Our Covid-driven “sheltering at home” began in March, 2020. My wife and I haven’t been to a restaurant since then. Not once. We’re “foodies”, and we miss seeing line cooks ablur in shiny kitchens, artsy food presentations, appropriate, well-recorded, music in the background, and the creative flavor combinations that contemporary professional chefs proffer. What we don’t miss, however, is the horde of underdressed, undergroomed men who come into “nice” restaurants in their best t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. What happened to the concept of a “gentleman”? I’m not talking about coats and ties here, though that would be nice. But geez, fellas, wear clean clothes, ironed shirts, and clean (dare I say shiny?) shoes.
Speaking of shoes, my grandfather taught me a lesson about them once. It was eons ago, but it equally applies to what I’m talking about now. Here it is again, as it appeared in the September 9, 2020 edition of our local paper, the Galena Gazette:
GEORGE DEWEY TYE. He was my Grandpa. I’m told that my first steps were taken toward him — running. I don’t remember that, but I do remember him holding my hand as we walked along the streets of Inglewood, California in the early 1950s. Of course, I was closer to the ground than he was, and his eyesight “wasn’t so good” as mine. I could see shiny particles in the sidewalk, and I used to ask him “Why are there diamonds in the sidewalk?” He said it was to “remind us that our shoes should always shine.” He also advised that it was important for me to “take good care of” my things, because I was lucky to have them. Then he told me that he didn’t get his first pair of shoes until he was 12 years old. He said he loved those shoes. I remember asking him probably too many times after that, “Grandpa, will you tell me again about the shoes?“
One Saturday morning when I was about five, Grandpa said he wanted to show me something, and he told me to get my “good school shoes” (black leather brogans) and meet him on the back porch. We sat on the steps in the sun, and he handed me a brand new “Griffin Shinemaster” shoe shine kit. You know, one of those ubiquitous four-footed boxes with the angled foot platform on top. It held two cans of polish (black and brown), two brush applicators, and two buffing brushes. Right then and there I moved up in the world. Grandpa taught me how to shine shoes.
From then on, every Saturday morning, Grandpa and I would shine our shoes together. He taught me to “clean ‘em off” first. “Get the mud off real good,” he’d say. I wondered how many times as a 12-year-old boy in the hills of Tennessee he had done that himself. Grandpa showed me how to pry the polish cans open with my thumbs. He said I should take off the shoelaces so I wouldn’t get polish on them (this may have been a veiled attempt to teach me how to lace them up again). And then came the most fun part of all — he showed me how to spit in the can! To this day, I still do that, just like Grandpa did.
Well, that was 68 years ago. That Griffin Shinemaster is cracked and faded now, but it’s still here. Grandpa isn’t. After he died, I got out of the habit of shining my shoes. I’ve always missed Grandpa, but I didn’t realize until recently that I missed shining shoes too. So I bought a new “shoe shine kit” about a month ago. A nice one. A really nice one. Since then, I’ve probably shined a pair of shoes every other day. It’s become a ritual. It takes me back. It centers me. It makes me feel like a gentleman.
The smell of the polish, the sound of the applicator and buffing brushes on the leather, and the relatively instant gratification of seeing shoes that look proud to be shoes. All that stuff makes me feel alive. It makes me appreciate how fortunate I am to have shoes. And it reminds me of that gentle, caring man — my Grandpa — who took the time to show a little boy how to shine shoes. As it turned out, that simple lesson taught me so much more. And even today, when I hear “Shine ‘em up” in an airport, I wonder if the “shoeshine man” ever met George Dewey Tye.
That’s it for now, gentle readers. Until next time . . .