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