At the YMCA in downtown Washington, bodies gleam as a result of rigorous exercise or relaxing saunas. Shoes, on the other hand, shine because of the polish and proficiency of Ego Brown.
Brown, a 33-year-old father of six, quit a government job last year to go into business for himself as a shoeshine man. Dapperly dressed in black tuxedo pants and a vest, crisp white shirt, red bow tie and black beret with "Ego" across it in large white letters, Brown was becoming a fixture at the downtown corner of 19th and M streets NW until a city police officer stopped by one day in September and told him it was illegal to shine shoes in a public space.
Before he was booted off the sidewalk, Brown had attracted the attention of Larry Duncan, director of the National Capital YMCA. "We had gotten the idea of getting a shoeshine stand," Duncan said. "Almost by happenchance, I found Ego."
After a month at the Westbridge Valet at 26th and M streets NW, Brown opened for business on the second floor of the YMCA on Rhode Island Avenue NW in late October. He says he likes the convenience that his service provides at the YMCA. "People drop their shoes off and have them polished while they work out," he said, gesturing toward a table laden with footwear ranging from wingtips to cowboy boots to red high heels inlaid with glitter.
Customers can sit for a buffing on an oak shoeshine stand custom-built for the YMCA and adorned with stuffed animals holding pro-Ego slogans.
Brown would like to see a revision of the city law that forbids on-street shoeshines. In the meantime, he hopes to expand his business. He has three employes shining shoes under the Ego aegis (and in the uniform tuxedo) at locations in Washington and Crystal City. During his breaks at the YMCA, he rides his bicycle to check in with his employes, he said.
Currently, the stand at the YMCA is "by far" the most profitable, he said. He shines about 40-45 pairs each day for prices ranging from $2 for women's shoes to $5 for boots. Duncan said that among YMCA members, "reaction has been very positive. He does a quality shine."
Brown and his family had "a decent Christmas," this year, though he is "not content yet" with the volume of his business, he said. But comparing this holiday with years past, he said, "I'm doing better because I'm doing something that I created . . . and the sky is the limit with it."