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Friday, November 22, 2013

Diary of a Female Shoe Beautician

I used to be a shoe beautician.  For those not in-the-know, that's a fancy way of saying that I shined shoes for a living.  I loved it.

Back in 2002, Husband and I had moved back to Sacramento after failing miserably at becoming mega-stars in L.A.  My first venture, based on an obsession with the film American Beauty, was a stint as a Realtor.  I found a broker to work for, passed the test, got business cards made, and then gave up after three months.  To be completely honest, it just wasn't for me.  I loved the idea of being a Realtor (for those of you who don't know, the word "Realtor" is trademarked, hence the capitalization), but since I was new in town (again) it wasn't a great fit for me.  Helpful hint:  if you want to become a real estate agent, you should know your area very well and have a lot of friends who you aren't shy about networking through.

During this time, I started writing and recording music after answering an ad in a local free paper.  So, basically, after I left L.A., I found my niche in entertainment.  Not the best timing, but what are you gonna do?

Making music was great but I still needed a way to make money.  Husband was bartending and serving in restaurants, but we needed two incomes to make ends meet.  He knew someone who knew someone and I somehow ended up meeting with a wonderful, eccentric guy named Greg who built and owned the shoe shining stand in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel, across from the California State Capitol in Sacramento.

Greg sounded like a California surfer dude, and he looked like Santa's cooler, younger, slimmer brother.  He had white hair, a white beard, glasses, and a warm smile.  He was a laid-back kind of guy who was very passionate about shoes and was looking for a new shoe shine girl.  The job paid cash and the hours were flexible, so soon he was training me on how to pop a rag while making good conversation.

This was the best job ever.  I would basically come in sometime in the morning on my assigned days and sit next to the stand reading a newspaper or a book until someone wanted their shoes shined.  My stand was located right next to the gift shop, and the ladies who worked in there were just as bored as I was, so we often made conversation and sometimes had lunch together.  When business would slow down, usually sometime after lunch, I'd leave for the day.

I charged $5 per shine, but I rarely made less than $7 after tips.  If I made at least fifty bucks during my shift, I'd set aside ten for Greg.  If I made $100 or more, I'd give him $20.  This is how he paid for supplies, and I'm pretty sure he didn't turn much of a profit from it.  He'd do overnight shoe repairs and leather work for clients as well, and I think that's how he stayed afloat.  He didn't seem like the kind of guy who needed much, though.  Greg was always loaning me books about the music business, pushing me to write more songs and get them heard.  He was truly of the most generous, positive people I've ever met.

I've been in a lot of airports and hotels, and I've never seen another female shoe beautician.  Every night, I'd leave with black wax caked under my nails and smudged up and down my arms, so maybe the gender preference in this particular line of work is due to conditions.  My back would ache after a few customers in a row, because of the angle at which I had to hold my torso while bending over to attend to the shoes, so it was very physical work.

Speaking of bending over, I'm sure that the customers' view had a bit to do with my tips.  I usually wore a white button-down shirt, but if we were particularly hurting for money, I'd wear a v-neck, which guaranteed larger tips (hey, I was 22).

Speaking of inappropriate conduct, I remember this one guy who was in from San Diego.  He was nice enough at first, making small-talk.  He said he had a boat.  I said that was nice.  He asked me if I wanted to go down to San Diego and see the boat.  I said I was married.  He said my husband didn't have to know about it.  I finished that shine in two coats of polish, rather than the regular three.  When he got down out of the chair, he reached into his briefcase and gave me a can of cordovan-colored polish that he'd had in there, along with a $20 bill.  "Keep the change," he said, along with a smirk.  I remember thinking, if he has a can of shoe polish, why is he paying me to do it?  I was kind of naive back then.

Another time, there was a GOP convention being held in the hotel.  In those three days, I made over $600.  Politicians really enjoy having shiny shoes--especially Republicans.

There were regulars, of course.  One guy named Val would come see me once a week.  I looked forward to talking with him as I worked on his shoes--he was very nice.  He reminded me a bit of Kevin Spacey--soft-spoken, friendly.  He had teenaged daughters and cordovan loafers with tassels on them.  Tassels were a pain in the butt to shine over, but I didn't mind with Val.

Cordovan shoe polish
I've mentioned cordovan twice, but it occurs to me that some of you probably have no idea what that word means--I know that I didn't before I began shining shoes.  In my kit, I had four basic colors of shoe polish:  black, cordovan, brown, and tan, from darkest to lightest.  Now, it turns out that cordovan is actually a material and not a color, but the polish in the can is a reddish brown color and goes on shoes that are sort of burgandy.  They go with black pants and they go with brown pants, and if I were a man, I'd only buy cordovan shoes, because really, how much more versatile do shoes get?  I never see cordovan shoes for women.  It's kind of weird.

On the subject of shoe color, that was one of the few tricky aspects to this job.  Sometimes, a person would come in with shoes that were right in-between colors, and you couldn't quite tell which polish to use on them.  The darker polishes made for shiner shoes, but if you chose too dark a polish, it was really obvious and the shoes were ruined.  Of course, I always had leather conditioner or clear polish to fall back on, but neither of those would produce quite as much shine as I'd grown to desire.  A few times, I chose the wrong color polish, resulting in disaster.  A man would come in with dark tan shoes, and leave with streaky brown shoes.  I'd try and talk a lot and act extra friendly as I was doing my job, but I could barely contain my embarrassment as I showed him the finished product.  Those instances didn't usually result in a good tip, but nobody ever yelled at me, probably because I was a young girl.  After a few mistakes, I learned to hold up the polish to let the client choose what color to use if there was any doubt.  From then on, it was their fault if their shoes got ruined.

Another regular was Jim.  He was a cab driver, and he was at least 80 years old.  His wife had died a year or two prior, and he was lonely.  He came into the hotel often, waiting for fares, and I'd give him free shoe shines while we'd talk about politics or world affairs.  Jim loved pie.  I took him out to lunch for his birthday at Marie Callenders's.

He invited me and my husband over to his home one night for dinner.  He lived in a double-wide trailer which had been decorated by his late wife and was situated in a trailer park.  He lived there alone with his shih-tzu whom he loved and adored.  I took home all of his dress shoes that night and had them waiting for him the next day, shiny as new pennies.  He had many ailments, including skin cancer and emphysema, and one day another cab driver came in and told me that Jim had died.  I went to his funeral and cried a lot--I framed this photo I took of him and gave it to his daughter, who placed it on top of his casket.

Sometimes, famous people would come into the hotel.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was new in office, and he walked by and said "hi" once.  He was short.  I shined pro-wrestler Rick Flair's shoes.  I didn't know who he was at the time, and he was very nice and happy to talk about wrestling with me.  Gwyneth Paltrow was staying at the hotel once, and I spoke to her as she walked out to the pool.  "It's so hot!" she said to me, as she strolled by in her cover-up.  She seemed really sweet and friendly, and I've liked her ever since.

One time, I was shining a man's shoes and it turned out that he was the uncle of one of my childhood friends.  Keep in mind that I am from a town of 2,000 people in rural Missouri and we were in Sacramento, California.  Also, he had changed his last name to be different from that of my friend.  The only way we discovered our connection was that he asked where I was from--a very common question when middle-aged men are trying to make small-talk with a 22-year-old woman who will be touching their feet for the next five minutes, it turns out.

The thing I miss most about being a shoe beautician is the physical act of shining the shoes.  There is something incredibly satisfying about taking a dull, scuffed-up pair of loafers and buffing them to a mirror-gloss.  It's a beautiful thing.  I do my husband's shoes sometimes, but not having a shine stand with a place to keep them from moving makes it less fun and more difficult.

I had one competitor who worked inside the capitol building.  I never met the man, but I'd heard about him second-hand from many customers who would come to me when he wasn't at his post, which was often.  It turned out that he'd had lung cancer.  After hearing that, I never looked at the shoe polish I sneezed out at the end of my shift the same way again.

I quit my job at the Hyatt when Husband and I decided to move back to the Midwest.  We'd been priced out of the home market in Sacramento and we wanted to start a family soon.  Husband had gotten an entry-level job with a food service company and had moved up the management chain to where he'd qualified for a promotion in Kansas City within the company.  I was sad to tell Greg that I was leaving, and if I remember correctly, he shut the chair down after I left.  He wasn't making enough out of it, and it wasn't worth it to him to keep it staffed.  That made me sad.

I was supposed to meet Greg before I left town to give him back his shoeshine kit, but time got away from me and the kit made the move too.  I still have it, and I feel terrible about having inadvertently stolen it from him.  As I was writing this, I stopped to Google Greg and see if I could get in touch with him to send the kit back...and I stumbled upon his obituary.  He died in January of this year.  No cause of death was given, but he was only in his mid-60s.

Greg, if you can see this where you are, thank you so much for giving me a job when I needed one.  I loved you for it, and I loved shining shoes.  This shine's for you:

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