A Shoeshine Life Story

I was on my way back from Minneapolis to Orlando a couple weeks back and found myself down at the end of the G concourse. As I neared the end of the moving walkway, I noticed an elderly gentleman finishing his lunch, sitting in one of the chairs of his shoeshine stand. As we made eye contact, he reached his hand to his forehead and gave me a pantomime tip of the hat. It was a very quiet day in the airport, and he looked lonely and bored. I saluted back, exited the walkway and took the chair next to him.

As he climbed down from his spot, he proclaimed his desire to make my shoes shine better then when they where brand new. Slowly, he started his preparation of moving the laces, rolling up the pant legs, and looking for just the right hunk of shine cloth. From the deliberate pace he managed, and the way he looked, he was well into his 70’s, or maybe even his 80’s. I apologized for interrupting the end of his lunch. He asked where I was headed, and when I said Orlando, he wondered aloud about hurricane Isaac. I replied that it had headed west away from Orlando, and up into New Orleans. “That is my home.”, he replied and continued, “I am from Biloxi, Mississippi.” I asked him what had brought him north from Mississippi to Minneapolis. I wondered whether or not he was displaced a few years back by hurricane Katrina.

As it turns out, he had been asked by his cousin to drive him from Biloxi to Minneapolis, and he had decided to stay. “That was in 1963.”, he said, staring up at the ceiling to pick the correct year out of his memory. As the story continued, I learned he had a wife and two children in Biloxi, but when he had asked them to come with him, his wife told him she wouldn’t follow him across the street, much less to Minnesota. So he left, and they divorced. He had planned to stay single after that, he informed me with a slight twinkle in his cloudy eyes, but his second wife had something to say about that. They have been married 42 years, and have four children. As he continued his story, I learned he drove a city bus for a few decades, putting two of his children through Bethel University and two through University of Minnesota.

As he reached for the heel polish, he smiled at me and said the second marriage seems to be working out better than the first. The smile shifted to a mischievous grin, when he informed me that he had heard from his first wife a few years back. She wanted him to know she wouldn’t ever marry anybody but him. He paused for effect and said he had kindly let her know that she had had her chance, so at this point, she had better just get used to being single. After he retired from the city, he started shining shoes three days a week, and the other days he goes fishing. As he straightened my laces, he said, “At my age, you just gotta keep moving, because if you stop, things don’t work no more.” I told him I believed that was true at any age.

After I said my goodbyes and headed to the gate, I couldn’t help but think about how well he told his life story, and how well he synchronized it to the length of a shoeshine. I wondered if that was a well-worn rendition he shared with many people, or if hurricane Isaac had inspired his storytelling. Or just maybe, I have inherited my mother’s ability to ask a few questions and have strangers share their life stories. Whatever the reason, that was the best shoeshine I ever had. Come to think of it, I never even looked at my shoes.

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