CHILD'S PLAY: Shining shoes was always my hobby since I was 12 or 13 -- after school and all summer. My brother and I were wondering how we could make some money as kids. We found out some of the kids were going shoeshining, so we asked our mom to buy us these kits with a rag and polish and everything you need. She said, "Boys, these little kits come with some very important directions. See these cans of polish? When you run out, save enough money to buy some more."
SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE: I'd never really done it except as a hobby until 1991, when I was doing advertising sales and traveling all over the place. I finally told my girlfriend I was going to quit traveling and just get a job shining shoes in the airport. And she said, "No, Tony, anything but shining shoes." She's from El Salvador, and there shoeshine's a low, bottom-of-the-barrel kind of thing. But I wanted to do something I enjoy. I started at National Airport. I also worked at Dulles, then got invited into Congress and then came to McCormick & Schmick's. It was a good deal because they were going to give me free rent and a free lunch. And being on K Street is a great location.
ALL IN THE WRIST: I clean the leather first with saddle soap and then condition it with lanolin. I wipe on a full base coat of polish with my hands and then apply another coat. Then I use the fire [a blow torch applied to the surface of the shoe] to make the polish soak in. The most important part is the spit shine with the cotton rag and using the right amount of polish, water and elbow grease. The fire does make the polish soak in deeper, but I can get the same shine with or without it. It's partly for show. I never use it unless it's a harder and darker leather. On a tan shoe, it could darken the leather.
SHINING EXAMPLE: I'm giving something right there to people instead of just a signed contract in their hands -- and it's something of better quality than they can get from anybody else. There are others guys around -- they can't touch me. Opinions vary, but I've won a lot of [shoeshine] contests.
LOOKS COUNT: I usually have a better appearance than most guys I know. A lot of shoeshiners are kind of scruffy. I can be busy all day and I'm still clean. I try to have a nice presentation. It makes you feel good. It takes about three weeks' vacation to really get my hands clean. I scrub them 10 times a day, but they're always going to have some stains. It's worth it. It makes me happy.
CARE AND FEEDING: Don't wear shoes day in and day out. The whole key is letting them dry out to preserve the leather. It's good to use cedar shoe trees. It keeps the form of the shoe and helps them dry out. Especially on men's shoes, the toe will curl up and reach up toward the sky if you don't keep a wooden shoe tree in it.
HORSING AROUND: They call me White Pony Tony because I rode bareback in the rodeo. The rodeo was always just a hobby; my stepdad did it full-time. One time when I was 14, he walked up to me at a rodeo and said, "There's a cowboy who didn't show up. Do you want to ride a bareback horse?" I said no, and he said, "I should have known better than to ask you." He basically called me a sissy. That was enough. I went ahead and rode it.
GETTING THE BOOT: Every time I get [a customer] who has a Western background, I see they have cowboy boots. That's my specialty. We always have that connection. I know about the boots. Tom DeLay would come and see me when I was in the House Annex just to have me do his cowboy boots. He still recommends me over here.
As told to Susan Breitkopf