Brother Can You Spare a Shine

Shoeshines are a male ritual. They are part of growing up. Many years ago Esquire Magazine published a "Best" list. You know, "Best Martini", "Best Ski Resort", "Best Custom-made Shoes". Typical high fashion, rich-guy stuff that makes interesting reading but doesn't apply to most of us whose daily goal is to get home in time to assure that supper can be interrupted by indefatigable telemarketers.

One of the "Bests" in that article, though, fascinated me. According to Esquire the best shoeshine in America was at the Cleveland Airport. These shines were so good, they claimed, that men would re-route to stop in Cleveland just for a quick shine between flights.

Well, while it is true many do change their routes of travel from Boston to New York to stop for pizza on New Haven's Wooster Street, the re-routing-to-Cleveland claim, I'm sure, is safely preserved in the halls of apocrypha.

There is, though, something about a good shoeshine that resonates with me and, I think, most men. Like most things that really matter, it all goes back to childhood. For my generation part of being really dressed up is having a good shine on your shoes. How you got that shine became the ritual. For some this involved sitting in an elevated chair in a railroad station or a barbershop while someone performed magic on your wingtips. I was never really comfortable with someone literally working at and on my feet. Probably too much a reminder of Holy Thursday. Where I lived and the way I was brought up there was only one way your shoes got shined: you did it yourself.

This required a "shoeshine kit", a wooden box on top of which was a small, raised, wooden outline of a shoebottom. The box was hinged on top and flipped open. Inside were cans of Kiwi or Griffin or Esquire brand polishes, an applicator brush, one or two big, soft buffing brushes and a couple of shine rags. The polish was generally brown, black, cordovan, maybe tan or just maybe the ominously-named "ox blood". One of the brands, I think Griffin, had a can which magically popped open if you pressed it in a certain place. [This remains one of the wonders of the modern world.]

There was a routine to shining shoes. In my home it was always done on Saturday night. My memory of why Saturday is fuzzy but given the level of my socializing then, I'm sure it wasn't because I was preparing to go out on a big date. It had to be to get ready for church the next day.

In any event, Saturday night it was. First you put on your shoes. No socks. After all why indelibly soil the ankles of the one or two pairs that actually match? You flip open the box, press open the can of polish and get to work.

Now if you're real conscientious, under the kit you spread out newspaper over the carpet so you won't do to it what you didn't want to do to your socks. You put your right foot on the shoebottom outline on top of the box. You put the applicator brush in the can, pick up some polish and spread it over the shoe. First the right, then the left.

Now back to the right. You take the buffer brush and brush vigorously all over the shoe-- toe, sides and heel-until you get a dull shine. Same with the left. Then you pick an end of the rag in each hand and pull it back and forth across each shoe until you get a high gloss.

Snapping the rag is optional, a matter of personal preference. This technique is usually employed only when there's an audience or some unanticipated cause for euphoria such as found money or an actual date.

Apparently, if you've been in "The Service" there's something called a "spit shine". This, as the name implies, involves some expectoration on the shoe, at a point somewhere between applying the polish and using the rag. I know little of this process. It seems to smack a little of an entry on the "You Must Be A Redneck If . . ." calendar. I leave, then, a description of this process to others more qualified than I.

In any event, completing a good shoeshine inevitably produces a satisfaction unique to the hunter-gatherers among us. Maybe it's not as good as a trip to spring training, but it is satisfying.

I had for many years gotten out of the shoeshine habit. Saturday nights were spent on other things. I discovered a number of years ago, however, that a co-worker has in his office an old-fashioned wooden shoeshine kit, raised shoebottom and all. I am now back on the wagon. Not so much on Saturday nights anymore, but when he's not around I wander over to his office, pull out the kit, flip up the top, pop open a can of cordovan and go to work.

A good shoeshine may not be worth a side trip to Cleveland---Excuse me, Sir, are the Indians in town? Can you tell me, Madam, how to get to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? -but it was a part of growing up and is still satisfying.