First Person Singular: Shoe shiner Joseph Ty Murray

Joseph Ty Murray, 40, shoe shiner for Union Station Shoe Shine.
Joseph Ty Murray, 40, shoe shiner for Union Station Shoe Shine. (For The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
Sunday, March 6, 2011

The whole idea is to get the guy a new look when he gets out of that chair. Most companies spray the shoe to protect it so it won't dry out sitting in the box, so what we do initially is we take that spray film off, and we see what the shoe actually looks like, and then we can start to apply the polish and the things that we do to it. That's why they say, "Oh, it didn't look this good when I first bought it." I love to hear that. As long as we're hearing that, we still have a job. Test.

The way to treat the shoe is to make it look healthy, but nobody shines shoes the same way. Now, if I have to give credit to anyone, I'd say Tony and Dave - I used to work with them two guys; they had me in the middle, and they'd be on the ends watching me. I used to brag: "I got this; watch what I'm doing." And then I'd finish, and they would say, "Well, see, if you just used a rag instead of a brush at the end, you would've kept the shine, but you brushed the shine right off."

If people want to close their eyes and fall asleep, let 'em do it. But we're gonna be cracking jokes and talking about football and, you know, women. Most people tip. If they don't, maybe they just don't have it, or maybe they didn't like something I did or something I said. So I'm going to have to go back and rewind and reevaluate the conversation. Did I talk about Republicans too bad? Did I talk about Michael Vick too long?

It takes a strong character to do this. You know, the whole history of this country is that black men, all they're good for is shining shoes and serving food. I've had people say, "You know, you don't have to do that." I say, "Really, I don't have to pay my bills and take care of my kids?" But I have great mentors in my life, so I'm very self-secure.

I had an elderly couple come see me one time. Do you know, they come back two years later with a present for my son, who wasn't even born yet when I met them? They're an older couple - they don't do nothing without each other - and they just sat down and looked at me. I knew who they were: It'd been on a weekend; we'd had an extended conversation about family, about love, about life. And they came back, and they didn't forget nothing.

See, you can't pay for that. That can't happen if I worked at another place.

- Interview by Amanda Abrams

© 2011 The Washington Post Company