Maria says that work hasn’t been too good. It’s summer and people are wearing sandals or sneakers, and there’s not much for her to shine. Maria comes to my Midtown office every Thursday afternoon carrying a big wooden box with her shoe care implements, brushing leathers to a spit-shine outside the men’s room. She walks quietly into our office and whispers, “Shine? Shoe Shine?” in a child’s voice, in a kind of confidence I have yet to muster around my own workplace.
I oblige her when I can in the colder months, pulling off my boots and handing them to her for a few minutes of love. When she hands them back, they are bright enough for me to try to look for my reflection on them. They fill my surroundings with a distinct waxy chemical smell that distracts me from the brief comfort of walking around the office wearing only my socks.
Smell is the strongest trigger of memory, and to me shoe wax is the aroma of Saturday mornings in my childhood home. After breakfast my father would pull from the bottom of his closet an old box that contained waxes in various shades of black and brown, big wooden brushes with the softest bristles, and dyes he mixed in old shampoo bottles and dabbed on his shoes using similarly stained toothbrushes worn from the friction against teeth and shoes.
After a few years of watching this ritual, my father handed over this chore to my brother and taught him the craft he learned shining shoes for spare change in the plaza of his rural hometown. There was a method to it, from the correct mix of the dyes to the amount of wax one rubbed all over the shoe. Using an old shirt wrapped tightly around one’s index and middle fingers, wax would be applied very thinly on the shoe. Too little would mean an inferior shine, but too much would coat the shoe with a film that would take too long to buff and often result in cracks in the leather’s grain.
When this happened Papa would raise the shoe to my brother’s face, too close to his eyes for him to actually see anything.
“See this?” he would say. My brother would not respond.
“Too much biton!” he would say before dropping the shoe on the floor as if it were as hot as my brother’s face had turned, red like the brush bristles, his eyes tearing from something other than the fumes.
A man’s shoes were important, my father said. The degree of care one gave his shoes was indicative of his attention to detail, which is why a careful buffing was necessary not just on its leather uppers but also on the instep of the sole.
“Nobody sees it,” my father said, “until you cross your legs. See?” resting his calf on his knee, making me wonder what occasion it would actually be appropriate to do that during a business meeting.
My brother and I were ten and nine. He wouldn’t let me near my father’s shoes for fear that I would mess them up and he would get in trouble. There was a right brush for a particular shade of brown and interchanging them had earned him more than a tongue-lashing. In the evenings my father would return and inspect his shoes, and then his equipment to make sure everything was in its place and he wasn’t out of dye or wax, or that the rags weren’t saturated with his valuable tinctures. The metal shoe stretchers used during buffing should be returned folded and set at the correct notch for his size. If a toothbrush was too worn down, a “new” one should be acquired from his stash of used toothbrushes under his sink, alongside the slivers of bath soap he saved for an undisclosed reason.
When my father was not around, my brother would dip a toothbrush in the dye and spray the newspaper with artful splotches. “Look,” he said, placing an object on the paper before flicking the bristles with his thumb. Removing the item left an empty shape surrounded by the random patterns of color. As soon as I said “Wow!” he would laugh, and then crumple the sheet to remove the evidence of waste.
On particularly mischievous mornings he would set a match to the tin of wax to get the dried up pieces of wax to come together. It would light up like a shiny black flambé, the flame blue and rolling from side to side as he tipped each end. He would extinguish it quickly with his breath, forcing the flame forward and then gone, the smoke created by the killed flame surrounding us with kerosene-like fumes as he dipped his cloth-covered finger in the hot liquid, watching it thicken into a paste as it came in contact with the air.
A wave of amazement would pass our eyes. The forbidden nature of fire and the use of Papa’s precious commodities as toys made us feel superior, the dull task at hand made exotic by the art and magic we chose to involve. And just as quickly as it started, the flames were put out, brushes were dried, and shoes were buffed to a perfect shine before any grownups could detect we’d had any kind of fun with them.
In an attempt at inclusion, I set up my own shop in my bedroom and put a sign on the door that read Shoe Shine and Repair Shop. I accepted clients, namely my mother and my sisters, who gave me their shoes to shine using leftover wax tins, or fix using contact cement I was warned not to sniff. Once, Mama assigned her collection of belts to me to coat their buckles with clear nail polish. My sisters asked me to find the right copper American currency for their coinless penny loafers. We had no business meetings to attend, but I buffed the instep of those soles as if they were going to be inspected. Our characters would be flawless if judged solely on the merit of our shoes.
As years went by Papa no longer kept just three pairs of good shoes and instead purchased others which were cheap, more comfortable, lightweight and didn’t need to be shined. My brother also became more elusive on Saturday mornings, coercing me to wake up before Papa did and join him on long bike rides to secret destinations which would take up most of our day.
As for my shoes, these days I just give Maria my boots every Thursday afternoon. She proceeds to the President’s office and collects his classic black loafers that are still beaming from last week’s buffing, then disappears with them. I pass her sometimes on my way to the bathroom. Her hair is pulled back and she is brushing shoes with a swift and consistent motion, blowing on them, wiping them with a cloth and holding them up to the light.
She returns mine reeking of wax. It sends me back to a time when a father was teaching his son a craft he learned when there likely wasn’t much more to look forward to as a boy working with soot for a few coins. I give Maria four more dollars than what she is due and never mention the ignored instep whose relevance to me she’ll never know. I slip on my boots and tug on them, staring at the bright white reflection on the topmost part of the toe. The perfect shine shows an image of myself, my wrinkled nose from the fumes, and everything behind me, in a time that was so long ago.