Maybe. Maybe not.
What is certain is that Ponytail’s real name was Donald Potter Betts; that he was the owner of Ponytail’s Shoe Shine Parlor & Shoe Repair at 10th and U streets NW; that he died in January, at the age of 76, and left behind untold numbers of sorrowful patrons, many of them police officers loyal to his shine.
What is also certain is that his acolytes hope to carry on his business in a corridor where ever-soaring real estate values are less than accommodating to a vanishing breed of men who charge $7 to turn mud to sheen.
But here is where they make their stand: in a shop that still displays Ponytail’s name on the window, along with his white straw derby, hanging on a metal pole festooned with a memorial black ribbon and a stuffed white dove.
“We’re trying to keep it going in his honor,” said Michael Murray, 57, the one-man repair department at Ponytail’s. “It was his love. Sometimes, he’d be here 24 hours. His customers were everything to him.”
Murray’s partners in shine are Joe Alfred, 75, who has been polishing shoes in Washington since the 1960s. There’s also Robert Caster, 72, whom Murray hired after Ponytail’s death if only because his white beard reminded him of the former proprietor. Kenneth Bailey-Bey, 52, joined after Ponytail was hospitalized, never having met him as an adult, but talking about him with the confidence of a lifelong friend.
Did you know, Bailey-Bey asked, that Ponytail played a shoeshine man in “Car Wash,” the 1970s film that starred Richard Pryor as a scurrilous preacher?
That the film’s credits list an actor named Clarence Muse as playing the shoeshine man does not damp Bailey-Bey’s enthusiasm. His reverence for Ponytail, he said, dates back to when he was a youngster, when he met him on H Street NE.
“My father introduced me,” Bailey-Bey recalled. “Said he was the only man who could cream a shoe in less than five minutes. He said he was one of the best spit shines around.”
Steeped in a rich showbiz tradition, U Street has long been a stage for outsize personas and self-promoters. Over the decades, there have been the entertainers playing at the famous theaters, the owners of haberdasheries and nightclubs and other enterprises, and the card sharks, pool hustlers and numbers runners. On the Northwest corner of 11th street, there was once a real estate man who negotiated deals without a desk or a secretary.
“He didn’t have an office,” remembered Richard Lee, whose family founded Lee’s Flower Shop, a U Street staple since 1945. “He did all his business on the corner.”