He was not a boy, but he was short. Shorty stood about five four and was about as many inches around his mid section. The mahogany skin of his fifty-year-old moon face wrinkled when he smiled. Shorty smiled a lot. When he smiled the gold tooth that replaced his upper incisor shown like a star on a dark night. A small patch of black hair lay listlessly atop the furrowed valleys of his brown shoe leather scalp.
Shorty’s shoe shine stand stood across St. Charles Avenue from the United Fruit Building where I worked as a law clerk for the last two years I was at Tulane Law School. The good uptown, traditional folks at Phelps, Dunbar, Marks, Claverie & Sims expected me to look sharp while in their employ; therefore Shorty and I got to know one another pretty well. He insured that my cordovan Bass penny loafers met muster with my boss, Mr. John Simms, himself.
In the mid 1950s, Shorty charged 25 cents for a good single color shoe shine. Of course, a two-tone shine coast all of 35 cents. In addition to honing my shoes to where they became mirrors on my feet, for my 25 cent shine I always had the pleasure of a fifteen minute information-filled conversation with Shorty. When I said something he pretended to agree with he would acknowledge by saying, “Yes Sir, that sure enough be so.” Sometimes he would declare, “Well Sir, can you beat that?”
Shorty had constructed his two-seater stand from hardwood shipping crates that had housed products shipped from all over the world to the Walnut Street Wharf near Shorty’s uptown home. The stand remained unpainted; it just weathered in the New Orleans heat and humidity. The wrought iron seats atop of the stand came from the demolished Union Pacific Rail Road Station at the foot of Canal Street. The four cast iron feet rest, upon which I placed my feet while Shorty lavished on paste with his bare hands, had seen their better days at the fancy barbershop in the old, renovated Monteleon Hotel. Shorty’s stand took up only maybe 100 square feet in a covered space next to a paved parking lot.
When Shorty shined, his customers engaged him in good natured banter, but Shorty, being a whole bunch smarter than his station in life indicated, also listened when it was wise to listen.
Since Shorty’s stand stood beneath the tall commercial buildings of New Orleans, the business and professional elite of the Queen City made up most of Shorty’s customer base. In between jovial small talk with his customers, Shorty listened intently to the business men discuss the goings on of the day. Shorty had befriended a stock broker customer and made small periodic investments through him based on information he picked up daily at his stand.
Everybody conceded that Shorty’s shine was the best in town. Shorty had his own concoctions of shoe pastes and potions that he applied with his bare hands. Then came the big brush that just smoothed out the thick paste. Different brushes for different colors, of course. Next came the rag that Shorty popped, emitting a crack like a bull whip before he vigorously stroked the well worn cloth across the toes then the heels of his customers’ shoes. He did this in rhythm with the jazz music constantly playing on his small second-hand radio. The final touch came when Shorty sprayed his secret magical potion of liquid spit on your shoes and finished them off with final swipes of the rag that, naturally, matched the color of your shoes. Your shoes truly glistened when you stepped down from Shorty’s stand.
Shorty always had shoes to shine that customers would drop off at his stand then pick up at the end of the day. I have often wondered how many pairs of shoes the diminutive, energetic man would shine in a day.
One day in spring when I came for my semiweekly shine, I found Shorty talking to an attractive woman a few years younger than me. Shorty introduced me to Lucy, his oldest daughter. He then told me, “Lucy will we graduating from high school at the top of her class the end of this month then she will be going to Xavier University in the fall. Her Maw and I are mighty proud of her and her other five brothers and sisters.”
After leaving my job at Phelps, Dunbar to fulfill my obligations on active duty to Uncle Sam, then to work off my law school debt in the oil patch of Eastern Venezuela, I returned to New Orleans to start my own law practice.
One day when I had to make an appearance in Civil District Court in New Orleans, I decided to treat myself to a shine at Shorty’s. By now I had not seen Shorty in almost ten years, but I thought he must surely be a permanent fixture at his St. Charles Avenue stand. I arrived at Shorty’s location only to find no Shorty and no stand. Only vacant space where the stand had once stood. Seeing that the parking lot was still in business I asked Jake, the lot manager about Shorty. This friendly man told me, “Oh, Shorty gave up the business about a year ago. Said he was getting too old for the shine business.”
I asked, ”What is he doing for a living now?”
Jake just just chuckled and replied, “Shorty don’t need to do nothing. You know he be a rich man. Over the years he made some good investments that paid off well.”