I HAVE SOME ideas about how a man should dress with which few agree in this age of casual attire. I think a professional man should wear a necktie with his shirt, superfluous as one may be. Socks are mandatory everywhere but the beach. A suit is preferable, but sports jacket and slacks will do. And a man must wear shined shoes.
Getting one’s shoes shined these days is a chore. A man is condemned to get out the Kiwi, an applicator rag or dobber, and a brush. Even then it looks “do-it-yourself” instead of professional.
Time was, every barbershop in America had a shoeshine stand, and cities of any size hosted shine parlors. Barbershops usually had a single chair, but parlors featured a dozen or more. Either way, getting one’s shoes shined professionally was an experience. For a boy metamorphosing into manhood, it was a passage.
WHEN IT was your turn—yes, you often had to wait for this service—you took your scuffed self up onto a high seat. This was because a real professional shined the shoes while they were on your feet, so you had to elevate them to a reasonably comfortable working level for him. Now you are seated, and you place your feet on two little, miniature versions of shoe soles, bottom side up, about a foot apart. You hiked your pant legs a little to get them out of the way. Then you looked about as nonchalantly as you could manage while the pro applied saddle soap to clean the shoe, wiped it clean, slathered on a fresh coat of wax, and brushed it away to a shine—still dullish, but uniform and full of promise. Then came the popping rag.
These professionals could move that rag so fast across your shoes that you could feel the heat in your toes, and every now and then the pro arced the rag above your shoe and made it “pop” as it descended to add sparkle to leather. Last, he used somebody’s old toothbrush to apply “sole dressing” around the edges of the lower part of the shoe. All this time you have stared at a symphony of skill on display at your feet, and for a while at least, you watched your step carefully to prevent marring a work of art.
NOW I ask you: where can you get that much elegance for a quarter these days?
Archie P. McDonald is a professor of history and Community Liaison at Stephen F. Austin State University. His commentaries are also featured each Friday morning on Red River Radio, KDAQ 89.9 FM.