Gently so gently, the balding man of indeterminate ethnicity traced the edges of my shoe with a wet, black brush.
He was intent on his work, on not touching the worn leather he had just buffed and burnished, evening out the sand-colored scuffs and chestnut wear into an allover rich umber.
I asked what was on the giant toothbrush gently tarring the rubber edges of my shoe. He mumbled something. I asked again.
“Sole dressing,” he said, looking me in the eye.
He had flagged me down off the street, off the classic boutique slip of South Dearborn where at the foot of the historic Monadnock Building you can still pick up a handmade beaver trilby for your head, a tailored suit for your body and top it off by getting a bootblack like Robert to spiff and shine the shoes on your feet.
Robert has been shining shoes for 37 years, he said after he waved me into the Shoe Hospital repair shop, talked me into a $5 shine and told me, yes, they do accept credit and debit.
My questions started the moment he sat me in a chair.
“I learned it from my father and an older brother,” he said as he dabbed my scuffed mud-brown dress shoes with a rag.
He paused for second to think.
“And an uncle,” he added, giving my right foot a little spritz from a spray bottle.
Outside the repair shop, business folk, gangstas and a few bearded punks hustled by or stepped up and down the stairs to the Jackson Street Blue Line subway stop.
What there weren’t a lot of were other shoeshine guys.
“There’s a scarcity of them in this area, the West Loop. There are more when you get past Union Station,” he said, pausing to give a smirk and harrumph. “When they’re there.”
Inside the Shoe Hospital, repair people hustled to reattach soles and fix leather. An old woman sat waiting in a chair. Her fur jacket and hairstyle screamed of long-time Chicago wealth.
The only other shoeshine guy in the store sipped from a water bottle as the four chairs next to me sat empty. The business people, gangstas and punks don’t get shoeshines.
“The casual effect for one,” Robert said, responding to my why. “Also not a lot of young guys going into the profession.”
He gave my shoe another wipe with the cloth.
“It’s not a class they teach you in high school,” he said.
Robert’s in his 50s. The “shine guys” he started out with 37 years ago are still his friends and competitors now. No one’s entering, but no one’s leaving either.
They’re just aging.
“It’s a dying art,” he said as the bored shoeshine man next to him took another sip of water.
I kept forgetting to pepper him with questions because I kept watching him work. I liked the artistry with which he applied shoe shine with a rag and joyously shifted it around with a coarse brush, spritzed with a water bottle the little parts that are too stubborn to get in, then buffed the whole thing to a shine with a cloth.
I liked the sudden break in the happy tempo at the end, when he cautiously and gently so gently applied sole dressing around the edges of my shoes with a wet, black brush.
We smiled and thanked. I paid my $5 and a $2 tip by debit card at the register.
“Monday to Friday, 7:30 to 5:30,” he yelled at me as my rich umber shoes started to step out of the store.