Thursday, March 17, 2011

Remembering a shoe-shine man

(This is a column I wrote several years ago in remembrance to a very special man. I still miss him to this day as he would always remind me what really mattered in life. God Bless you, Harry."


Every time I look down at my boots, I think of Harry. The first time I met Harry, I was looking at his face. He was looking at my boots.

I first met Harry back in late 1999. He was the shoe-shine man at the downtown office building where I used to work. He had his chairs and shoe-shine stand tucked away in the corner by the elevator bank I took up to my office; so I saw Harry every morning.

Harry was an artist with his polish and a percussionist with his rag. In the two years I knew him, I never saw a pair of shoes or boots leave his hands that didn’t look better than brand new.

Why is it that we look down at people who shine shoes for a living? In all my years of working with overpaid and over pampered advertising and marketing executives, I never saw so much sloppy work, excuse-making and childish whining in my life. If an ad campaign failed, it was always someone else's fault. If the client didn’t like a layout, it was the creatives’ fault. And so on and so on. This seems to be the trend in today’s office and business environment everywhere. Whine whine whine. Blame blame blame.

Hell, just look at the sorry excuse for a government we have.

But you know what’s funny about shoe-shine men? If their work is bad, there isn’t a single person or thing they can blame other than themselves. Maybe this is why every shoe-shine man I’ve ever met put more than just polish and a rag on my boots. They put pride in their work, and my boots always showed it. And when Harry put pride into making my boots shine, those boots never looked better.

Harry was also a bit of a local celebrity. He was a blues singer who had been singing in smoky old juke joints for decades. The Fort Worth newspaper even did a big write-up on Harry, his blues-singing and shoe-shining and it made the front page of the Living Section. I had never seen Harry prouder. Here he was, pushing 80 years-old and had his face all over the newspaper. In color even.

The only time I ever saw Harry’s face light up even brighter was when he’d talk about fishing. Lord, how that man loved to fish. I liked to fish as well, and I can’t count the number of times Harry and I would talk about him and I taking my boat out and doing some fishing. Harry had a small boat, but it often wouldn’t run. That didn’t bother Harry a bit; he could fish off the shore or off the dock just as well. He loved fishing for crappie and catfish.

But Harry and I never got to go fishing. I was working too many hours, and Harry got sick.

One day he didn’t show up at his shoe-shine stand. His wife had checked him into the VA hospital where they told him he had lung cancer. Surgery was performed and a large part of the problem lung was removed. None of us ever knew where Harry was. Every morning, I would walk up to the elevators hoping to see that Harry was back, but every morning he was still gone.

Then one morning shortly before Christmas, Harry was back. I grabbed a coke and sat down to get my boots shined. Harry told me where he’d been. We made plans to go fishing in the spring.

In the spring of that year, I had retired from the ad agency, and one morning I drove back downtown to my old office building. I had nothing but time on my hands and the water was warming up and the fish were biting. My boat was ready and raring to go, and I figured Harry and I could spend the rest of day just drowning one worm after another and passing time however we saw fit.

It was with a bounce in my step that I strode through the revolving doors and headed for Harry’s shoe-shine stand. But Harry wasn’t there. The security officer saw me and walked over to me. He told me that Harry had died. The cancer had come back and he was just too weak to fight it.

I haven’t felt much like fishing since.

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