Percell normally sets up on the north side of M Street NW near 19th. It was his sign promising a shine “by a master bootblack” that caught my eye. “What’s a master bootblack?” I asked.
“Let me say this, I’ve been doing this 35 years,” said Percell, who is 56. “On and off. I also worked for the city, heading a union office at RFK. But I was serious about the shining, when a lot of the guys, they just wanted to get a quick 20 dollars to go buy drugs.”
Percell said that he’s had his own problems with the temptations of the street but that Jesus helped him turn his life around. And though he does other work — landscaping when that season rolls around — he’s always been serious about shining shoes.
I sat in the swiveling office chair he had on the sidewalk and put my wingtips on the wooden footrests of his box.
Whenever I get my shoes shined, I ask about Ego Brown. It was Ego who, in 1989, got the city to strike down the law against shining shoes on the street.
“Ego Brown?” Percell said. “Sure, I know him. I worked this corner for years. . . . One day, Ego set up down the block. This was our block. So we decided to have a contest, a shine-off. We’d compete to see who gave the better shine.
“Ego said, ‘Well, I’ll have my protege shine against you.’
“I said, ‘No, it’s me versus you.’ ”
And thus began the contest.
“So Ego started shining this man’s shoe,” Percell said, as he spread polish on my brogues. “He would shine one. I would shine the other. Ego started shining, and I went to get a pint of liquor. When I came back, he was still shining. It took him 15 minutes to do that shoe.”
How did it look, I asked.
“It looked really good,” Percell admitted. “Then I started shining. I finished in five minutes. The man looked at his shoes and said, ‘I can’t really tell the difference.’
“I said, ‘Well, I won.’ Why did I win? Because I did in five minutes what it took Ego 15 minutes to do.”
“Did Ego leave the block?” I asked.
“Ego’s a man of his word,” Percell said. “He did.”
And that’s the story of Percell Ryland’s shine-off with Ego Brown. Percell remembers it happening in the early 1990s.
I called Ego and asked if such a thing happened.
“It’s possible,” he said. He remembered that corner, and he remembered Percell. Then he said, “I would like you to write this: Let it be known that I have nothing but love for the other people who are doing the same work that I’m doing.”
The mention of the shine-off seemed to spur something in Ego Brown. “The thing between Ryland and I, we need to have a shine-off,” Ego said. “Here’s how it’s going to be done: in a very public place, nonstop shoe shining for at least two to three hours, with me and my crew and his crew. . . . We can bring in some other shine men. If we did it right, in a professional way, everybody’s going to get paid. That’s the thing that’s going to make Ego happy.”
That’s what Ego cares most about: that the city’s shine men have work and can make a living doing that work. Today, Ego operates shoeshine stands in the lobbies of 1301 K St. NW and 555 13th St. NW and at the Capitol Hill Club. Recently, he started going to the Clarendon flea market on Saturdays and the Georgetown flea market on Sundays, shining shoes and selling them.
“I live and sleep shoeshine, man,” he said.
Just imagine a shine-off: the smell of polish, the snap of cloth, dozens of competitors. Ego and Percell. White Pony Tony from McCormick & Schmick’s. Those Brazilian women who work at the Reagan Building. Master bootblacks, one and all.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.