In the warm painted porch
of our old stucco house
at the legged laundry sink
covered with a plywood board
my father taught me as a boy
as he’d been taught, how a salesman
ought to polish his good shoes.
“Make them shine enough to speak,”
he insisted. “They’re your first step
through the door.” He’d spread out
newspaper, rags and brushes
and metal tins that twisted open
with a pop, revealing creams—
deep brown, black, cordovan.
He taught me by doing: the rag
doubled to keep the gob of polish
from bleeding though;
the non-master hand like a foot
inside the worked-on shoe
to hold it steady; the thorough
coating and spreading over leather
of waxy color, starting from scuffed toe
then down the instep side to heel
and back to toe. Once both shoes
were creamed over, he lit a cigarette
to let the glazed pair dry. Hurried
brushing, he’d say, made a short-lived
shine that wouldn’t last half a day
of cold calls on the road. My father
knew so much in his handsome hands—
gilded with a rectangled wristwatch
a wedding band, and between knuckles,
wiry sprays of golden hair.
I can still see one good hand hidden
inside a brougue, the other gripping
the wooden brush as it bristled out
a leathered glow. How long did they last
those lessons on the porch? One year?
Two? How long the morning polishings
with the jobless day before him
and a son watching, a wife waiting
and no door but ours to walk through.
“The Polishings” by Charles Douthat
Are you a shoe-polisher? I polish and when I do, my kids love to watch. They would like to help, also. All children like to be helpful. From a child’s perspective, it’s an easy task and I often do tasks that they are too little to help with.
If you’ve never shone shoes, it is just like the poet describes: rag folded over so prevent the paste from leaking through onto your fingers, one hand inside the shoe while the other hand applies systematically, a haze covers the shoe and a few minutes of patience while the haze becomes hazier. Finally, the best part- buffing the haze until it shines. Voila! A new pair of shoes, free of scuffs, free of wrinkles and shined to a high gloss.
I used to be fascinated when my dad shaved. He would line the bathroom sink with a full sheet of newspaper, place the#2 guard on the electric clippers, move slowly against the grain, push and pull his cheeks for better angles and finally discard the newspaper into the bathroom trash can. I guess the business of being a dad is somewhat mysterious. Seeing them polish shoes or shave beards removes some of that mystery.