“You Need to Polish Your Shoes”

These are the words I heard from my wife as we left the house this morning.  And, I knew it was true, even before I looked down at my brown loafers.  But it got me thinking.

I don’t remember worrying about whether my shoes were polished when I was small, but I assume my mother made sure that that they were.  But who polished them, my father?  I have no idea.

By high school, I think shoe polishing became my own responsibility.  I remember having a nice collection of Kiwi polishes (I don’t think I knew what a kiwi was then), and brushes and shammies (is that what they were called?).  And I think that, before I went out on weekends, at least, I would touch up my shoes if they needed them.

But I also think I am forgetting the barber shop. I think that when I got my hair cut as a teenager, there would be a shoe shine man in the barber shop, and I would take advantage of him.

Then came college.  In the early 1960s, strange as it may now sound, Harvard Square was teeming with shoe shine boys.  Young, black boys, holding wooden shoeshine kits, would tag along with you, and pester you for a 5 cent shine and, every now and then, you would say OK.  Nice kids, and you sort of felt like you were helping the kids out, too.  And you never had to shine your own shoes.

Then law school and, like so much of what happened at law school, I don’t remember shoe polishing.  It is possible that, for three years, they never did get a fresh shine.  Possible (not likely).

Then the army.  Shoes and boots.  There, polishing became one of my main required tasks.  Daily, I believe.  The shoes looked good, and I got pretty good at it.  (Much to my dismay, I now understand that army shoes are treated to remain shiny, and elbow grease is no longer required.)

In the 40 or so years following basic training, with few exceptions, I would polish my shoes only when absolutely necessary.  Yes, there were times when at airports, or shopping malls, or hotels, there would be someone who shined shoes.  And, there was a period of two or three years when John shined shoes in front of my office building, until he died of a lingering cancer from which he suffered.

But today, until my wife gave me her reminder, I forget about shining my shoes except on those rare occasions when I need to get dressed up and naturally look to see how bad the scuffs really are that day.  Or when I happen to walk by a shoeshiner just when I know I need polish and I think I have enough cash in my pocket.  (No longer 5 cents, of course; lucky when I shine is only 5 dollars,)

I still have my collection of kiwis.  But they are antiques, and when you pry open the tops, you are hard pressed to identify the contents as shoe polish.  And the brushes are old and ragged. And the cloths are stained by decades old stains.  Polishing is no longer as central as it used to be, I guess.

I am going to try harder.


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