Walking Cross-Town. With Scruffy Shoes.


Tuesday morning. It’s early. I’m walking down the tunnel at Grand Central Station. The air is heavy, the mammoth air conditioners have not yet fired up. I punch through the day’s calendar as I walk: Light.

I look down at my shoes. Scruffy.  Light Day, nothing major looming, scruffy shoes.

I accelerate the pace, the step counter on my watch silently records the activity. I stare at the watch face as the counter tracks each step, and marvel at the technology. I speed up and slow down, speed up and slow down, the step counter with me with each step.  What a child.

I walk by the shoe shine stand. It’s not yet 6 a.m. They are setting up:  A middle aged man and his wife (?) of Central American (?) origin. I slow, but decide I don’t have time to wait, and keep walking.

He catches the flicker of my interest, not unlike the habits of thousands of commuters who walk by, slow their pace, and think: Do I have time? Do I stop? Or some other time?

“Sir, please. Come. I can help you.”

There’s heaviness in his shoulders, his eyes, and he’s got the rest of the day in front of him. My shoes mean something to him. I turn back.

It’s 6:01 a.m and hundreds of commuters pass.

I sit on a tall back leather chair, a throne, and, I watch.

She stands silently waiting for a customer. None stop. Hundreds more pass. She stands expressionless. Hands and arms at her sides.

He snaps on the thin disposal latex gloves and crouches down to start. He’s a craftsman this man, cutting no corners, he works the shoes to a high gloss. How many pairs of shoes will he shine today?  Does the back ache when he gets home?

She leaves her station and walks to the register. She thumbs out the bills, counting singles to add to the $5 and the $10 bills. She is painfully deliberate, miscounting and offering more change would bite. Yet, the memory is a knife, cutting, still fresh, the recollection stings of a time when she shorted a customer – she desperately tried to apologize in her broken English, she caught the slur, her apologies lost over the angry catcalls of “Thief!”

She hands the bills to me, as if it were precious cargo.

I don’t count it, I stuff all but one into my pocket. Is that relief I see in her eyes?

I fold the bill in half. I step back over to him with my hand out.

He’s not had the professional coaching of other receivers of tips, the Concierges, the Bell Hops and the Car Parkers at 5-star hotels who do this for a living. Don’t make the customer uncomfortable. Be grateful for whatever you get. Don’t look down. The Captain of the crew repeats: “Resist the urge to look down.” 

His eyes are down. They are locked on my hand. On the bill.

I hand him the bill, he holds it in the palm of his hand as if he were cradling a small bird.

He smiles, raises his head, bows, and offers his gratitude.

I walk down the corridor, out the exit and onto the street where I wait for the light to change. I glance down and admire my shoes: Like New!  

The light turns. As I’m crossing the street, I’m pulled back to the scene at the shoe shine stand. Now, husband and wife are both bent over working their shines, and another customer waits.

Your biggest concern today is the scruffy condition of your shoes.


Inspired by a poem from “The Distance Between Two Doors“:

So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge.

— Jim Harrison, from  “Bridge,”  Dead Man’s Float


  1. So much going on emotionally and it is barely 7.00am. This is beautiful.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The world has gotten so complicated that we seek refuge in something as simple as a shoe shine. For me, it is a few minutes of rare pampering, while protecting an investment. I can tell if they like their work, and if they do, the tip will reflect my appreciation.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I appreciate all the different perspectives you weave in here David. 💛

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m NYC this week Dave and busy busy busy, things to do, places to get to…..always the case right…..Your story reminded me to slow down, look up and around…..memories of my time here flood back…..You need to get out of this Banking gig and do some more writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “My shoes mean something to him.”
    And now they mean something to us. Beautiful piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello 🙂 This is lovely.

    We’d like to share it on Kindness Blog. Would that be okay? No problem if not.

    Best, Mike.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The ‘attached’ observer captures life beautifully, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. isn’t it amazing what can happen in five minutes. One could fall in love with life.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting story friend, good to read. Come visit my blog today!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your scruffy shoes,
    his daily bread!

    I specifically loved the part where you describe her counting the change and her memory of making a mistake, made me cringe.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Ahh, pal, ya did it again. Gave me the blurry eyes and the lump in my throat. So much here–the skillful weaving of a piece of the day’s tapestry of experiences. You’re good, DK, you really are…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The universe demands our humility – even at 7AM – you accorded this couple the dignity they deserve. Beautifully and lovingly done, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. bam! the universe slaps you upside the head even in your shiny shoes.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Glad you had scruffy shoes. It gave you the opportunity to connect and learn from these beautiful people. Great writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. It’s in the details. Nicely done.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I think you live in a different world… 🙂 Great writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m not sure which I enjoy more–your beautiful, thought provoking writing or the beautiful, thoughtful provoking comments.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Christie says:

    A touch of inner soul, and the sole of shoes…shoes which are filled by a man of 6’1″ who crosses many intersections, interacting with many along the journey, touching souls…elevating.

    Liked by 1 person


  1. […] via Walking Cross-Town. With Scruffy Shoes. — Live & Learn […]


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