Monday, June 06, 2011
Stopped In My Tracks
In New York City, vagaries define the special. There is nothing more appealing than the lack of specific information or the secret. We just love "there's this guy" or "there's this place" with a lack of precise information as to where. Particularly in our current time, nothing is more unappealing to a New Yorker than a place that is part of a national brand or regional chain and has been marketed and branded to death.
No one wants what everyone else has or wants to shop at places everyone knows about. This is at the heart of "being the best," an obsession in New York City. How can something be one of New York's best if it is part of a national franchise? Street cred for a business has to start with a minimum requirement of existing only in New York. The problem, however, is that unique places and services are fast disappearing. In the span of this website's existence, many iconic places I have written about have gone out of business.
I have even experienced a holding back of information, as if to be worthy of the knowledge, one must venture forth and ferret out a person or place's whereabouts on one's own. No pain, no gain. This holding back is often justified in that overexposure may ruin a business's character. Although this may be true, I think the real motive stems more from selfishness - those desiring the special want if for themselves. After all, how special can it be if everyone knows about it?
The shoe shiner is a perfect candidate for the New Yorker's lust for "there's this guy." By their nature, those involved in the business are sole operators and are often transient. In New York City, one should never underestimate the potential of any activity if done by an astute, aggressive, streetwise individual that can promote him or herself. Transient does not equal unsuccessful. Don Ward is a good example (not the man in today's photo). Located at 47th Street and 6th Avenue, Don has been shining shoes for over 20 years. He does an average of 50 customers per day at $5 per shine plus tips. This man has interesting insights*, aggressive solicitation and clever patter. He is quite the character and a bit of a celebrity, reminiscent of the Gentlemen Peeler (see my story here).
I have never felt comfortable with shoe shining. Although it is, perhaps, no worse than someone doing your laundry, shining shoes seems so transparently servile, too close to kissing someone's feet. Perhaps it is my French ancestry rearing its head. In an article from the New York Times in 2008, The Politics of the Shoe Shine, Roger Cohen writes:
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of societies: those where you can get a shoe shine and those where you can’t. France falls into the latter category. Search Paris high and low for a seat to kick back and se faire cirer les bottes: you’ll search in vain. There’s something about the idea of having someone stooped at the feet of a client applying polish to his or her boots that rubs the Gallic egalitarian spirit the wrong way. It’s just not what 1789 was about.
In the United States, of course, it’s a different story. Unlike humor, which is in short supply, or banned, a shoe shine is freely available at U.S. airports. Walk a few Manhattan or Chicago blocks and someone will be there to make your shoes gleam. There’s something about having someone applying polish to a blithe client’s boots that comforts American notions of free enterprise, make-a-buck opportunism, and the survival of the fittest.
Nonetheless, on my way to the Metro North train on Saturday, I could not help but be stunned by what I saw entering Grand Central Terminal. It was like a still frame from an old film set in New York City. Everything was perfect - two men alone on a quiet morning, the customer reading a paper while the shiner plied his trade, both basking in the yellow-orange sunlight streaming in. The whole scene gave me chills. Like the train that awaited me on track 24, I was Stopped In My Tracks ...
* From Don: "Ninety-nine percent of the time, women will look at your shoes and immediately dismiss you if they’re below standard. If you can’t keep your shoes looking decent, you can’t do anything else." "If you can’t take care of this one small detail, I’d hate to see your living conditions."
Related Posts: One Size Too Small, Urban Road Warrior, Very Resilient, Entombed, Uggly or Not, Mania, Just Passing Through, Camper, Grand Central