His patrons knew him as Ponytail, and he’s still venerated along U Street in Northwest Washington, where he shined shoes for so many years. His legend is largely rooted in folklore, that netherworld where the only reasonable response to any purported claim is maybe, maybe not.
Many an accomplishment is attributed to Ponytail: that he was a man who once appeared in a Hollywood film; that he was a playboy; that he was a shoeshine man of pre-eminent talent; that he owned a shoeshine parlor on U Street for 50 years, a claim affirmed in a resolution enacted in his honor two years ago by the D.C. Council.
Maybe. Maybe not.
What is certain is that Ponytail’s real name was Donald Potter Betts; that he was the owner of Ponytail’s Shoe Shine Parlor & Shoe Repair at 10th and U streets NW; that he died in January, at the age of 76, and left behind untold numbers of sorrowful patrons, many of them police officers loyal to his shine.
What is also certain is that his acolytes hope to carry on his business in a corridor where ever-soaring real estate values are less than accommodating to a vanishing breed of men who charge $7 to turn mud to sheen.
But here is where they make their stand: in a shop that still displays Ponytail’s name on the window, along with his white straw derby, hanging on a metal pole festooned with a memorial black ribbon and a stuffed white dove.
“We’re trying to keep it going in his honor,” said Michael Murray, 57, the one-man repair department at Ponytail’s. “It was his love. Sometimes, he’d be here 24 hours. His customers were everything to him.”
Murray’s partners in shine are Joe Alfred, 75, who has been polishing shoes in Washington since the 1960s. There’s also Robert Caster, 72, whom Murray hired after Ponytail’s death if only because his white beard reminded him of the former proprietor. Kenneth Bailey-Bey, 52, joined after Ponytail was hospitalized, never having met him as an adult, but talking about him with the confidence of a lifelong friend.
Did you know, Bailey-Bey asked, that Ponytail played a shoeshine man in “Car Wash,” the 1970s film that starred Richard Pryor as a scurrilous preacher?
That the film’s credits list an actor named Clarence Muse as playing the shoeshine man does not damp Bailey-Bey’s enthusiasm. His reverence for Ponytail, he said, dates back to when he was a youngster, when he met him on H Street NE.
“My father introduced me,” Bailey-Bey recalled. “Said he was the only man who could cream a shoe in less than five minutes. He said he was one of the best spit shines around.”
Steeped in a rich showbiz tradition, U Street has long been a stage for outsize personas and self-promoters. Over the decades, there have been the entertainers playing at the famous theaters, the owners of haberdasheries and nightclubs and other enterprises, and the card sharks, pool hustlers and numbers runners. On the Northwest corner of 11th street, there was once a real estate man who negotiated deals without a desk or a secretary.
“He didn’t have an office,” remembered Richard Lee, whose family founded Lee’s Flower Shop, a U Street staple since 1945. “He did all his business on the corner.”
Where Ponytail fit into the entrepreneurial spectrum is the subject of some mystery and debate. Two years ago, when Ponytail was still alive, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) celebrated his career with a resolution crediting him with owning and operating his shop “for 50 years” and for “serving the likes of Bill Cosby, Colin Powell, Thurgood Marshall, Sammy Davis Jr., Condoleezza Rice, and the late Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
The council’s resolution stated that Ponytail had survived the 1968 riots (referred to erroneously as having occurred in 1969), and had become “an icon and symbol of pride on the U Street Corridor.”
“The Council of the District of Columbia,” the resolution concluded, “declares March 3, 2010 as Donald ‘Ponytail’ Betts Day in the District of Columbia.’ ”
Stanley Mayes, 62, a customer of Ponytail’s, enjoyed climbing on to a chair and talking to him about local politics and the latest changes in the neighborhood. But any suggestion that Ponytail had worked on the corridor for 50 years made Mayes laugh.
“It always sounded good for Ponytail to be known as an institution on U Street,” said Mayes, who grew up and still lives in the neighborhood. “Just don’t confuse that with the truth.”
Asked how he knew Ponytail had been on U Street for 50 years, Graham, replying by e-mail, said he relied on an aide to assemble the information. “He was well recognized on U Street,” Graham wrote, “and I thought it fitting to honor him with a resolution.”
The dean of U Street shoeshine and shoe repair is Irving “Duke” Johnson, now 91 years old and just as cranky as ever as he runs “Duke’s,” his shop just off the corridor at 14th Street. Duke has been around long enough to see the shoeshine trade soar and decline as casual Friday became every day. He has known all the shoeshine legends in the District, whether it was Gino or Friday, Hollywood Al or Ego Brown, who for a time liked to wear a tuxedo while he worked.
And there was Ponytail, whom Duke said he hired, perhaps in the late 1980s or the early 1990s — don’t expect him to know for sure. But Duke is certain that he fired Ponytail, just like he fired many others — his brother and stepson, included — who didn’t meet his exacting standards.
“Ponytail couldn’t blow a hole in a donut,” Duke said. As for whether Ponytail had spent a half century on U Street, Duke scowled and said: “I’m the oldest man around here and I’ve been here my whole life. If he was around I would have seen him.”
The men at Ponytail’s salon are more generous in their assessment of his shoeshining talents. As for the details of Ponytail’s life, they defer to the memorial program from his funeral, which is nailed to a wall in the parlor, next to a calendar entitled, “Which Mayor Sold the Chocolate out of Chocolate City?” (The choices offered: Sharon Pratt Kelly, Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty.)
Here is where Ponytail is said to have been born in 1935 in Chattanooga, Tenn., and that he moved to the District in 1960. His only daughter, Antoinette M. Cheathem, 45, said Ponytail was married several times and that, when she was a child, he spent time with her in Baltimore but was also in the District.
When she was in high school, she recalled, he moved to California, telling her that he was working as a bodyguard for celebrities. It was one of many moments, she said, when she wondered whether he was telling the truth.
“I was like, ‘Okaaaaay,’ if that’s what you say,” she recalled. “He was a good liar. He lied about everything. He was a storyteller.”
After Duke fired him, Ponytail’s friends say he worked for Hollywood Al, whose parlor he took over when Al died of cancer about a decade ago. On many nights Ponytail would draw the curtain in the shop’s window and sleep on the couch. On a wall were framed photos of slain police officers.
His buddies urged him to clean the shop. Dozens of pairs of shoes lay in piles without claim tickets. “It was ridiculous,” said Leroy Mitchell, 68, a friend. “I’d tell him, ‘U Street is coming up, you got white folks coming up here, get it together.’ And he’d say he would. But he never did.”
Ponytail’s heart failed him. As he deteriorated, his friends and co-workers — even Ephraim Williams, a police officer who walks the U Street beat — urged him to get medical care. For months, Ponytail refused, afraid that someone would take his shop in his absence.
After Ponytail was hospitalized, his friends collected money to paint and clean up the shop. Williams donated chairs from his home. It would be like new for when he returned.
Ponytail died Jan. 15, 2012. A church around the corner donated the cost of a service, which was attended by a throng of friends and customers, some of whom learned then that he had another name besides Ponytail.
Murray and Alfred were back at Ponytail’s parlor soon after and have been there ever since. In recent weeks, their landlord has put the building on the market. Any day now could be their last.
“If they sell it, they sell it, I’ll just ride off in the sunset like John Wayne,” Murray said from behind the counter.
Until then, he said, Ponytail’s hat will remain in the window.