Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Shoe Shine Box

This morning, I happened upon a blog about men who shine their shoes. Now, that's a retro idea, isn't it? I haven't thought about shoe shining and my daddy's shoe shine box for years. But since it's so close to Father's Day and because I've been thinking a lot about my daddy, I want to pay tribute to him and his shoes.

When I was growing up, my father had about twenty pairs of shoes. He was a businessman and dressed in a suit everyday to go to work so probably thought that he needed a different pair of shoes for nearly each day of the month. He had shoes in many colors (he was part Cuban, after all) but my favorite were the lizard and alligator shoes in browns and blacks. My dad would line up all of his shoes  in the floor of the closet like little soldiers standing at attention and there they would remain until he selected the pair that was lucky enough to be worn for that day.

I had a very close relationship with my daddy's shoes because it was my job twice a year to take all of the shoes out of the closet and place them in the sun. We didn't have air conditioning so the shoes would get a thin coat of mildew on them. My mother would instruct me to take each pair of shoes outside, place them on the sidewalk in the sun, and gently wipe off the mildew with a cloth. We would do this twice a year when my mother did what she called "general housecleaning". That's how important these shoes were. 

My father was what you would call a "snazzy" dresser. In Spanish, we say he was a "Tipo", meaning that he was always "just so" when it came to his attire. That certainly included his shoes. Polishing his shoes was quite a ritual. He had a wooden shoe-shine box that lived on the floor of his closet right beside his rows of shoes. In that box, he kept little round tins of shoe polish in black, brown, neutral, and cordovan. In that box, he also kept his shoe-shine brush and a buffing cloth that had become smooth from use over the years. Daddy would smear a little polish on the toe of each shoe, rub it in really well, and continue this process until the entire shoe was covered in polish. He would then take the shoe-shine brush and brush the polish in again while removing the excess.  He would then put the shoe on his foot, rest his foot across the opposite knee, and buff with the buffing cloth until the shoe shone like a mirror. And he did this until he was satisfied that his shoes were ready for prime time.

Back then, one could get a shoe-shine along the street in Ybor City, in the lobby of the large bank building in downtown Tampa, at the train station, and in various other locations throughout town. The black men who were the shoe shiners set up their tall chairs almost any place that had good foot traffic and made themselves available for a quick but thorough shoe-shining. While shining shoes, these men would discuss the latest baseball game, the latest political news, and the latest shooting on the corner (this was Tampa, after all). It was such a simple thing, getting one's shoes shined. One more thing that has passed into obscurity.

I wonder if men still shine their shoes. Or if they have a shoe shine box with a shoe shining ritual to accompany it. My daughter Shannon is the keeper of Daddy's shoe-shine box. She made sure to retrieve it before we emptied out his house and has it stored in a box of things too precious to discard. I would just like to preserve the smell of it; the wax, the wood, the mustiness of the polishing cloth, the scent of the brush bristles.

Even at 96, when my dad was very ill and in a wheelchair, he refused to be taken to the car for a doctor's appointment until I changed his shoes so his outfit would "match". Even when he was in his last week of life, he insisted on having his pajama shirt changed so that it would match the pajama bottoms he had on.  Yes, he was a Tipo. And will always remain so. And his shoe-shine box will remain as a tribute to past times, Cuban fastidiousness, and excellent fashion sense. What a guy!!