Eugene Gino Foots works with feet. As a shoeshine man inside the Hamilton Mall at 14th and K streets, he can buff a shoe so skillfully that customers, seated on his stand, fall asleep.
"People pay extra to sit for 30 minutes," he says. "They call me Doctor Foots."
A few feet away, inside the same shop, James Andrews works with shoes. He can resole 100 pairs of shoes a day. Customers call him Mr. Sole. But when he finishes repairing a shoe, he is likely to put a shine on it. That makes Dr. Foots mad.
"I am the artist," says Foots. "This is my hustle, and there he is over there trying to be an artist."
Andrews overhears this but continues fixing shoes on his "heel wheel" machine. "I'm a craftsman," says Andrews. "I do what I gotta do."
Although Dr. Foots and Andrews have been working together only two years, each has more than 25 years' experience in his profession. In days gone by, both men were the stars of their own operations, sharing space with no one, taking orders from nobody.
But when both men lost the buildings where they worked to demolition in a changing downtown, the only place they could find was the Hamilton Mall, side by side inside Jae Song's dry cleaners.
"These guys, I love these guys," says Jae Song, who came to Washington from Korea five years ago. "My customers love them; their customers love them. Everybody loves them."
Now Foots and Andrews roll their eyes at Song. The way they see it, they had to teach him everything he knows about the dry cleaning business. Song had been a manager of a trading company in Korea and had no experience in dry cleaning when he came to the United States.
"A good shoeshine man and a good shoe repair man always make the shirt man look good," says Andrews.
Foots reluctantly agrees with Andrews, so Song takes offense. "The reason people come here is because we can get stains out of anything," Song begins. "The yellow stain on the silk garment is very hard to remove, but for me it is almost no trouble. Plus, I remove lint from winter clothes and replace buttons for free. No stain. No wrinkle. No lint."
Now Foots is flabbergasted.
"I don't even want to be in the same story with them," Foots says of Andrews and the shirt man. "You can't mix gold and brass. I have a client who flies in from the Middle East with 10 pairs of shoes just for me to shine. Nobody would even know about this place if it wasn't for me."
Not so, says Andrews, who points to shelves overflowing with shoes of all shapes and sizes, awaiting pickup or repair. "I'm the best, that's why people have been seeking me out for over 25 years."
The men cut their eyes at each other, with Foots so upset he has to walk away. Working within arm's reach of each other, they occasionally let off more steam than a dry cleaning machine. But just let a customer walk in -- especially one of those who drops off a load of laundry at Song's counter, turns left to deposit a pair of shoes with Andrews then takes the stand in front of Dr. Foots. Suddenly, the professionalism behind the pride takes over.
Foots, who is 57, started shining shoes as a child growing up in North Carolina. Over the years he has learned that people want more than just a shine, they want to feel good about the way they look. So Dr. Foots takes over.
"I'm gonna match the shine to the smile on your face," he tells a customer, who immediately starts to smile. Foots winks. "As a doctor, you have to understand the universal law of nature."
Andrews sighs. He had started repairing shoes as a boy growing up in Washington's Adams-Morgan neighborhood. Now, at 58, he is surrounded by seven shoe repair shops and an array of cleaners and shoeshine stands. "This ain't no business that you can con your way through," he says of shoe repair -- then adds shoeshining and dry cleaning. "If you can't do the work, you lose the customer."
Now all three men can agree to that, as they go harmoniously back to work.