A great shoeshine is only partly about the polish that comes out of the can. It’s also about the polish that comes out of the shoeshine man. It’s about the breeze he shoots. It’s about the drama he creates as he whisks the brushes against your wingtips and the sense of ceremony he brings when he snaps the cloth across your toecap.
Fewer D.C. shoeshine men were as much fun to watch work as Tony “White Pony” Lugthart, who died of liver cancer on June 11 at the age of 62.
I was a customer of White Pony Tony’s, regularly settling into the well-upholstered stand he had in the window of McCormick & Schmick’s on K Street NW. Over the years, Tony operated other stands around town — including on the Hill and at Reagan National Airport — but that two-seater was the base of his empire. Closed during the coronavirus pandemic, the stand was expected to reopen soon. It won’t be the same without Tony.
I first met Tony in 2004 at a country-western bar on South Pickett Street in Alexandria called Nick’s. Tony liked country music. He liked all kinds of music. He used to shine shoes to the music of James Brown and had a note signed by the Godfather of Soul: “I started right where you’re at,” it read.
Tony was the fourth of six kids, a natural-born entertainer, said his older sister, Kim Lugthart, who lives in Montana. Tony lived in Montana for a while, too. He lived in a lot of places. His stepfather was in the military, so the family moved plenty, including to Germany.
“Dad was the chairman of the European rodeo association,” Kim said. “Our house was full of cowboys all the time.”
Tony could be rambunctious, and one of the punishments his father would give would be to make him sit on the couch and read a Louis L’Amour book and give a book report.
Said Kim: “Tony absolutely hated that. But guess who his favorite author is?”
When Tony was about 12, he and his brother took to shining shoes after school and in the summer to make a little money. He put that pastime aside when he got older, working instead as a traveling ad salesman.
In 1990, he decided to stay in the D.C. area after meeting a woman at a bakery: Candy Vasquez, who became his wife. They lived in Arlington with their son, Gerald. About a decade ago, Tony found out he also had a daughter living in Texas, Lorissa Davis. (The family is organizing a GoFundMe drive to pay for funeral expenses.)
Tony told me Candy wasn’t thrilled at first when he said he was going to shine shoes for a living. But, for him, it possessed two qualities you’d want in any job: He enjoyed it and he was good at it.
Kim said her youngest son, Kevin, once came to Washington for a 10-month AmeriCorps program.
“I sent him down to McCormick and Schmick to have family contact,” she said. “He called me later and said, ‘Mom! Why didn’t you tell me?! Uncle Tony is the man, everyone knows him. He’s famous!’ ” (Among Tony’s customers: Tom DeLay.)
Tony dressed neatly in a fedora and necktie. He applied the polish not with a rag or a gloved hand, but with his bare fingers, skin on skin. He’d rub the polish in, then use a tiny propane torch to heat the leather, opening the pores.
Here’s what I wrote about Tony — “equal parts bootblack and Benihana chef” — in 2004, as I watched him shine the boots of a customer named Eric Mulmar at Nick’s:
“He windmills his arms around Eric's feet, a brush in each hand. He clicks the wooden brushes together like claves, tosses one in the air like a baton and catches it behind his back.
“And then, after a snap of the polishing cloth, White Pony gives the universal sign that the shoeshine has come to an end: a simultaneous finger tap on the bottom tip of each boot. This he follows with his own special benediction: the sign of the cross performed in the air above Eric's feet.
“The boots gleam like twin chunks of obsidian.
“ ‘If I got 'em any shinier than that, they might hurt somebody,’ White Pony Tony says.”
He wasn’t quite so theatrical at McCormick and Schmick’s, but the shine was just as deep. And Tony loved to talk. His $10 shoeshine was cheap therapy.
If you were in a hurry, his loquaciousness could be irksome. But you shouldn’t get a shoeshine when you’re in a hurry. White Pony Tony never was.
I’m taking some time off. I’ll be back in this space on June 27.