Al Voney has a deal going with the Tribune Company. Voney, a wiry, toothless, 57-year-old south-sider, has a monopoly on the shoe-shine business in the Tribune Tower. The deal is that he gets access to the building--including the security-conscious newsroom--but he works as a free-lancer. He gets no company benefits.
The semisweet deal started nine years ago, when Voney, then a six-year veteran of the spit-shine business, was approached by a Tribune big cheese at a downtown hotel, where Al had his own shoe-shine shop.
"The dude said they needed a shoe-shine guy to take care of the Tribune guys in advertising and the newsroom," Al says, waking up from a nap in a cafeteria off the Tribune newsroom. "He said they had lost the old shoe-shine guy after 20 years." Since then, Voney has been a fixture, doing his special "double-shine" for his customers at their desks. Voney's pile of equipment adds a touch of the street to a room full of computer terminals and white cubicles.
"No one dictates to me how I shine their shoes," Voney explains. "I run it or I don't shine it. I give the best shine. I put on two coats of polish and then I rub it in. When I'm done, their shoes are blasting off their feet."
Many of Voney's shines are by appointment. He nets an even $3 for each five-minute shine, including tip, and offers a package deal of seven shines for $20.
"I don't like answering questions, so I try to beat the reporters to the punch," Voney says. "I do their shoes, and then I move on. One reason I survive is I forget what I hear. I act like I don't learn nothing."
Voney doubts that he will match his predecessor's 20 years of service to the Tribune. "I'm half-alive, just barely ticking," he says. "I need a new job. I'm bored stiff. I'm so tired. I need a new outlet. I need to break the monotony. Meet new people. Break some new ground. I'd really like to be a doorman."
Voney says that while his dozens of steady customers treat him well, he is troubled by the changing demographics of the Tribune newsroom. "Many of my best customers have retired or been transferred," he laments. "All they hire these days is ladies, and they get fewer shines. Ladies are taking over this place."
Voney describes two types of Tribune employees: those who let him shine their shoes and those who don't. He has a certain contempt for the ones who sweet-talk him but never let him do his stuff. "The same people that won't let me do their shoes ask me, 'How you doin'?'" Voney says. "I feel like saying, 'How do you think I'm doin' if you never give me no business?'"
Among the worst offenders, Voney says, are blacks, who are on the increase in the Tribune newsroom. "Most of them shun me," he says. "The only black man in this place who lets me shine his shoes is [editorial columnist] Clarence Page. But he's a brainy dude. The rest are small-minded."
Voney, a man of many opinions, is not afraid to give them.
On columnist Bob Greene: "He's a millionaire who never once let me give him a shine. He's hopeless as a human being."
On columnist Mike Royko: "I try not to do him during the baseball season because he's so long-winded about the Cubs. He likes them and I don't. I don't like the Sox or any of the Chicago teams. They're all losers. They're all bad."
On editor James Squires: "He's a real nice guy, but when he gets to talking to me in his office I try to keep it short because I got other customers. We're both busy men, you know."
On a recent day, Voney had done ten shines since he arrived at 9:30 AM. He was thinking about going home, leaving by early afternoon. He likes to bet on the horses, and there is no sense hanging around the office if no shoes need shining.
Married and the father of four grown children, Voney used to deliver the Chicago Sun in his south-side neighborhood when he was a teenager. He reads both major Chicago newspapers just about every day to check out the horse handicappers, and it comes as no surprise that he prefers one over the other.
"The Tribune is too big and bulky," Voney observes. "I never liked the Tribune. I like the Sun-Times. It's smaller and easier to read."
Voney readily concedes that his affinity for the Sun-Times stems, at least in part, from the fact that many of his best customers now are former Sun-Times employees, having left when media baron Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper in 1983. As Voney sees it, the newspaper war in Chicago "ended when we [the Tribune] got Ann Landers."
"My only friends," says Voney, "are God, the almighty dollar, and a few folks around here." He describes himself as "a gentle man, though moody," and says he doesn't have any fun in life. It has been that way, he says, since he grew up fatherless and poor. And he admits that his experiences have given him a pessimistic view of Chicago and its future.
"In the last ten years, since Daley died, Chicago has become like Detroit--a dead man's town," Voney says. "The bars are closing too early. The city is dilapidated. There's nothing to do."
Looking from beneath the brim of his worn baseball cap--it's adorned with a "don't panic" button--Al stares at his shiny black patent-leather shoes and contemplates his future. He might investigate working at the new NBC building.
But whatever happens, he wants to remain his own boss. "I'm not making a lot of money," he says, "but at least I don't have a boss in my face telling me what to do. I can nod off whenever I want to."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.