Seated in the far corner of the airport departure lounge, waiting for my flight, I couldn’t help but notice the shoeshine stand off to my right. A steady parade of businessmen climbed up into one of the elevated chairs and put their leather-clad feet onto the pedestals – to be burnished before they took flight.
The shoeshine man was a cheerful sort. He greeted the owner of each pair of shoes with a big “Hello” and “How are you doing today?” After grunting a short answer, most just sat there reading the morning paper or a magazine while the shoeshine man continued his small talk. A few chatted for a while, but then fell silently back into their own worlds while he worked on their shoes.
It didn’t matter. The shoeshine man kept talking. He had stories to tell, and if the shoes’ owners wouldn’t listen, the shoes would. He told the shoes about growing up poor in the South. He described for them his time fighting in Vietnam. He shared his worries about his son, who was fighting in Iraq but wanted to be a football player. He discussed his lady friend and the jazz concerts they liked to attend. Each pair of shoes got a story along with its spit and polish, the shoes’ owners mere delivery men for the next installment of the shoeshine man’s life.
As I watched and listened, I had a vision of these men’s shoes being polished at airports all over the country, wherever their owners’ business took them. In each place, as the owners sat reading in the shoeshine chair, their shoes were being told stories by the shoeshine men. Each pair of shoes was efficiently spit-polished and restored to a shine as the shoeshine men restored their lives through the telling of them.
After eight or nine men, the chair was empty. The shoeshine man looked in my direction, no doubt aware that I had paid more attention to his stories than the shoe owners to whom he had told them. “You’re next!” he said with a laugh.
I shook my head and looked down at my high-tech fabric walking shoes, not a bit of leather in sight. When I bought them they seemed so practical. But although they might keep me comfortable and dry, they’ll never get to be good listeners to the stories of other people’s lives.
Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 2007.