OK, guys, quick, look down at your shoes. Do they show signs of neglect? Do they need a new look? Like a good old-fashioned shine?
Some time ago I was shocked to spot a sign that read "Shine $6" on a shoeshine chair. I saw another disturbing sign that upped that service by a buck at a roadside convenience store. You gotta be kidding me!
It got me to rewind to my bygone days as a bootblack at a time when shoeshines cost a dime and were more fashionable than they are today. It was an era when we toiled after school and on Saturdays and Sundays to earn a couple pennies on each dime that went into the cash registers of a couple of busy shoeshine parlors/hat-cleaning establishments. Yeah, tips from generous customers eased the laborious task.
I recall that in East Pittsburgh there were four multi-chair shoeshine parlors within a few blocks of each other -- if you were a good bootblack, you were in demand and other parlors tried to woo you. They would offer better "incentives" for you from the dime a customers shelled out in the two boroughs in the long shadow of the behemoth Westinghouse Electric Co.
The company pumped out throngs of workers every day, and serving them offered job security for us teens looking to earn a few nickels and dimes. My first place of employment, Bill's Place on Beech Street, was a busy enterprise when the Westinghouse offices let out for lunch and executives stopped by to take care of their footwear.
It was a time when we believed that a man wasn't spiffy unless his shoes were polished. Those were the days when shined shoes gave men a touch of pride. And we bootblacks took pride in getting them to that status, all for a dime and tips that amounted to only a few dollars at the week's end.
Of course, a customer was a cheapie if he didn't come up with at least a nickel tip. A nickel tip was average and a dime was neat. A quarter tip was a big deal and at Christmas time there were half-dollar tips (sometimes more) from some of the generous sports.
In these establishments, when we weren't polishing shoes we spent time scrubbing men's hats with naptha and blocking them, filling the racks with a sharp collection of Stetsons, Dobbs and other quality chapeaus. This, too, was a regular fashion mark because, unlike today, all men wore hats, not baseball caps.
Shining shoes was a work of art and I even had a "trainer" -- Chester from Crestas Terrace, across from the Westinghouse Bridge. Chester was a class act, dazzling the customers and anyone who might be in Bill's Place. When Chester buffed the shoes after they were carefully saddle-soaped and double-brushed after two coats of polish, he performed a soft-shoe to a tune he hummed while going through the up-and-down exercise with the buffing cloth.
Of course, he pocketed better tips for his show, but when the customer stepped down from the stand his shoes also looked sharp. He had his following of special customers who always asked for him to shine their shoes.
And there were times when we teens worked diligently to attract someone who asked for us, based on how well we cared for the footwear. I was good enough eventually to "graduate" to a more profitable shoeshine parlor at The Victory in Turtle Creek. That establishment, like Bill's, is an icon of the past.
An unwritten test of a good bootblack was how neatly we performed for a customer with white socks. It was a test of nerve as we patted oxblood or black polish on the edges of the sides of the shoes. Touching socks with polish was a disaster, and we heard about it. Another test was the summertime, when men came in with brown-and-white and black-and-white shoes, and it took an extra fine touch not to slip the polish onto the white parts of the shoes.
Shoeshine parlors were a gathering place in the evening hours, especially Saturday date nights when patrons were dressed in suits and ties and we put them on the road with shoes that sparkled.
Those were the days, of course, when guys actually cared about how good they looked in public.
Wash Gjebre of Greensburg, a retired Post-Gazette staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.