didn’t expect it to get better. But, we aren’t done here. The shine rag. Again, the slightest pressure is best, but very lively pressure as well. Obsidian glass.
I had never noticed men’s shoes much before this job, and I do now. I feel a kinship and a deep admiration for a good shine. I know what that took, my brother.
I learned to keep a pair of nail clippers in my supplies as many shoes would have a bit of frayed stitching on the sole.
Sole dressing was the final touch, and should be applied very purposefully. I always told the guys to take care not scrape the edge of one shoe against their other shoe until the dressing was dry.
I was once a shiny new shoe. And like all young, rigid shoes, I became a worn old shoe.
Old shoes. They aren’t always useless. You might be surprised how much a little love can transform an old shoe.
Not everyone sees the potential that’s still left. But thanks to God and to Keith, I know how it feels to be shined again.