The customer, bloody murder in his eyes, started yelling: "Brand new! I can't wear these! It's no good! What am I gonna do?"
So began the crisis of the fleece-lined moccasins. The customer himself had caused it, by bungling an attempt to pierce extra eyelets in the shoes. At the counter of Corrective Shoe Repair, a shop near Dupont Circle, Rudolfo De Leon retrieved the moccasins and calmly set to work.
As the customer glared, De Leon first made slices across the fleece linings, then glued square transplants of fleece to bald spots at the toes. He finished the job with needle and thread, and the crisis ended. "Yeah, yeah, that's all right," the customer said finally.
"You got to put something of yourself in this business if you want to have success," says De Leon, a stocky, bearded, 26-year-old native of Guatemala. "You always got to try to keep the customers happy. You always try to have the business go up and up."
Cobblers, especially aspiring ones like De Leon, seem rare as ruby slippers these days. It used to be that the person who made and mended shoes was essential to a neighborhood. He was someone that people trusted and depended on. But they are becoming harder and harder to find
"My feet are so important to me, my shoemaker has been a big part of my life," says Greg McGowan, 32, a Veteran's Administration lawyer who mails his footwear to a fellow in Philadelphia, the hometown he left for Washington. "If you have bad feet, like I do, it affects your whole character. Your shoes, and the man who fixes them, are part of your very essence. He knows my feet. He's known them for years. I wouldn't go anywhere else." He speaks with passion.
"The real craftsmen, they're a dying breed," says Vito Palumbo, a longtime shoe-repair supplier in the area. "The ones who learned their craft in the old country, the sons who picked it up from their fathers--they're all dead, dead or retired. I used to know quite a few."
He says that when A. Palumbo & Son Inc. started up after World War II, more than 300 shoe repair shops--some boasting bonafide shoemakers--were thriving in the Washington area. Now, says Palumbo, whose father, 83-year-old Attilio Palumbo, daily visits their supply house on Massachusetts Avenue, "There are maybe around a hundred."
He counts among them fix-it factories with clattering mass production lines--"hustle places," he calls them--but few authentic artisans. "I'm afraid I don't know anybody in Washington who's still making shoes."
Even Lynn Schaper, of the Shoe Service Institute of America, can offer hardly a clue in the quest for the perfect cobbler. "If you want a good cobbler, you just have to ferret him out," she says from her office in Chicago. "You ask around, I guess, the same way you find a good doctor." Doctors, though, outnumber cobblers nationwide by nearly 30 to 1.
Some remain, however--like Bredice Brothers, a 55-year-old shop in Georgetown whose patriarch, Frank Bredice, died at 91 last year; or the 35-year-old Navy Yard Valet, near the Marine Barracks, where Elena Poletti has carried on since the death at age 87 of her husband, John, two years ago; or Alexander's Shoe Repair on Lee Highway in Arlington, where Alexander Taousakis, who learned his trade at age 10 in Athens, repairs shoes and still makes an occasional pair, but only for himself and his family.
At Corrective Shoe Repair, a space like a railroad flat at 1719 20th St. NW, Rudolfo De Leon toils alongside Sebastian Antonio, a lanky Brazilian who likes to play drums; John Long, a part-time janitor who likes to play curmudgeon; and Nelson Ramos, a softspoken teen-ager in sweatsuit and sneakers. All are under the stewardship of Osvaldo Ramos, Nelson's father, a 52-year-old journeyman cobbler and owner of the shop.
"This work never gets boring to me," the elder Ramos says. "The only way it would get boring is if you got nothing to do. But I never had that problem. One of the hardest things . . . is finding out what you want to do in life."
Bursts of commotion punctuate his talk: the rattle of a stitcher, the whine of a sander, the thud of a hammer, all against the strains of a country/western radio station. Barrel-chested and curly-maned, Ramos runs a kingdom cluttered by unguents and aromas.
No nook or cranny has been left unstuffed, no patch of wall permitted to go naked. There's Lexol Leather Cleaner, Cavalier Mink Oil, Flebing's Neat's Foot Oil, Cush-n-Crepe Neoprene Soles, Cat's Paw Washerless Foster Heels, Zoe's Shoe Stretch, Diamond Ice Creepers, Shu-Trees for Men and Women, Beaded Tip Dress Shoelaces, Dyoflex 421 Clear High Gloss Vaseline, and, from England, Meltonian polishes in Bourgogne, Brique, Rouge Sang, Cognac, Orange, London Tan and Dark Brown. "When I was a kid," Ramos says fondly, "I always used to hear about Meltonian."
Then, of course, there are shoes--stacks upon stacks of shoes, some in brown bags, others sporting tags. There are dead shoes, too, abandoned like orphans. Stashed in limbo behind the front counter sit hundreds of pumps, loafers, clogs, high heels, espadrilles, half-boots, flip-flops, scuffs and what-have-you, all fixed and shined and then forgotten for all time.
From a swollen pile, Ramos grabs a pair of black Oxfords and goes to work resoling them, finally fitting the shoes to an ancient last and hammering on new heels, pulling tiny nails from his mouth as he goes.
"The thing that's really changed about shoes," he says, shaking his head, "is that most shoes are lousy now. They're not all leather. They're cardboard and plastic."
On busiest days, Ramos says, he and his workers might tackle three hundred pairs, plus handbags, luggage, gloves and leather jackets. Sometimes the customers stand six-deep at the counter like patrons in a fast-food joint; other times they sit for quick fixes, crossing their legs self-consciously and staring at their socks.
Oswaldo Ramos' story is a common one in the shoe trade: the immigrant who made his way by dint of hard work and hard-won skill. He was born, a chauffeur's son, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. At 17, knowing neither English nor a trade, he arrived in Washington.
His mother's younger brother, a man named Tony Aponte, gave him his first break at a now-defunct shoemaker's at the corner of 18th and M. "He was just a kid out of high school, but he was very smart and hardworking," recalls Aponte, 65, now a cobbler in Bethesda. "He was washing dishes somewhere for $20 a week, so I told him, 'Why don't you come work with me?' He did, and now he's become a very good shoemaker."
And the next generation? "I don't know if I'll be a shoe repairman myself," says Nelson Ramos, 19. "There's a big future in computers, you know. My father tells me, 'Do what you like. Just make sure you enjoy it.' "