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by Peter Moskos

March 22, 2009

Shoe-Leather Research

It's a lazy journalist and an incompetent academic who writes a story based on the anecdotes of cab drivers, bartenders, and shoe shiners. But...

I was getting my shoes shined Friday afternoon in Baltimore's Penn Station and the shoe shiner and I were chatting. He was a black man, a bit older than me. Baltimore born and bred. West Side.

Snowing in New York, I said. Crazy.

He has family upstate.

No, New York City.

Snowing in the city? Crazy. Upstate is one thing.

Pretty bleak upstate.

Too quiet there, he said. I'm a city man.

Me too.

He quoted something out of the Bible. Kind of lost me there.

I asked him if things were getting better or worse in Baltimore.

"You want what you want to hear or you want me to be honest?" He looked me in the eyes and said the truth: "It's the same as it ever was."

He mentioned that he had a few other stands in other locations, too. But it wasn't easy to expand his business.

"Why?" I asked, thinking of the poor economy.

"I can't find any workers."

"Really? But there's lots of guys standing on the corner." This was a leading question because I knew the answer.

"Yeah," he said, "But of them kids have any work ethic."

All he wanted was somebody willing to show up on time every day and work. And he couldn't find it.

I mentioned that you won't get rich shining shoes, but it's honest work. My grandfather shined shoes. His grandfather taught him the value of honest work. Honest work. "That it is," he said, "and it keeps the lights from flickering. Know what I mean? It pays the bills."

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