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Rags to Riches

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By Grant Pick

Inside the Shoe Shine King on Central Avenue in Austin proprietor James Cole, a 52-year-old bear of a fellow with a thick knot on his brow from a childhood accident, is playing spirituals on a boom box behind the front counter. He takes a bite out of the sausage-and-egg sandwich his mother made him, then barks at a half dozen bootblacks, "Hey, shine those shoes."

One shoe shiner smiles and says, "Oh, now, Cole," and the other men, who are applying polish to customers' shoes and buffing them with rags they keep in their back pockets, all laugh.

Cole has taught many of these men, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, the shoe-shining trade, hiring them despite their sometimes checkered pasts. "A guy'll get locked up at 20, and when he gets out of the joint at 35 he's in need of rehabilitation," says Cole, whose father went to prison for accidentally shooting someone. "He's never learned how to raise kids or to be an example. He comes to see me. People in the neighborhood stop by, and they may have a son or a cousin who needs work. Other of my workers are between jobs and need something to tide them over. I also deal with kids who have problems, who are dropping out of school or already have a police record. I take my biggest interest in kids like that."

Tyrone Jackson began shining for Cole when he was 12 years old. Now 35, he recently completed a two-year sentence on a drug conviction. With no money to his name, he approached Cole, who gave him a few bucks and said, "Start shining." Jackson says, "Cole will help someone who's down on their luck like a second father would."

Beth Dykes, a veteran of five turns in the penitentiary for robbery and burglary, first met Cole a year and a half ago. Fresh out of Dwight Correctional Center, she was living at a halfway house when someone suggested Cole might cash a check for her. To her amazement, Cole not only cashed the check but hired her as a shiner. "How many people would lay on someone with my background to handle cash?" she says. "Sometimes I get frustrated here, and I'm going to quit. But then I think twice, because it's not my intent to put myself in a position where I can't do for myself."

Cole can also be tough. "You're a troublemaker," he tells a self-styled "electronics specialist" who's beseeching him for a job. And he says he's suspicious of two boys who come in and out of the stand looking for work. "They look like bad little ol' Joes to me," he says.

Cole tries to teach all his workers his philosophy of shining. "Your value as a person is in what you do and how you do it. Shine shoes like a great man, and you'll become a great man, is what I say. If you can teach a kid that message--to work right and to take responsibility--there's no limit to how far the kid can go." Shine King alumni include truck drivers and computer operators, as well as shiners at the more lucrative stands downtown and at the airports.

Cole, a graduate of Marshall High School, was 19 and married when he went into shoe shining. He started with a portable stand on the 3200 block of West Madison, then moved on to the lobby of an East Garfield Park hotel. In 1964 he set up the first Shine King, which was spared during the '68 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination because the word was out that Cole was a good employer who'd always hired "a rougher group of kids." That same year he opened a second Shine King on Central.

Eventually Cole bought apartment buildings in Austin and West Garfield Park, including a 47-unit complex across the street from the Shine King on Central, where he often puts up employees who need housing. He also runs King Roofing and Construction and could make its office on Chicago Avenue his headquarters. But he prefers to spend his days at the Shine King.

The customers there include laborers, salesmen, cops, and an occasional politician, who pay $2 for shoes and $2.25 for boots. Cole--who pays his shiners $10 to $15 a day as independent contractors, though they make several times that in tips--prefers that his shiners direct their attention to the customers' shoes. "People pay a lot for a shine," he says. "Unless the shine is special, there's no reason to return to the Shine King. So I tell my boys to keep their heads down and their mouths shut." He doesn't apply the rule to himself. "Talking and shooting the breeze puts a little laughter into the day," he says.

"Bye-bye, shorty," Cole says to the wife of an employee as she leaves. "Take it easy, Reverend," he tells a minister. He fishes a wad of singles from his pocket and counts them out for Dykes, who needs change.

A police officer steps down from a shine stand and tries to get Cole to go to the racetrack with him.

"I ain't going there anymore," Cole says, chuckling. "I lose too much money."

Somebody puts change into the jukebox, and soul music swells up. Cole, tapping his foot heartily, spoons fruit salad from a plastic container as he describes a local man he saw yesterday. "He bought some wine on the corner, and I watched him go all the way down to the nursing home. Let me tell you, he walked the distance, and he never brought that bottle down."

Noticing that his shoe shiners are working too fast, Cole gets up and marches up and down the line. "Hey, slow down. You ain't working on commission. We need shoes finished up right here."

He sits down in a chair on the shoe shine platform and sticks his size-12 feet, encased in plastic bags, into a pair of snakeskin shoes a customer has dropped off for polishing. He watches closely as Sammy Kidd shines them. "Look at how slow you're moving," Cole says. "Something ain't working right. Your marbles OK, Sammy? I don't think the elevator is going all the way up to your top floor."

"Cole, you got wrinkles in your feet," says Kidd.

Cole erupts in a rollicking laugh. "You get going now, Sammy. Shine, shine."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of James Cole by Randy Tunnell.

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