© 2009 Stefan Gruenwedel

Larry the shoeshine man

I don’t often get to go downtown during on weekdays because I work fairly far from the financial district. So whenever I do get a chance to walk among the “suits,” I feel as though I’ve taken a detour to Manhattan—even if in miniature form. Aside from the yellow taxi cabs, one similarity is the presence of shoe shiners on street corners. Despite the fact that many men wear casual (tennis) shoes and even flip-flops downtown, serious worker-types still pound the pavement in oxfords or loafers—the kind of shoe that needs periodic touching up to keep it looking sharp and worth its considerable investment made in the first place.

Wednesday morning I happened to be downtown for a work assignment. At noontime I was walking with a client down Market Street when I asked him where one could get a shoeshine. I told him how frustrating it was to come downtown only on weekends, when shoeshine stands are usually closed. He mentioned there was a guy just a block away that he saw people going to all the time.

After he and I parted ways, I found the shoeshine stand on the corner of Market and New Montgomery streets, just outside Custom Shop Clothiers. The man in charge, Larry Moore, was finishing a customer, so I was next in line. He looked pretty decent in his light dress shirt and tie, not quite the fly-by-night impression that previous shoeshine guys I’d visited had made.

It felt funny to sit on an elevated stand on a busy street with my shoes prominently displayed for all to see. We got to talking. I mentioned how I used to go to someone on such-and-such corner, who’s no longer there. He said people come and go; it’s a hard business to keep going. He talked matter-of-factly about how he formerly panhandled and held open the door at the nearby McDonald’s for spare change. He’s still homeless but said he’s grateful to have faithful customers who appreciate the work he does.

During the five minutes I was there, half a dozen men and women greeted him on their way by. His folksy, if slightly dour, persona makes him an interesting person to talk with. He ranted about Mayor Newsom and how the City was taking all his money because he didn’t have a business license. Of course he doesn’t, I thought. He certainly should, but it seemed like a typical by-the-book response from City Hall bureaucrats. For someone like me who sits at a computer all day and collects a regular paycheck from a large company, the world of the self-starting entrepreneur is a distant one. Even though I experienced the “lovely” process of applying for unemployment several years ago when I was laid off and began doing freelance work, I had a support network to assist me. Starting a business without any safety net or bank account—let alone “proper” form of ID—takes a certain amount of fortitude.

Larry seemed pretty upset about the whole situation but informed me that San Francisco Chronicle reporter C.W. Nevius was writing a column about him in tomorrow’s paper. I’m one of the few, apparently, who still subscribes to daily newspaper, so when it arrived, there he was—mentioned right on the front page.

Front-page article in San Francisco Chronicle

C.W. Nevius's front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Larry Moore

Nevius sure made City Hall look foolish, and Larry got his 15 minutes’ of fame, including a few $100 tips that not only gave him a lift but paid for a much-deserved week’s stay in a hotel. A follow-up article on Friday painted a happier tale in which City officials made it clear they got the message. (If he works things right, Larry could become an only-in-San Francisco sidewalk personality, like the 12 Galaxies Man.)

Follow-up article about Larry Moore

C.W. Nevius's follow-up (also front-page) article about Larry Moore

Last fall I read an article about Joe Azzolini in the paper. The man had run a shoeshine stand in the same location for 38 years, outside the Curran and ACT on Geary, and was seeing a precipitous drop in customers. Reading the article made me want to lace up my sorriest pair of shoes right away and stroll by his stand; reading some of the online comments about his surly attitude, however, changed my mind. Perhaps, at 77, he needs to retire.

Larry shined my John Fluevog Ivan shoes really well, taking care to avoid the white stitching so the polish wouldn’t darken them. I told him I’d be bringing another pair with me on Saturday. He said he’d be open; he keeps the same hours as Custom Shop Clothiers, whose opening and closing times appear conveniently in bold, gold lettering on the front door.

Well, today is Saturday and he was there. He remembered me from earlier in the week, and talked about how amazing the public’s reaction was to Nevius’s story. It’s funny how a repeat visit to a stranger like Larry can nevertheless create a certain bond that you normally do not feel with someone outdoors. Typical transactions with vendors last only a few seconds as you grab their wares and exchange money. It’s not conducive to a prolonged conversation unless you’re a naturally chatty type. But the five minutes spent with a shoeshine man is long enough to facilitate an interesting exchange about the economy, politics, or society with a type of person you’d normally never interact with, except maybe in a bar.

As it turns out, I bought a new pair of Clarks yesterday after work to replace my aging Rockports. In a few months I’ll go back and pay Larry another visit.

By the way, the Chronicle’s Frederic Larson took a great candid shot of Larry. I hope I’ll take a photo like that someday. It never occurred to me to aim my camera up when shooting Larry. (Perhaps it was because I felt self-conscious snapping my photos, even though he said he didn’t mind. I felt like a tourist.)

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