In deference to Ivy Johnson’s wit, writing skills and truth-telling, I am quoting a large part of her essay. I have highlighted my favourite parts.
Sole Connections: As an aspiring artist, I’ve found shining shoes is a better apprenticeship than my all my internships and contracts put together.
“It’s harder out there for young people today than it was for me,” he says as I wash his Prada loafers.
I can hear it in his tone: I’m about to get another condescending lesson in success from a stockbroker in dirty shoes. Not the kind of tip I’m looking for.
“But the secret to making money is still the same: It just takes hard work.”
If art is about making meaningful connections with strangers, then a day at the shoeshine is an opus in itself.
A shine can take five to 10 minutes, depending on the condition of the shoe and its style. That’s not a lot of time to bridge the vast chasm between me, a woman in my 20s making little money, and the well-heeled, middle-aged man in the chair.
There are moments when their perspectives are entirely alien to me, and I know that sometimes when I talk about my life and ambitions I might as well be speaking Greek. But I persevere. It’s educational.
I’ve learned a lot about conversation at this job. I’ve certainly learned the art of talking about the weather. I used to view that as topical desperation, but I finally get why eight out of 10 customers prefer to talk weather while I burnish their wingtips. It’s not that there’s anything particularly pressing to say on the topic; it’s just the quickest route to connection. If we share nothing else, we can both understand the corrosive effects of Toronto slush on both leather and mood.
Just as often, though, we go well beyond the weather. Most of my customers I will never see again; we don’t run in the same circles. And maybe because of that, our talks are surprisingly intimate.
I’ve been privy to conjugal dramas, deep phobias, philosophical revelations and any number of small confidences. I, likewise, have shared stories with some customers that I wouldn’t tell to my friends. These conversations can lead to surprising moments of clarity, an understanding that we’re more similar than not. For an electric moment, that gap between Porsche and Schwinn, steak frites and Mr. Noodles, him and me, is gone.
Of course, I don’t always feel like whistling a merry tune and dancing some soft-shoe. There are customers who call their wives to say they are working late, then ask you if you’re free for dinner; there are customers who snap at you, clap at you, don’t tip you, and there are customers who kindly try to help you figure out just what went wrong in your life to land you here at their feet.
But it’s all worth it. Because sometimes, in that space of five to 10 minutes, we manage to transcend all the countless superficial differences that make us feel as if we belong to two different species. After a shine like that, we see the deeper thing: He’s human, I’m human. It’s a work of art, really. The tip is just gravy.
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