With a quick snap of rag on leather, William Calhoun, 58, stropped the salesman’s cowboy boots. Then, hunched over, he carefully touched the soles with a toothbrush and polish.
“I can do as much business as I want here,” Calhoun said. “But it’s going out. The days get real slow.”
Bill’s Shine, a narrow, plywood shack with its three red Naugahyde chairs, has stood in a niche off Malden and Commonwealth avenues in downtown Fullerton for 40 years. Little has changed except the names of the owners on the hand-painted sign.
What has changed profoundly is the business of shining shoes in America.
Today, only a few black men like Calhoun make a living at it. Jim Crow laws, poverty and poor education trapped many of an earlier generation into menial jobs. Today, a symbol of those earlier days--the once-ubiquitous shoeshine boy--has nearly vanished from street corners, railroad stations, barbershops and American popular culture.
The handful of men who continue shining shoes in Orange County do so simply because it is a trade they grew up with. In hard times, it is something they can return to. But their numbers are thinning. And in the lobbies of ritzy hotels, about the only place where the bootblack business still thrives, the new shoe-shiners are young, white women.
There was a time, not so long ago as old shoe-shiners tell it, when shining was a trade many young black men tried, particularly if they grew up in the South.
Willy D. Keaton, 50, remembers those days well.
Talking recently to his friend Leon, who runs a shoeshine stand in Santa Ana, Keaton recalled a childhood in Corinth, Miss., and Mrs. Sallie Mae North’s barbershop.
Like familiar dance partners tracing unrehearsed but familiar steps, porters in the shop caught customers’ coats as they slid from tossed-back shoulders. Then the “boys” tended to the shoes, Keaton said.
“My brother Joe could take a rag and make it talk like a man,” Keaton said.
Slapping the air with an imaginary cloth on an invisible shoe, Keaton pantomimed what he called “the jig,” singing the opening bars from “When the Saints Go Marching In” and mouthing “pop, pop, pop.” He did a quick dance, stooped over at the waist as smoothly as a ballet dancer and thrust his right hand forward, palm up, with a wide smile.
“Most of the white guys (would) go ‘Here boy,’ and flip a quarter,” Keaton said.
“I’m not talking about what I heard, but what I did when I was like here,” he said, holding his hand at knee level.
“That was the black man’s job,” Leon volunteered, a bulge of Redman chewing tobacco swelling his cheek. “That’s the shoeshine boy.”
Singing songs, tap dancing, scratching your head, clowning, “white America thought that’s the way blacks were,” said Carl Jackson, chairman of the Afro-ethnic studies department at Cal State Fullerton. “If you’re ‘good,’ people tipped you. You played down your status.”
The shoeshine boys’ behavior was expected, Jackson said. “They acted that way to survive. It was a shill to survive. If you acted like you had a chip on your shoulder, nobody would patronize you.”
The stereotype was a “horrifying thing,” Jackson said. But for many blacks then, “it was the only way to earn a living. Shining shoes didn’t take a hell of a lot of skills. And you had to shine a damn lot of shoes.”
Robert Morris, 62, learned the trade from his father after the family moved to Anaheim from Kansas City in 1926. “My daddy,” he said, “taught us shining. In case we got out of work, we could always shine shoes.”
So Morris went shoe shining every day with his two brothers, father, uncle and cousins, “to keep a roof over our head.”
“We had the town sewed up in the old days,” Morris said, chomping on a cigar stub at the Sunny Hills Hand Auto Wash in Fullerton, where he runs a stand.
Morris took over the stand in the spring when a friend had a stroke. Despite the continuous traffic, the carwash is “no good for making money,” he grumbled. But during the Great Depression, when he used to wait outside Anaheim’s old Pickwick Hotel by his box with black and brown polish, business boomed, Morris said.
“Friday nights, Saturdays, the streets were all crowded--back before shopping malls,” he said. “People would get paid on Friday and go out for shopping and a shine. I remember when a shine went up to 15 cents. I’d work for those seven shines--$1.05--to take my girl to a movie.”
Now his price is $3 a shine, which adds up on average to about $300 a month. For now he’s just trying to get by and pay the monthly rent of $175 on his trailer until he can collect Social Security from 40 years of working in a paint shop.
For Calhoun, Orange County is a long way from McDonough, Ga., where he was born into a minister’s family of 11 children. After the Army, in the late 1950s, Calhoun came to California and found work hauling stucco.
When he was laid off in 1969, he took over the Fullerton shoeshine stand. A laconic man, Calhoun said shining is no worse than any other job he has held. In fact, it’s better.
“I actually enjoy it,” he said, squatting among a clutter of day-old newspapers, shoes dropped off for a shine and jars of polish. Playboy and Penthouse magazines are kept for customers in the wooden shelves underfoot. “I like my customers. You have to take the good with the bad.”
The hours are bad: six days a week, from 7 a.m. to dusk. Rainy days and Lakers games empty the already sleepy streets. And the occasional inebriated customer must be propped up in the chair.
After 19 years at the same location, Calhoun enjoys a loyal clientele, mostly salesmen who say they want to keep up a sharp appearance.
“It’s hard to find a good shoeshine,” said Keith Jones, a real estate broker, swinging a pair of $185 Wellington boots to the foot stand. “You have to look the part if you’re going to do the business.”
But, he jokes, “you only scuff your shoes up getting in and out of the car.” In Orange County, “you don’t walk. And everybody’s wearing Reeboks.”
Wherein lies a problem in Southern California for the shoe shining business.
Ironically, as shoeshine men disappear, they are being replaced by white, primarily young women in swanky hotels.
Jackson, of Cal State Fullerton, says the hotels have moved “from one sort of ‘ism'--racism--to sexism.”
Cheryl Rodberg works part time at PJ’s shoeshine stand at the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim. Her uniform is a tuxedo, slacks and high heels. Even at $4 a shine plus tips, the work is more lucrative than her last job managing a fast-food restaurant, she said.
“But you can believe I didn’t put this on my sixth-grade list of what I want to be,” Rodberg said. Most of her colleagues feel the same way, she said. Almost all are college-age women who shine shoes for a few months and then leave, she said.
Leon does not plan to leave his year-old shoeshine stand at a West 3rd Street parking lot, even if business is so slow that he and his partner survive by also washing cars.
“We got real positive reasons for doing this,” Leon said. “We don’t have the threat of being fired. This is something we are knowledgeable of. And it’s the only thing we have the bucks to open.”
And, he said, “we do it ‘cause it keeps us out of trouble. We can’t make money shining shoes. The guy who says he makes good dollars shining is a liar.”