May it always be there

To the casual observer scurrying along that "disreputable" side street downtown, a cluttered and faded plate glass window display, a humming neon sign that does no more than stutter SHO-AIR-OP, and the sawed-off plastic milk bottle collecting condensation through a tube from the transom air conditioner, would qualify the business establishment for "a real dump."

You begin to question the sanity of that friend who recommended "the little shoe repair shop near the alley."

Shove the door over its warped frame and enter. For anyone old enough to remember, the interior resembles an enlargement of Fibber McGee's closet. A chunk of ceiling has fallen out. A depot bench is almost buried under magazines; last week's Timem lies open atop a paper-Everest that appears to be a complete collection of The Saturday Evening Post.m One entire wall looks like a high-rise ghetto of old shoe boxes, although each "apartment" has a new name tag on the front.

A small bell tinkles as you shove the door closed, and from somewhere comes a cheery, chirping echo sounding very much like a parakeet. Ah, yes. There -- almost hidden by a chair with a cracked leg and tattered cushion, three cases of canned soft drinks, a glass display case (circa 1941 drugstore) filled with cans and jars and bottles of shoe polish -- ism a parakeet. When he flies to a perch at the top of the tubular cage you glimpse an incongruous flash of chartreuse amid the monochromatic shambles.

What is a parakeet doing in a shoe repair shop? For that matter, you wonder, what am I doing in this time-warped "museum"?

Suddenly, the scent of leather, glue, and polish wafts -- luxuriantly -- on a breeze from the back room. A box fan, held together with baling wire, is partly visible through a little window along a wall that heretofore seemed to contain nothing but the debris of a business that survives 40 years in the same location.

From around the old counter shuffles a tall man of indeterminate nationality, wiping his hands on a body-length apron before sprucing up his white moustache with a forefinger. "What can I do for you today?" he asks.

Dumbfounded, you hold out a pair of shoes.

"Ah, new heels," he mutters, taking your cargo and shuffling toward the small room in back.

"Uh, won't I need a claim check or something?" you inquire.

"Yep," he says, "that . . . or three minutes."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why don't you take the three minutes? I bet you hurry too much as it is. Could make it five, but you look a bit itchy to get out of here."

Not really. Rather, you had almost forgotten what it was like to find someone who would drop whatever he was doing and cheerfully attend to your needs "while you wait."

The man and your shoes disappear into the back room. Winding your way across the loose tiles on the floor for a better view through that tiny window, you discover there is another man back there. The second man smiles and waves. Then, the two huddle over whirring belts on a large machine that revives your childhood fascination with a schoolbook illustration captioned: "The Industrial Revolution."

Turning to hold a shoe to the light, the shop owner notices you peering at him. "Got an apple and pocketknife there by the cash register," he calls. "If you're hungry, help yourself."

He turns again to his machine. Whir- whir-kaflappety-kaflappety . . . chung, chung, chung. After the fastest three minutes this side of guinness, he shuffles around to the counter and wraps in brown paper what surely are two new shoes!

"That'll be $5," he says. "Sorry. We had to up the price in '78. But the shine's still free."

The cash register, keys protruding from its bowed chest like quills of a strutting porcupine, ker-whangs. Not the demure mumble of its effete, electrical descendants -- a solid, mechanical KER-WHANG. The parakeet whistles "ta-ta." The man calls, "Anytime I can be of service. . . ." The doorbell tinkles.

Suddenly, not unlike Alice upon her return from encounters with the White Rabbit and Cheshire Cat, you find yourself back in "civilization" . . . and in a form of shock. Dancing past the spiffy department store where you spent half an hour hunting a clerk to sell you those shoes, you wonder how long that little shoe repair shop -- that alcove of craftsmanship, that emporium of scents and civility -- can survive.

Please, let it be as long as these new heels. From the look of the job, that could be another 40 years.

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