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”.