the true stories
When I was a little boy in Baton Rouge, my Dad gave me a spanking new wooden shoeshine kit. It had a carrying handle and a place to keep the black, brown, oxblood and clear polishes. There was, in addition, a bottle of sole dressing for brown and black, some saddle soap, a soft brush, a stiff brush and several different kinds of flannel clothes. Built on top was a wooden footrest for the “customer” to step on.
My father was a sharp-dressed man and had his monogrammed white cotton shirts tailor-made in Hong Kong and he wore them with fancy cuff-links. His pants were also tailor-made and he had a flotilla of fine shoes. At any given time, in those days he had ten pairs of brown and ten pairs of black. Mostly, he preferred loafers with leather tassels. The leathers ranged from cowhide to Louisiana alligator.
I was patiently shown once and once only how to spit-polish a shoe to a military mirror sheen. It became another of my personal chores around the house to keep these twenty pairs in mint condition. My work would be inspected at the end of my labor and all the rejected shoes would be left on the newspaper to have another going over. I grew to hate the job in about twenty minutes and I had that job for several years.
The worst part was scraping off the clay which we called gumbo mud down there. It dried on as hard as mortar and he picked up a lot of it on his daily rounds providing for us. My personal taste was to be bare-footed or to have beat-up shoes that you didn't fret over, so you could concentrate on catching snakes and lizards and climbing trees. My grandfather didn't shine his shoes and he wore pants he made from old sail-cloth. As a child I figured my dad was a dandy and although I appreciated how fine he looked, I didn't plan to emulate his style.
Five months after I turned twenty my father died. That was up in Canada and the circumstances were sketchy. It was a violent death and he was only a few days one side of fifty years old. He never got to meet my wife. He had left home at fifteen years old with a ten dollar bill rolled up in his sleeve. That was in 1942. He first found work in Montreal as a cabin boy and sailed through the War in the Atlantic. He was self educated and self-made. He worked in the jungles of Colombia and the streets of Houston.
About five years after he passed I was divorced and courting my second wife. I had recently purchased my first ever new vehicle. It was a white Toyota short-box pick-up with a manual transmission. I camperized it and decided to take my fiancee on a journey through my past and show her the South land. We headed out one morning and used KOA campgrounds to spend the nights and save on expenses. The first such site was in Oregon and when I crossed the California line and got past Mt. Shasta, my left wrist began to itch.
The irritation was a small pimple under my watch-band. In another hour after noticing it, I had to remove the watch. The pimple was a boil within three hours of noticing it and by the time I pulled into Chinatown in San Francisco, I had a large open lesion weeping copiously. My entire arm was throbbing and a red line was extending along the nearest vein toward my elbow.
Over dim sum, my fiancee asked the waiter in Chinese where we could walk to a Chinese doctor and pay cash. The fellow scribbled instructions on a napkin and after a ten minute walk, we were in the small office. The doctor had a good long look and asked a few questions. He then consulted a book on his little shelf and pointed out a picture to me. It was of a small brown spider.
The article said it was a Brown Recluse and the doctor said, that while he couldn't be certain, he would be willing to bet that I had been bitten by this little devil while I slept. I was given a large jar of pills at a reasonable price and instructed to begin them immediately and not to miss one. We stayed for dinner at my uncle's place near Frisco and it was the last time I saw my cousin, my uncle and my dad's sister. By the time I got to the Tony Lama Factory outlet outside of El Paso, my wound was as small as a pimple again. I bought a pair of plain brown cowboy boots for a ridiculously low price and started to feel pretty sassy.
We next holed up at my grandma's place in Beaumont where she anxiously awaited seeing my new truck. My grandfather had recently passed and she had me pore over his books and personal effects in case there was anything I wanted. I loaded up some China dishes for my mother and declined to take anything else. I even turned down a pair of pearl-handled Navy Colt 45 revolvers that had been gifted to the old Swedish sailor during WWII by the US Government. I cherish things given by people when they are alive to do the giving but shun anything of a personal nature after a person has passed.
After a couple of days of the Beaumont humidity, it was time to head East. We bade farewell to my grandma and crossed the Sabine River into Louisiana. There is a long causeway on this route that straddles the Atchafalaya Swamp. For many miles, the motorist is three or four feet above an alligator soup with cottonmouths for noodles. As my poor heat-stricken companion lay in the back holding cold pop cans to her forehead, I got my first flat tire.
The right passenger side tried to wipe the guard-rail and I was fortunate to be able to bring everything to a safe stop. I explained to my gal there would be a slight delay and set to work. I moved a beer-cooler twenty yards away to warn the on comers and jacked up the truck to a chorus of crickets, alligators, frogs and cicadas. My woman looked out the back at the expanse of sweltering duck-weed covered stagnant water and old cypress stumps draped in Spanish Moss and nearly began to cry.
The repairs went as well as can be expected using stock tools. Ever since then I have carried my own tire irons. Not too much later we were crossing the Mississippi and cruising on into my old neighborhood in Baton Rouge. After one stop at a street corner for directions I found my old school and then my old street.
It was very strange to drive slow down the street I had learned to ride a bicycle on. I found my old house and just gazed awhile at it and recounted a few stories to my partner. After a bit, I drove down the end of the block to the house of my first friend. We had been inseparable for the five and a half years I had lived there. I had no idea if he was still there.
I smiled when I saw the pirogue in the driveway where his father always kept it. The small aluminum boat hadn't changed a bit. I rang the bell and got no answer. I decided to walk around the back and when I did, I saw a big stout young man sitting with a glass of ice tea studying a text book. It was my friend's little brother who had been about three feet tall when I left town.
We went inside the familiar house and I was told that we were welcome to await his parents arrival but that my friend was away at university in Texas. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the whole day and had planned on a lightening visit that maybe would last an hour and then I was taking my sugar to see New Orleans. The truth was that I was so attached to this man's parents, I wasn't sure if I could hold my tears if I did see them or if I could drag myself away from my bayou beginnings and go back to the cool blue North.
I made some excuse and after a brief chat we were on the road. My gal was somewhat revived and able to see the old antebellum mansions that line the back roads into the Big Easy. Just as the sun had lost its sting we pulled up at the football dome and got oriented as to how to get to the French Quarter. Before long, I had the truck stashed in an underground parking lot and a room booked. We cleaned up and sallied forth.
Our first stop was to be a famous bar called the Old Absinthe House. It was on Bourbon St. and was nearly two hundred years old. Oscar Wilde, P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Jenny Lind, Enrico Caruso, General Robert E Lee, Franklin Roosevelt, Liza Minelli and Frank Sinatra were just a few of the patrons of this bar. The pirate Jean Lafitte and President Andrew Jackson are said to have planned the action for the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 on the second floor. The ghost of Lafitte is said to linger yet.
I had never been there before and knew it from reputation and local legend. It is still said today that everyone you know or ever will know, will someday visit this bar. Two hundred years worth of business and calling cards are tacked to its walls by tradition.
We found the place at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville. It was still very light outside and it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior. I spent a long time perusing the business cards pinned to the historic walls and added my own Cherokee Gas card from my little one man gas-fitting enterprise in North Vancouver. Presently, I led my sweetheart to the bar. She didn't drink alcohol and I ordered her something cool and ordered myself the new legal variety of the house special.
It was then I noticed we weren't alone. As I took my first sip of the bitter astringent Herbsaint. A man sat two stools away and appeared to be quietly and completely drunk. He had a big conspiratorial grin on his face and leaned over as close to us as he could muster without falling off his stool. When my eyes met his, two things happened. He gestured with his glass a sort of salute that carried more goodwill and care not to spill than I had ever witnessed.
The second thing was that I instantly recognized Rod Stewart. He looked very tired and very drunk. I sure enjoyed his earlier music with the Faces and wasn't too fond of his latest endeavors. I was in a peculiar mood that afternoon and the way it manifested was in my instant decision not to ask for an autograph. I nodded politely as if I hadn't recognized him. I turned my attention to my girl and told her who it was and not to make any commotion about it.
She was also in a mood and it suited her just fine to ignore the star completely. We had been quarreling and the trip had taken an emotional toll on both of us for different reasons. Each time I peeked along the bar I was met by his eyes. Now they seemed to express surprise that we knew him not. He seemed to be on the verge of introducing himself. Sitting there with my Chinese fiancee, I recalled the lyrics of one of his songs.
Locked in our own selfish youthful passion, we snubbed him tag-team style. Half of me felt extremely rude for not acknowledging the minstrel and the other half of me reasoned that it was probably a relief to him to have a quiet drink away from fans and sycophants. I'll never know which was correct and we left after one drink to go to our next objective.
We walked the half dozen blocks to Jackson Square and there on the corner of Decatur and St. Ann we treated ourselves to coffee and chicory at the old Cafe Du Monde. This landmark has been in operation 24 -7 since 1862. I still drink their coffee and chicory today when I can get it. I'm sipping on it right now, as a matter of fact. When my lady finished her beignet we strode back to our hotel.
A few blocks from our objective we saw a black man shining shoes in a doorway. As we came down the sidewalk he began to shout out to us. Rather, he began to address my fiancee.
“Lord have mercy, Miss lady. Mmm-mmmm-mmm! I feels sorry for ya. Havin' to walk wit dat man wit him nasty scuffed up boots an all. Its a shameful thang, sho' nuff. Beautiful lady like you walking all embarrassed 'cause yo man ain't troubled hisself to put some shine on them fine Tony Lamas. I been to Vietnam and back agin' and I ain't never seen the like. Let me tell you what, Mista Boots come over hyeah and put you foot up. I am goin' to fix yo lil problem fo free, naw wut I'm sayin? Get on over now. It's fo the little lady's sake.”
I looked down at my scuffy “new” boots and became very self-conscious. I never could dress up very well and my wife to be always looked as if she'd just left a fashion show no matter what she wore. I remembered my shoeshine kit and how much I'd hated the job. There was nothing to do but comply. Another young man passed by as I received my military spit-polish shine and paused. He was dressed to kill and he bowed low like they do in parts of Europe.
“Sir, I commend you on your impeccable taste in women.”
Then he was gone.
“See what I'm sayin' Mista Boots? You got a mighty fine lady and this here is New Orleans.”
He flapped out a rhythm with his flannel and when the song ended I could see our reflections. Baby snapped a picture and glowed with her first brush of the genteel South. She was showered with compliments, all of them in good taste and earnestly spoken. Our moods lightened considerably. I paid the man double what he would have charged, if he would have charged. He accepted only the usual fee and then only after I firmly insisted.
I told him about my shoeshine box in Baton Rouge and the twenty pairs of shoes. I explained that this was why I was reluctant to have shiny shoes ever since or ask any man to shine them for me. He looked up and smiled like a Cajun sunrise.
“Mista Boots, might jus be dat yo Daddy wuz tryin ta learn you ta feed yo own self, naw wut I'm sayin?”
I didn't ponder that observation for a second. It wasn't what I wanted to hear. We parted company with the shoe-shine man and started to head back up to Vancouver the next morning. We spent ten years together, all told and we had a son. That son gave me a bundle of photos one day last year he had taken from his mother's collection. He was about the same age as I had been that time in New Orleans. The picture of that shoe-shine man was right on top of the pile.
I retired a few months later from the Post Office and moved to Lillooet. Last week I was walking to the Post Office and passed a new second hand store. There in the window was a plain brown pair of Justin cowboy boots from Ft. Worth. I stopped to look. I broke my foot about twenty years ago and it grew back a different size. I haven't been able to wear western boots ever since. I was drawn to at least try them on for nostalgia's sake.
I asked to borrow a pair of socks and the proprietor's wife found a suitable pair. I sat down and tugged them on. I expected to wince in pain at the first step and that wasn't the case. Somehow, the two boots were of a proper throat to hold my normal foot and of a sufficient width to accommodate my oversize foot. It was extraordinary and the price was right. They had less than two miles on them. I wore them home. A few days later I noticed that a hairline crack ran across the leather sole of one.
This explained the odd combination of low mileage and low price. Two applications of contact cement and they were good to go. The heels are relieving some back pains I have suffered since taking off my mail bags after thirty years. I don't know if I will polish them much. Probably I won't. While I was repairing them today I realized that it had never crossed my mind as a boy to take my shoe-shine kit out into the street and make some loot. It was never once suggested to me either. I was supposed to figure that out by myself. Roddy was right, I guess every picture does tell a story, don't it?
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.