For the last two years I've indulged every other week in a shoeshine at the barbershop in the lobby of the skyscraper where I work downtown. Walking in I say hello to Rio, the shoeshine man. "Need a shine?" he asks softly, his form thin and bent, face drowsy-looking, smoking a cigarette.
"Yes, please." I grab a magazine; Rio gestures to the chair and snuffs his cigarette.
The chair is mounted on a stout, plywood box: shoe polish, brushes, and cloths are arranged on splattered newsprint beside the seat. Footrests slide out from its base.
I settle onto the red chair and place my black oxfords on the iron rests, knowing that if they're not quite aligned Rio will gently bring foot and stirrup together.
The shine is thoroughly relaxing. It's an inexpensive luxury of sorts, handily justified as prudent shoe maintenance.
During the shine I'm sharply aware of Rio's technique. He starts by soaping the shoes with a sudsy, soft-bristled brush. After wiping away the foam--leaving the leather damp and receptive, like a warm wet face ready for shave cream--he uses a cloth to rub black polish in little circles and swaths all over the shoe, the scent rising pleasantly to my nostrils, releasing memories of my dad's basement workshop, where he kept his shoe creams in a wooden box among the tools and the smell of sawdust.
Rio is meticulous. He never rushes, always seems to take pride in his work. I get the impression that he'd be adept at any job requiring his hands.
Observing him can raise moral qualms, however. He's stooped at my feet in an almost grotesquely subservient position, performing a repetitious task that may well throw a permanent wave into his back. He seems young--probably in his early 30s--but already rather broken by the work. Am I degrading him? No, I usually conclude, it would harm him more if I did my polishing at home.
Caked with black polish, the shoe leather becomes dull. Rio mists it with water from a bottle, then picks up a pair of brushes, one in each hand, and begins a long, careful series of alternating scrubs and swipes. The depressed finish begins to brighten.
Rio doesn't say much. When I ask him how it's going, he always says, "Oh, pretty good." Once he answered that he had suffered some sort of muscle spasm in his leg and his wife had left work to take him to the hospital. That's all I've heard of his family life.
Often the barber will advance on me during a shine to shove his card at me and demand to know why I never let him cut my hair "You're looking a little shaggy, my friend," he'll say, no matter how recently Ive had a haircut. I tell him I've been going to the same barbershop for years. What I don't tell him is that I get to observe closely the results of his handiwork on the elevator every day.
Rio holds a long cloth in both hands and brings it down tightly on top of my shoe, his fists bobbing below and to the sides as the cloth passes back and forth in a blur. Every few seconds he gives it a second of slack and it pops up and snaps.
Rio finishes the job by running black liquid from a little felt-tip bottle along the edges of the shoes, wiping the excess with another cloth.
The shine takes about six minutes. Still stooped, Rio bends his neck to look up at me and say "OK." His fee is $2.50. I always tip a dollar and tell him he does nice work.
"Thank you very much," he says, stressing "very" in a breathy tone.
The last time I went to Rio for a shine, he ran out of black polish while I sat in the chair. He excused himself, assuring me in his taciturn way that he'd be right back. As he walked--to a dry cleaner next door that sells shoe creams--he looked stiff as dry wood, advancing slowly with short, pained steps. He seemed thinner than ever, his eyelids heavier.
A couple of weeks passed; I went in for a shine and a new guy had taken Rio's place. As I sat down I asked him, "So where's Rio? Is this his day off?"
The new guy, young and healthy-looking, peered up at me as if I had asked a stupid question and said, "Rio dead."
It turns out Rio had cancer in his bones. The doctor had told him about it months before--his "muscle spasm" perhaps?--but Rio had continued to work.
"Was he in the hospital near the end?" I asked.
"I don't think so," he said. "I think he just died at home.
He went through the shine distractedly, glancing around, not paying attention, griping. "Rio is better off than me," he moaned.
"Why do you say that?"
"He ain't got no more worries now."
He finished the job perfunctorily, elaborating on his theory that Rio's place was more enviable than his own. He described how one layoff after another had landed him in his current miserable position.
My shoes have gotten dusty since then. I've passed by the barber shop a few times, half expecting to see Rio, stooped and diligent, coaxing luster from a pair of loafers, the light low and diffused.