The sun had just begun to burn through the fog while my colleague and I were walking back from the Navy Pier toward our hotel in Chicago on a chilly April day. As we walked south on North Columbus Street, I heard someone saying, "Now, you see those shoes? That man’s shoes need some help." It took me a little while to realize he was talking to me and about me. "Tell you what; you need to get some Kiwi leather conditioner, it’ll keep those shoes looking good and if they get wet it’ll keep the water from ruining the leather." I looked over at his buddy sitting on the metal railing that runs alongside the bridge over to Wacker Avenue. My intrepid math teacher friend stayed about ten feet away from any of us.
Still yakking, the street savvy hawker leaned over as if to point out something on the sidewalk and the next thing I knew, he’d squirted something onto my left shoe. I hadn’t even seen the bottle concealed in his hand. I didn’t know if it was Kiwi leather conditioner or a mixture of pigeon poo and dishsoap. It was becoming to dawn on me that I was getting hustled. He didn’t bat an eye or miss a beat. He kneeled down on the sidewalk and patted the top of his left knee.
“Put ‘er up here.”
His jeans were cankered with dirt from the soles of previous customers and I now had a blob of something on my shoe, so I obliged. He began popping his rag back and forth and rattling on, “This is how I pay my rent and put food on the table for my kids. I work.”
As he continued on about shoes and work ethic and all, I interrupted, “Where you from?” Only slightly rattled by the interest, he answered “I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi.”
“You ever get down to Biloxi?”
“Naw, man. I just grew up down there in Jackson, Mississippi. Never been to Biloxi.” Thinking that his family might have been able to slip in a drive from Jackson to Biloxi at some point during his formative years, his response stirred my suspicions ever so slightly.
In regard to my “What’s your name?” he replied that everybody called him “Baby Shoes” because “I’ve been doing shoes since I was a baby.”
I continued my amiable interrogation. By the time he finished the first shoe, I knew that he claimed to have six kids and that the oldest was twenty-seven. Just about the time he was ready to start on my right shoe, a couple of police officers rode up on bicycles. One of them immediately went to Rail Man and asked for his ID. Rail Man initially stated that he had none but the officer had no time for that. “Show me your ID,” he repeated in a tone of voice that made it seem like he was definitely not doing this for his own amusement. Rail Man obliged with a Social Security card.
Meanwhile, Baby Shoes said to the second officer, "How you doin’ today, Baby?" There was no response.
The shoeshine man tried again, "How are you today, officer?" "Fine," responded the lean, thirty-something black patrolman. "See there: use a different language, you get better results."
Baby Shoes quietly absorbed that and then began talking to me again, his voice not quite as smooth as before. Although he kept rattling on, his attention was clearly on the officers and his friend. In fact, he was so distracted that he let slip that none of his kids were still living at home, “They’re scattered all over the state.” Must be a lot of shipping costs involved in putting food on all those tables.
When he finished the second shoe, he stood up, turned away from the police officers and leaned close to me and said in a low but enthusiastic tone, “That’ll be eight dollars a shoe, sir, eight dollars. And a nice tip, too, please.”
Well, folks, I might have a Southern accent and I might be a little slow in the ways of the world, but if you’re going to extort me, you don’t want to do it in front of a pair of Chicago’s finest. I can be downright assertive when two armed men are standing ready to defend me from the grit and grime of urban grafters.
“No,” I replied warmly, “we didn’t agree on that before you started.” After deducting a few bucks for the misleading information about feeding the children and a bit more for never having visited Biloxi, I gave the man a ten and walked away. When Jeff and I looked back from the other side of the river, the cops were still there.
It was late that evening before it occurred to me that were it not for them, Baby Shoe’s cohort might have taken a much more active role in the proceedings when I disputed the amount due for services rendered. I wouldn’t have been the first stranger in Chicago to pay the price of his principles.
Indeed, it seems that the Lord does look after fools and children. I’ve proved it more times than I’d care to admit and mostly after I was allegedly grown up.
But I did have one fine looking pair of shoes for the next few days…