The Johnny Appleseed of the Washington shoeshine scene broke down his flagship stand over the weekend and carted it away. After 23 years, Ego Brown will shine no more at International Square, 1850 K St. NW.
“This is the one that made it possible for me to get the other locations,” Ego told me Friday.
It was Ego who in 1989 successfully overturned the city’s century-old ban on shining shoes in the street. Since then, he has trained and employed a lot of the shoeshine men around town.
On Friday, he was dressed in a dark blue suit, a white French cuff shirt and a black tie pinned with a tie bar. He sported a stingy brim hat and a diamond earring in his left ear. His shoes, it goes without saying, were polished to a mirror sheen.
He first shined shoes as a boy, stuffing rags and polish in old soda bottle cases and hanging out around Union Station and the Greyhound bus terminal. Later, he took over a disused shoeshine stand at the Modern Scientific Barber Shop near Howard University, earning 50 cents a shine polishing students’ penny loafers.
He left shoes for a while, making a good living selling insurance and then pushing paper for the government. One day, looking out the window from his desk, he decided he wanted to do his own thing. He quit and started shining shoes on the street. When money got tight, he sometimes lived there, too.
Ego was a tireless self-promoter. He called his shine the “Ego” shine, then took it as his name. (His legal name is Joseph.)
“The shoeshine is an egotistical thing,” he explained. “It’s a self-help boost.”
He was mobile, humping his supplies around downtown during the day, then heading to Georgetown at night. One evening, a casually dressed guy came up — very casually dressed: torn jeans, untucked shirt, tennis shoes with holes in the toes. He was surrounded by an entourage, who laughed when the man asked Ego if he could have a shine.
“I thought this kid was trying to bother me,” Ego said.
But the shoes were leather, and Ego had a wet rag and some white polish, and he went to work. When he was done, the young man pulled out a wad of cash and peeled off a $50 bill.
“From that day on, I’ve never underestimated a man,” Ego said. “You never can tell what a man can do.”
That’s one of his philosophies. Friday was just the third day on the job for Rodney Horns, a 21-year-old who met Ego on a Metro train recently.
“He was panhandling,” Ego said. “I wouldn’t give him money, but I can give him a job. . . . I’m trying to show him how he can take something as small as a shoeshine and make something to take care of himself.”
Before he won his ruling 23 years ago, Ego had settled into a spot in front of Camalier & Buckley, the leather goods store on Connecticut Avenue. Someone from International Square spotted him and invited him to set up shop inside. His wooden booth had four seats, a selection of that day’s newspapers and jazz music piped over speakers.
Recently, the building leased space to a shoe-repair tenant who will also do shines. “They don’t need two,” Ego shrugged.
While he would have liked the chance to renegotiate his contract, Ego said he harbors no ill will.
“I would like the management to know I love them,” he said. “I respect them, and I’d like to thank them for giving me this opportunity.” He added, “Thank God I was smart enough to start those other satellites.”
There are Ego Shoeshine stands in the lobbies of 1301 K St. NW, 1300 I St. NW, 555 13th St. NW and 1801 L St. NW. He employs seven people. Now he’s looking for a new home for his four-seat stand, maybe near 14th and P or on U Street.
“I never got a grant from the government,” he said. “I never got a loan. It all comes out of my pocket. . . . Of course, I haven’t gotten rich. I’m still trying to make that money.”
Ego Brown lives in an apartment in Adams Morgan. He has a weakness for old cars and has four: two Jaguars and a pair of Mercedes. He is 61 years old.
“I think I’m 16, though. . . . If I were to die tomorrow, I would be happy. I would be one happy shoeshine man.”
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