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Equal footing

Getting one's first shoeshine means acquiring more than a buffed pair of shoes. It's a lesson in dignity and stature.

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 19, 2002

At first, it was embarrassing. It felt decadent, even traitorous.

After passing hundreds of them in airports and barbershops and a few pool rooms, I had never plopped my butt on a shoeshine man's bench. It has always seemed somehow disrespectful to have someone at my feet while I sit smugly above them. It has always seemed so reminiscent of a more servile time, when the shoeshine man put on a rag-popping show and flashed a minstrel show smile because he needed to appear to be happy doing it. The same kind of pretense that brought visitors to the South to the conclusion that black folks were happy to be slaves and, later, second-class citizens.

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Dallas Wright gives John Kaddis a shoeshine in the lobby of the Bank of America tower. "I like shining shoes," he says. "I like a job where I can see the results of what I do."

For me to participate in such a scenario seemed so much like patronizing a Stepin Fetchit movie, so much like encouraging a grown man to degrade himself.

But I didn't want to throw away the shoes.

When your feet are 14s -- and wide -- a comfortable pair of shoes is a rare find. Usually they become comfortable about the same time they should be thrown away. So rather than throw away a pair of comfortable shoes, I asked Dallas Wright if he could do anything for them.

He looked at them for a while -- hard. I worried that he was getting ready to apologize and beg off, or worse, burst out laughing.

He did neither. "I might be able to bring something back up," he said, not convincingly. "Hop up there." He pointed to the end of his bench, where a pair of stirrups, like the elevated foot pedals of a car, awaited my feet.

I hadn't thought about sitting there, the way I had seen all those smug people do. I had visualized taking my shoes off and handing them to him and putting them back on in a few minutes. But I sat down anyway, embarrassed, hoping no one would see me sitting way up there on that bench in the busy lobby of the Bank of America tower.

I picked up the newspaper, which I had read hours earlier, mainly to hide behind it. But that felt too disrespectful, too much like not acknowledging the person working at my feet, too much like all those folks I had seen sitting in shoeshine chairs who seemed to be reveling in the symbolic nod to their superiority.

"They're not going to be the same color when I'm finished," Mr. Wright said. "They used to be ..." He said some color other than the brown I thought they were. "They're going to be more of a buff."

He could have said polka dot and I wouldn't have cared. I just wanted to get off that bench.

"How long have you been doing this?" I asked him, as he quietly went about the business of putting color back into my shoes.

"Eight years," he answered, careful not to volunteer unsolicited information. Some customers, I suppose, just want their shoes shined, not a conversation with the shoeshine man. Mr. Wright seems to have learned to gauge that.

With prompting, he told me he grew up in Perry. I told him I often played baseball there, my team traveling the hour or so from Quitman, Ga.

That connection seemed to make both of us more comfortable.

"I never though I'd be doing this again," he volunteered. "I used to shine shoes as a kid."

He shined shoes in a barber shop in Perry until "peer pressure" made him quit after just a couple of months. His friends would come and stare through the window of the "white" barbershop where he was working. "They feared for my safety."

In the late '40s in Perry, as in most of the South, black folks knocked on back doors for service at white establishments, but didn't go inside, except maybe to cook or clean.

"I still don't know why that man hired me," Mr. Wright says, more than 50 years later.

He moved to St. Petersburg in 1959 and returned to shining shoes in 1994, when he found himself out of work. Shining shoes, after all those years, was the only thing that appealed to him.

"I like shining shoes," he says. "I like a job where I can see the results of what I do." He said he didn't get that immediate satisfaction from the other jobs, material handler and janitor, that occupied most of the 65 years of his life.

He also likes meeting new people. "I have many friends," he says as one by one, workers from other parts of the massive building stop in passing to speak to him. Many of them have gotten invitations to his church, the 20th Street Church of Christ.

By the time Mr. Wright finished with my shoes, I knew that he was married, with two grown daughters and another who's 17 "and more than grown." I knew about his church and his preacher who doesn't hold anything back.

By the time he finished, I had a comfortable pair of shoes I could wear a few more times. That pleased him as much it did me. The results pleased him.

I was pleased that he had gotten those results without rhythmically popping rags or blinding me with toothy grins.

By the time he finished, I wished there was a way that his bench could be manipulated so that the man who shines the shoes worked above the man wearing them, a way that Mr. Wright wouldn't need the permission granted by a customer's prompting to allow himself to be known.

Then he could teach a lot of other people that dignity and stature have nothing to do with whether you're sitting on the bench or working at it.

People who may need that lesson more than I did.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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