Shoes, shining

Sometimes it happens that a lowly job lifts your mind to higher matters. This I found out when, to help pay for books needed in my studies, I once shined shoes three nights a week at the train station.

My shop - two elevated chairs, with cushions, and a brass footrest - I rented from the railroad. Not only from wheels did the railroad make a profit but from feet too. The cans of polish, brushes, and rags I supplied myself.

My prices were reasonable and I worked fast. I didn't even charge extra for scraping gum off the soles. If you were a steady customer, I gave you free shoestrings when your old ones broke. Perhaps you had a child who waited for you while I worked? No reason the child should stand there and yawn. Let him or her have a lollipop. They were on the house.

Before necessity made a shiner of me, I never paid much attention to shoes. Even when I was sad and my head hanging down I would see mainly the grass peddling its dewdrops, or the stones lying heavy on the hearts of the shadows. Shoes were just down there, with their helpers the socks, doing their duty. Protecting the tender country of the feet.

But I soon came to feel a great love for shoes. Especially for ones that were very old and wearing out. Shoes that had left much of their heels behind them, to groan with the dust or roam with the wind. Shoes in whose soles the ground had begun to nibble holes. Shoes that showed their wrinkles when they smiled. Surprisingly, quite a few of these shoes came to my shop, perhaps because, on them, I offered a discount, perhaps because even in distress there is pride. They were the poor of the shoe world, the poor but cheerful, and to see them shine was like seeing a tattered old woman in a brand-new hat, or a tattered old man with a fresh flower in his lapel.

Also to my shop I welcomed shoes in better repair. Many visits they'd paid to the cobbler, waiting their turn on shelves that shook from the tool-noise of the shop, their strings flinging this way and that, like skinny arms, and their toes dancing like a chorus of punched noses. Think of the nights they must have spent in the ephemeral quiet of the closed shop, peered at and scampered over by mice, unable to see out of their eyes, or to move their tongues; denied even the distraction of being able to exchange Gothic stories about their owners. Always when I shined them I tried to make up to them for their ordeals by telling them stories about the adventures of other shoes. In the inner voice of me I spoke to them of boots that lived in fleece-floored castles, of moccasins that rode deer in freckled forests, and even of pickpocket shoes that snitched stars from the sky and gave them, like Robin Hood, to sad eyes. And, who knows, perhaps the shoes heard me.

Also came to me shoes that were newer, even squeaky-new. A flying pebble had put a nick in their glassy hides. Some impertinent obstacle had scuffed them. There they sat on my footrest, looking as if the greatest misfortune in the world had befallen them. It was their innocence that won me, their hurt innocence. They didn't know what was in store for them; they had shoe-awakenings ahead. When I shined them I always slipped a few admonitions into the upbeat flip-flap of my rag.

And all around me was the world, wearing on. The station clock doing its vast sums in its head, like a bored genius. The people coming from the trains, this one trying to gouge the clickety-clack out of his ears, that one running to embrace a welcomer, to embrace and lift high into the happy air. The brightness, full of taxis and pigeons, at the main entrance. The flower girl from the streets, with her basket of pansies and violets and daffodils, gliding from a shake of the head to a nod like a dreaming, otherworldly swan.

Often it was near midnight when I sent the last shoes back out to carry someone's troubles and hopes as if they were their own. After I locked up I liked to go stand on the front steps of the station, letting my back unbend and looking at the sky. A starry sky was best. I could see it reflected in my own shoes. I could imagine it reflected in all the shoes I'd shined that day. Heaven and earth, the peace of stars and the struggle of shoes, were a little closer now, thanks to me. Me, a dream in shoes, a part of it all.

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