I saw something this morning that stopped me in my tracks. On our bedroom floor were a wooden horsehair shoe shine brush and a brown tin of Kiwi shoe polish, the kind with the little boat-cleat lever for popping the top of the tin off. I don’t think the Kiwi tin has changed in 20 years, because as soon as I saw it I was a kid again, sitting in front of a crackling fire, polishing my dad’s shoes for a quarter.
I don’t know how often Dad would need them done, but I remember him periodically bringing all of his leather shoes, the ones he wore to work, and his shoe shine kit – a wooden box with a horsehair brush and several tins of Kiwi shoe polish, in black, brown, tan, and oxblood – down to the den for the 8pm family TV hour. He’d pay my brother or me to polish his shoes while we watched The Cosby Show or The Wonder Years, or maybe Cheers or Frasier.
I remember sitting on the burber carpet, newspaper spread to protect its cream color, my dad’s shoes lined up in pairs beside me. I’d take the first shoe – always the left, then the right – and place it over my left hand, my little girl fist inside where my dad’s toes spent their work days, the sole of the shoe facing the TV, the upper facing me. His shoes smelled of rich, warm leather, and with a fire crackling and snapping next to me, and with my family all together in the family room, shining Dad’s shoes was a ritual of comfort and contentedness.
With my right hand, I’d sweep with the soft bristles of the horse hair brush. Swoof swoof swoof swoof, I’d brush the dust off the toe cap, the sides to the heel, and finally the eyelets and tongue. Then I’d put the shoe and the brush down, turn the wing-nut to pop the lid off of the polish tin, and grab a soft cloth (maybe one of Dad’s old undershirts?) that I’d wrap around the first two fingers of my right hand. I’d dip into the waxy paste, its consistency like tinned lip balm, and with a gob of it on my clothed fingertips, I would rub it in small circles over every bit of leather on his shoes, staining the scuffs away. I’d brush them off one last time, then buff with a cloth til the shoe shined.
It was always so satisfying to wipe the dried polish away, the scuff marks replaced with a fresh, even coat of color, the shoes so smooth by the end of their buffing that they looked like they could be new. Like the man who wore them would be as polished and confident and ready for the world as they were, with their new shine. And the smell of the polish, its pungent scent rich and leathery and masculine, would linger in the den, and on the rag, and on my fingertips, a reminder of the hard-working shoes that took our dad to his job every day, and brought home food and clothes and family vacations.
It makes me wonder, do many men still polish their shoes? I’m not in the world of men much, and when I see them, they are usually wearing sneakers or canvas or some sort of shoe that doesn’t require polish. It would be a shame to lose the ritual of shining shoes, of the manly scent of leather and shoe wax, of wearing quality footwear that will not fall apart, and can be cleaned and conditioned rather than replaced when it begins to show its mileage.
I am thrilled that my husband has shoes to shine, and that he plans to shine them. I am looking forward to hearing the swoof of the brush, and the pop of the tin, and smelling the warm scents of leather, and shoe polish, and timeless quality again.