By Arnold Guadalupe
I was on my way home from seeing a movie in Times Square with Joe Diaz, my stepdad when, at the entrance to the subway station, we spotted a gang of young boys, all about my age, ten to eleven years old. They had shoe-shine boxes and were shining the shoes of male passengers departing and entering the station. The fee, painted on the boxes, was ten cents, and Joe wondered out loud how much money could be made in a day.
The boxes that the boys were using resembled the shoe-shine box my dad had left us — made of wood, about 14 inches square and 10 inches high, with a raised wooden footprint on an angled support to hold the weight of a resting foot. That’s when the idea struck: “I can do that!”
When I got home, I checked the shoe-shine box for the necessary equipment: a can of Griffith’s black shoe polish, a can of brown polish, a large brush for the black shoes, another brush for the brown, a third smaller brush for spreading shoe cleaner and another for spreading the polish, and some rags. I was ready.
Somehow I had to acquire a dime to ride the BMT subway to Times Square and back. Although Joe didn’t know what my intentions were, he was kind enough to give me my start-up fee. Next morning, box in hand, I set out on my new venture towards my first million bucks.
By the time I arrived at the entrance/exit of the Times Square Station, most of the good spots were taken, but I looked around and found a place for me and my box. Shingled on it was a small sign, “Shine 10 cents,”made from a notebook page.
I wondered if I would somehow be chastised by the other ‘business boys’ as I approached the male passengers departing and entering the subway station and sang out, “Shine Mister? Only ten cents!”
There were scores of potential patrons, and it wasn’t long before my first customer approached. Without a word being spoken, my patron leaned against the facade of the subway entrance and, after raising his pant leg for comfort, placed one foot on the box. He opened a newspaper and began to read. I began my not-yet-established routine: first, brushing the shoe clean of any accumulated dirt, then placing a liquid cleaning compound on a small brush and swirling it over the entire surface of the shoe.
“Ooops! Sorry about that mister,” I exclaimed as I slipped, passing the brush over a part of his sock. A move of the newspaper to one side. A nasty glance. I look up with apologetic eyes, a shrug of my shoulders, and a palms raised up. I tried to communicate that I was just a rookie and pleaded for mercy. My patron’s newspaper moved back into position, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I continued, mimicking what I saw the other boys doing.
Brush, brush, brush … slap, slap, slap with a rag, and the sparkle of the shine was blinding. Ooooh Wheee! What a great shine! Holding out my open palm, I announced; “All done, Mister! Ten cents, please.” My patron flipped a coin toward me, and I snatched it in mid-flight. Even Joe DiMaggio would have been proud of the catch. My patron folded his newspaper and walked away with gleaming shoes. Funny, during the whole process my very first customer had not uttered a single word. Who cares, us rich guys can be aloof if we want to.
I looked down in the palm of my hand. Eyes bulged, mouth agape, a strange but delightful feeling welled in my chest. A quarter, a whole damn quarter. I am rich! I am on my way! Now I need to celebrate and get something to eat.
The rest of the day brought many more shoes to my little box. My original routine involved using a small brush to apply the shoe polish, but one of the “pros” approached me and said that I would get a better shine and use less polish by applying it with my bare fingertips. Yuk! But I didn’t want to make the other guys look bad, so I followed suit. Needless to say, a can of polish lasted a lot longer after that, and my profit margin was on the rise.
On a couple of occasions people just flipped me a coin without getting a shine. Poor little waif, he looks so needy. Which I didn’t understand at the time. I just figured they were being nice.
The end of the day saw me with a profit of about four dollars, and I whistled all the way home. I planned a couple more days of working the streets, but I hadn’t expected Mom’s reaction to my new fortune-making endeavor. She gasped in horror and said, “No son of mine is going to shine shoes in the streets.” (Actually, Mom said a bunch more than that, all in Spanish.) Then she indulged in the usual rhetoric of how undignified and dangerous it all was. She was a working mom, so it had been easy to leave home for awhile without having to explain my whereabouts.
Mom said that hitting me with her bare hand hurt her too much, so whenever she needed to get her point across – quite often in those days — her weapon of choice was her slipper. I believe I got the point very quickly, but perhaps she needed to deliver the dope slap across the head with the slipper. In any case, she persuaded me to give up my flourishing career. I reluctantly put the brushes away and closed-up shop.
That night I lay in bed, hands clasped behind my head, gazing at the ceiling in reverie of my short lived success. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it, anywhere,” go the lyrics to the famous song about my home town. So, undaunted, I began planning my next business venture. But that’s a story for another day.