The Honorable Trade of Shining Shoes

The amount of time it took me today to find a shoe shine stand in a major airport attests to how changes in men’s fashion over the past 50 years have contracted the size of the market. But I eventually located a master practitioner of the craft and emerged with my footwear emitting the distinctive soft glow of well-attended black leather.

In Mamet’s movie version of Glengarry, Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin’s character degrades the less successful salesmen by saying “You’ll be shining my shoes”, reflecting the ancient idea that what is associated with the feet is disgusting, including of course cleaning the feet of others (the Biblical story of Jesus asking his disciples to follow his example of service and then washing their feet didn’t stimulate a widespread change in attitude).

As I got my own shoes shined, I remembered a story told by former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. When he was mayor of Atlanta, he would get his wingtips buffed by an older man who charged $4, making a $5 bill the perfect payment including tip (This apparently is still the business model, I tend to get charged $7 to $8 today, just below the Alexander Hamilton breakpoint). Perhaps feeling a little awkward that he, a very successful post-civil rights movement African-American man, was having his shoes shined regularly by a pre-movement older African-American man, Young made an effort to get to know him and found out to his surprise that the shoe shiner restored so many pairs of shoes a day at $5 a pop that he had been able to afford the rearing of four children, including sending all of them through college.

The conclusion Young drew has stayed with me: “There is no such thing as menial work, only menial pay”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

2 thoughts on “The Honorable Trade of Shining Shoes”

  1. I was in New York with a very Republican southern man. We were walking down the street and a beggar asked for some money. I popped a dollar in his hand. The guy with me kept getting more upset and finally turned around and walked back to the beggar. I moseyed along behind him (he had already done some dumb crap – like leaving his luggage on the street where the cab dropped him off, going in a hotel and registering and then sending for his luggage, which had long ago moved along to the thieves market.)

    He was yelling at the guy, demanding my money back, screaming at him to “get a job.” The beggar said something like, “I’ve got a job. I’m a beggar. I clear $125 a day and work about 4 to 6 hours. Do you make that much, Mr. Fancy Suit?”

    The guy with, turned to me and asked very seriously, “Do I make that much an hour?” I kept his books.

    I told him, “Not even close. You would make more as a beggar without paying taxes.”

    He mentioned it to me every time that we met after that. I got so sick of it, I dropped his account.

    It wasn’t like I had cut my penis off and given it to the beggar. What was the big deal?

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