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A Moment of Silence for Fading Shoeshiners

By John Kelly
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; B03

A bit of the city died this summer. It's a tiny, maybe inconsequential, bit, but the small and the plain deserve obituaries just as much as the high and the mighty, so let us pause to remember the shoeshine stands at the Mayflower Hotel and the Capital Hilton.

Recently shuttered, they will shine no more -- at least, not anytime soon.

There are still men who will shine your shoes downtown. There's White Pony Tony at McCormick & Schmick's on K Street and Clarence at the Grooming Lounge on L. There's Danny , the stand-up comedian, in Washington Square. And don't forget the famed Ego Brown, whose grand stand in International Square is a stately pleasure dome.

There was a time, though, when a shoeshine stand in a hotel lobby was as sure a thing as a Gideon Bible in the bedside table. Representatives of the Mayflower and the Hilton said that the properties were being remodeled and that the stands had to close -- maybe forever, maybe not.

Chris had run the Capital Hilton stand for the past 10 months, shining alongside Robert , who had been there for more than 15 years (as with many of the bootblacks I spoke with, Chris spoke only if I agreed to use just his first name). They rented the space from Pietro's, the hair salon across the hall. When Pietro's lost its lease, Chris and Robert had to go, too.

"We were part of that hotel for 34 years," said Carmelo Chiedi , one of Pietro's owners. "I guess they just got tired of us. They never give me a reason. And they don't have to -- they're the bosses." (Pietro's moved to the Wardman Park Marriott. That hotel has a shoeshine stand, so the Hilton crew wasn't needed.)

I asked Chris how business had been at the Capital Hilton. Good, he said. Feast or famine, yes, but it was feast often enough that he would've been happy to keep on doing it. Customers, he said, "always want to look good, especially if they have a meeting or if they're going to meet a client in the lobby of the hotel."

It's the salesman's creed: Say what you will about me -- that my quote's too high or my breath's too stale -- but be in awe of my shiny shoes.

I got my shoes shined occasionally at the Capital Hilton, though the TV always seemed to be on. Seeing Maury Povich or Jerry Springer often kept me from falling into the proper shine-induced reverie.

I regret that I'd never been to the Mayflower Hotel's shoeshine stand. It was run by a man named James , who, depending on whom you talk to, was either a second- or third-generation Mayflower shoeshine guy.

I walked over there yesterday, entered the Connecticut Avenue lobby and walked down the stairs to the stand. There's still a plaque on the wall that reads, "According to city lore, the Mayflower Hotel boasts Washington's longest-operating shoeshine stand." Time to sell it on eBay, I guess.

As I tried to commit the shoeshine stand to memory -- the four taupe marble thrones, the four brown leather cushions, the eight brass footrests, the four drawers for supplies stained inside with black polish -- a man in a blue suit walked up.

"Looking for a shine?" I asked. "It's closed."

"I liked the guy who worked here," said the man, who said he was a lobbyist. "He was really up to date on current events. And he had a lot of energy."

I thought about why I like getting my shoes shined. It's a respite, a chance to shoot the breeze, a chance to feel, for a moment, like a big shot. It's a chance to marvel at another man's skill, for there are few things as wondrous to behold as a good shoeshine guy at work.

"I'm sorry to see him go," the lobbyist said. And then he climbed the stairs and walked outside, another man in scuffed shoes, looking for a shine.

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