Sunday, May 13, 2012
When you’re accustomed to getting a shine from a bootblack, the first place you head for is the Railway Station, right? Grand Central Station. Albany had its Grand Central once, the imposing Beaux Arts Union Station, but it moved across the River to the City of Rensselaer in 1968, a sadly-reduced presence among the 9,392 folks who live in Rensselaer. The Big Hotels? That’s the Crown Plaza on State Street (not such a great street) in Albany. Nada. In fact, I suspect if you left your shoes in the hallway outside your hotel room overnight, you might not see them again. A lawyer I know (whose shoes I noticed were on the dull side) advised me to try the State Office Building, he remembered seeing an old shoeshine man there in times past. I hightailed it over there, but too late. Word was the old guy’d taken advantage of one of those State Buyout Pension Plans, was now just a memory.
In the interest of a complete record, I confess to having gotten a shine once, that first year I was in Albany, from a hulking fellow I found lurking in one of the subterranean passageways under the Empire Plaza (the monument Rockefeller built to himself in the spirit of the Egyptian Pyramids). The shoeshine guy was a no-frills operation: he handed me up to a wooden folding chair set atop a three-foot-high platform, then set to work “with all deliberate speed” (which is a phrase judges use to describe the glacial pace of justice in their courts). All the while I’m looking down for Sweeney Todd’s trap door. Charged me $7, which is twice what a good shine man gets in the City. I tipped him a dollar out of relief at being let off the platform.
If you go downtown at noon on a weekday in the vicinity of the Capital, you can see why shoe-shining is a lost art. Watch the swarm of government workers emerge from the nether regions of the office buildings. No suits. They’re in jeans, running shoes, and, here and there, jacketless in shirtsleeves and tie. You know they’re State workers because you see the 3-by-5-inch plastic ids dangling from a lanyard around their necks (Think Hester Prynne with a pension). They’re exposed, out in the open only long enough to buy lunch from the score of food vendors lining State Street. Then the swarm recedes into the basements. (Remember ‘The Mummy’ movie with hottie Rachel Weiss? The army of flesh-eating scarab beetles flows out of The Tomb, eats the bad guy, then retreats like low tide.)
Yeah, I’m being hard on the civil servants, but they are cheapskates – never spend a dime in Albany except for that sandwich – reside in the sticks, and take all the parking spots on my block.
So I was in the City for two days and nights. The first day I wore the black pair and went to the shoemaker on East 33rd St. between Park and Madison, who’s been there forever. He has four chairs and two young Mexicans doing shines who communicate by hand signals. I don’t know names, we don’t use names. I mount the platform, sit in the leather chair with the marble armrests, put both feet in the brass stirrups and pretend to read the paper. Surreptitiously, I’m watching the boy work my shoes. He’s quick, good hands, polish-and-buff, buff-and-polish, the snapping sound of the rag comforting. Three-dollars-fifty-cents for the store, two-dollar-tip for the boy. I go back next day wearing the brown shoes. You must have on your feet the shoes as they’re being shined. Otherwise, what’s the point?
You might think to ask why doesn’t he shine his own shoes? If you did, I might answer that I shined enough shoes in the Army and the NYPD. Truth is: because it’s just not the same.