Tuesday, March 03, 2009

When I worked at HUD from 1999-2005, there was this older black man who shined shoes right outside of the building. I would see him shining shoes of white and black men, and even some women would leave their shoes, and then pick them up later in the day. When a person was lucky enough to sit in his chair and have their shoes shined, this older gentleman would sometimes listen to the person bitch and complain about their day. On the days when a quieter person was in the chair, the gentleman would engage them about sports, the news of the day, women, etc. When you're in that profession, much like a barber or a hairdresser, you can ill-afford to just work in silence, because you want the entire experience to be memorable, not just the service you're providing.

On many occasions, I would walk by this brother, and say good morning, or ask him how he was doing, and he would say, when are you going to come get a shoe shine, and I'd jokingly say that I kept my shoes together pretty well, and we'd both laugh until I was out of sight. But the cold truth was, I didn't feel comfortable letting an older black man shine my shoes. Its not that I didn't respect what he did for a living, and its not that I thought his service was anywhere near substandard, I just felt like I was disrespecting him by allowing him to shine MY shoes. The picture in my mind was that here I was a late 20s/early 30s kid sitting in an elevated chair, watching an older, distinguished black man on his knees shining my shoes. I just couldn't do it. If it was a black woman, or any other race, I'd stick BOTH feet all in their face, and go to sleep in their chair until they were done. But an older black man, who could possibly be my father or grandfather? Couldn't do it. I stayed conflicted about this during my stay at HUD, and when I left I was happy to rid myself of that dilemma..or so I thought.

Before every Wizards game, in the bowels of the Verizon Center, there is yet another older black man who shines shoes. Granted, he shines the shoes of all the basketball stars, so its a much more glamorous and well paying job, but the premise is still the same. He seem=s me every evening there is a game, and says, "What's going on young brother?", and I always respond with, "You got it man!". Then he asks the dreaded question, "Do your shoes need shining?", and my tried and true answer is still, "Not yet, I don't think I do a bad job myself." He usually laughs and I laugh until I turn the corner, then I exhale, thinking I dodged yet another bullet.

But yesterday when I walked away and said that, it didn't feel like I let myself off the hook, and it didn't feel good to avoid that uncomfortable feeling. For the first time, I felt like I was ducking responsibility and being selfish to some degree, and I can't describe why that was. But what I DO know is that on March 11th, when the Wizards play at home next, I am going to get to that arena early, put my laptop down, take my coat off, get my shoes shined, and enjoy a great service and better conversation.

After all, I'm about five years away from being an old black man myself right?

Jerry Butler - Never Gonna Give You Up


sixfive said...

and this is why I've never had my shoes shined.. they need it too. I mean, the seat is elevated and the guy is down there, shinin'. It just feels wrong.

Jamal said...

I agree with you man. I can't let an oldrr black man shine my shoes. I think I would feel like it should be the other way around.

nichole said...

but you've got no problem having a black woman shine your shoes? you don't see anything unsettling about an older, distinguished black woman on her knees shining shoes?

what's that about?

rashad said...

Well nichole, if I was a woman, i'd feel like an older woman couldn't shine my shoes, but an older man could. with all due respect to my mom, my father has taught me much about being a man, and i'm much closer to him. so keeping in mind that close tight-knit relationship, and older black man feels like an extension of my dad.

Plus, I've never seen what you described, so this is hypothetical

Jazzbrew said...

I walk thru International Square near 1900 K Street and they have a shoe shine stand there. For the exact reasons you describe I have yet to get my shoes shined and I'm an older black man myself (40ish)!