Business was stepping up until the police officer stopped Ego Brown at the 19th and M streets NW corner where he was shining shoes, and discovered he didn't have a vendor's licence. Then everything began going down hill.
Brown, a 33-year-old father of six, didn't have $500 to pay for a vendor's license. But friends and customers, impressed with his professionalism and determination, raised funds for him at a downtown bar last month.
The benefit raised only $100, but that didn't matter in the end because Brown got more bad news: "Bootblacks are not allowed to vend in public space in the District of Columbia," said Renfield Carter, chief of operations for the District's business license division. "No permit will be issued for bootblack stands on public space."
"I was terribly surprised and disappointed," said Brown, who last year quit a job where he earned$18,000 annually.
He said he has contracted to rent space in a new building at 1233 20th St. NW, which he expects to be ready by the end of October.
Despite the setbacks, Brown is still convinced that it's just a matter of time before he's collecting commissions from a chain of "sophisticated shoeshine parlors" he hopes to open around the city.
"I see real potential for shoeshining in this city," he said. "People are into image here . . . . "
He quit his government job because, he said, "I was tired of the favoritism, bureaucracy and all it had to offer. My wife thought I was crazy. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy.
"But I wasn't making enough where I could make big decisions in my life -- like I couldn't buy a house or a car or even take the family out to a movie."
Brown hit the streets, first operating from two Georgia Avenue barbershops catering to Howard University students, then setting up at a shoe store and a beauty shop. Finally, two months ago, he set up two stands at 19th and M streets NW and business stepped up: lawyers on their way to court, managers getting ready to open stores, passers-by looking at the scuffed leather toes of their shoes.
Dapper in black tuxedo pants and a vest, crisp white shirt, red bow tie and black beret with "Ego" across it in white letters, Brown snapped his polishing cloth across scuffed shoes, turning them into mirrors of perfect leather. He and two young assistants, dressed in uniforms like his, stood in the blistering sun and invited passers-by to step up to one of their chairs for "the best shine in town."
Sitting on a tall director's chair, with a microphone in his hand, Brown called out slogans: "You're not totally dressed without an Ego shine! Ladies like to have their shoes shined, too! It's the liberated thing to do!"
Next to him he kept a black sign, its message stenciled in white by his 12-year-old daughter: "If your shoes aren't becoming to you, you should be coming to us."
"As people in a service business ourselves, we're impressed with his work ethic," said Kevin Wine, general manager of Flaps Rickenbackers Saloon, 1207 19th St. NW, explaining why he held the fund-raiser for Brown at his club. "He wouldn't even let us give him the money. He insisted on giving free shoeshines to people who donated at the benefit. All the guy wants to do is make an honest living."
Now Brown is waiting for his new space, where he hopes to turn a childhood hustle into adult-sized riches. "I grew up poor as a child and the children in my neighborhood used to sell bottles and broken glass and shine shoes to get candy money.
"It's been tough on my family," said Brown, referring to his current financial problems. "But I think if we can hold on for three or four more months, we won't have to shop at thrift stores any more. I believe a man or woman can do anything he or she wants to do if they put their heart in it and persevere each and every day.
"Right now I'm not making the money but I can see the potential. My endeavor is to cover the whole town with Ego Shoeshine booths," he said, his smile broadening, his eyes widening. "I want to grip this city by its foot. If I can grab one-fourth of the people and bring back a lost tradition, I've got it made."