04 November 2006

Shine, Mister?

Recently, with time to spare before dinner, I found myself in the E. 50s with less-than-shiny shoes. That meant only one thing: a visit to Jim's Shoe Repair was in order.

Now, New York, unique among American cities, has many shoe shine shops, where a new gloss on the wingtips can be had for $2 or $3. But, even among them, Jim's is unique. First of all, it's quite old, having been founded around the commencement of the Great Depression. Secondly, its on 59th Street between Park and Madison, an area where you'd think a penny-ante business like shoe repair could no longer survive. And Third, it's got one of the oddest archicectural features I've ever seen. In the narrow shop, to the left, are a line of wooden compartments of sorts. There's a low swinging door to the right of each and inside is a leather seat. They're one in back of the other, like a row of desks in a school room. No one is ever sitting in them, and the usual elevated wooden thrones, where customers sit as they get their shine, are to the right of the shop.

I've never quite figured out what they were all about. Perhaps, in the older, busier days, men sat there while they waiting for a place on one of the thrones. Or, could be, sockless customers bided their time there while they waited for their shoes to be burnished, so as not to suffer the indignity of standing shoeless among their fellow men. I've never had the nerve to ask anyone, because I didn't want to appear to be a shoeshine novice in front of classic shoeshine crowd like the one at Jim's.

The shoeshine code of behavior is an interesting one. Unlike barber shops, it's not expected you'll converse with your shiner. There are papers to the side of each chair—the Post and Daily News, NEVER the Times—and you're meant to pick one up and read it while business is taken care of. I've never seen anyone ask for any special treatment or technique, or complain about the shiner's performance. That's just not done. Neither do you talk to your fellow shinees, who are invariably in suits and with heavy business matters on their mind. Dignified silence reigns. Sometimes a television is on, and you're allowed to gaze silently at that. Once the shine is done, the shiner will indicate this by a subtle tap on the side on one of your shoes. You then descend and proceed to the cashier, with no indication that you will be back to give a tip—though everyone knows you will be back to give a tip, or else you will be seen as a bounder. Once you're paid, you walk back to the shiner and dispassionately but respectful pass him a tip—usually the same amount as the cost of the shine—and utter a brusque "thanks."

My trip to Jim's that day was unique in that my shiner remonstrated against serving me, saying, "No, I've done my last shine for today." He soon acquiesced, though, and did me the honor. And so I was his last shine of the day.

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