T HERE AREN'T TOO MANY THINGS
you can't get on the streets of Washington. You can pick up a fake Rolex. Gold chains. Fresh fruit. Loose joints. The one thing you can't get is a simple shoeshine.
Ego Brown would like to change all that. He runs the stand at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel on K Street and has a vision in which scores of homeless and out-of-work men could earn a living with a kit and rag. Unfortunately, it's illegal to provide a shoeshine service in the District unless the stand is in a storefront or on other private property.
So far Brown has been able to open three stands and hire three homeless men. First they get a shower, if one is needed, a haircut and an "Ego outfit" -- white shirt with a high formal collar, narrow bow tie, black suspenders and satin-striped pants, all topped off with a straw boater with EGO in white letters on a black band. "I'm reaching out to help myself," he says, "and trying to help some other people pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It's a bootstraps situation."
He'd like to see a day when he could employ hundreds. It might help if the general public were a little more sartorially aware. "I've been talking with some of the old guys who tell me about when, in the '30s and late '20s, the shoeshine was hotter than hot cake," says Brown. "When a man wouldn't even walk the streets calling himself well dressed without a shoeshine. So I'm thinking what goes around is going to come around."
But not while the law states that "No permit shall be issued for bootblack stand on public space" (Regulation 24, Section 112.4 of the D.C. Municipal Regulations). "Maybe someday I'll bump into someone that's sensitive to what I'm doing," says Brown. "Maybe they'll help me challenge that."