Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Land of Shined Shoes

Shined shoes are the stuff of literature and political legend. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman rode on a smile and a shoeshine, and Alejandro Toledo famously rose from shoeshine boy in the 1960s to President of Peru thirty years later. In the United States shoeshining has largely vanished from public space, retreating to airports and luxury office buildings. But the trade remains very much alive in Latin America.

Latin Americans like a luster on their footwear. It connotes self-respect and a sense of style, and it employs a small army of service workers. Some ply their trade at fixed stands, located in areas of high pedestrian traffic. For a small gratuity, their patrons enjoy the comfort of a padded seat as they supervise the shine or read a courtesy newspaper. Far more numerous are the roving shoe shine boys who leave no corner of the city unvisited and no one wearing shoes unsolicited. You can’t miss them, and they certainly don’t miss you.

I have sworn off smooth leather shoes for my Latin American travels. Shoe shiners are likely to accept a gruff “no son lustrables” (“they’re unshinable”) from someone shod in running wear or rough suede. But shinable shoes and a sweet disposition, both worn by my good friend, Paula, attract shoeshine boys like pheromones.

In March Paula and I visited Peru and Bolivia where we scoured bookshops in Lima, Cuzco, La Paz and Cochabamba for our university libraries. We escaped Lima without a single shoeshine; I don’t know how. But in Cuzco our luck ran out. As we waited for the Centro Bartolome de las Casas to open, an eleven-year-old by the name of Christian called attention to the condition of Paula’s clogs. He described, in unflattering detail, how dirty they were and how he could help restore their luster, and their owner’s dignity. No amount of protest on our part would shake Christian’s resolve, and, finally, Paula caved.

For the next half hour, as we sat on a step, Christian demonstrated his skills, pulling bottle after bottle from his kit. “This one cleans the soles,” he assured us, “and this one makes the leather like a mirror,” he said, applying one final coat of polish. In the course of his work, he told us that he was in the fifth grade and that he lived in a neighborhood north of the city, a twenty-minute walk from our location. We were taking it all in and enjoying ourselves until Christian finished his work and named his price. “25 soles,” he said, without a hint of mirth. That’s about $8 US, an outrageous charge for the streets of Cuzco where a good meal can be had for less. I assumed that this was a purposeful joke, intended to take in tourists who might be arithmetically challenged. But no, Christian insisted that 25 was a fair price for such a great shine. I believe that we ultimately settled on 15, and I am sure that Christian is still telling his friends about how easy it is to outsmart gringos.

Paula’s clogs have never been the same.