May I Shine Your Shoes?
I started going there when I was five somewhere this side of 1970. A lot of times, my grandmother, Mema, took me. She lived just a few blocks down the street. It was always filled with smoke and old men, but I loved it. It was called the Westcliff Barbershop. I’d calmly wait my turn for Dale, Dale Marsh. He was my barber. He knew everything.
During the early years, Dale had to put a board over the arms of the chair so it was easier to reach my head. It was a glorious day when you got to graduate from the board to just sitting in the barber chair - like a real man. They always offered me my choice of lollipops if I “was a good boy” and could sit still. I always was.
On cold winter days, the gas heater in the corner was the place to sit. I could sit there all day if anyone would let me - especially if I had a quarter to get a Sprite from the Coke machine.
It was obviously the most important place to be in Ft. Worth. TCU football coaches, the mayor, local business owners, pastors - you name it - they would get their hair cut there. But it was more than that. The barber was the ring master. More than a counselor, more than a reporter, more than a doctor, more than a friend. The conversations that took place there were the heartbeat of the city - the real heartbeat. I always dreamed of working there.
I wish I could remember his name. The shoe shine man was always there. I knew how to shine my own shoes and I only wore Ked’s sneakers anyways. But I just knew there was something special about shining shoes.
Somewhere in the late ‘70s, as a freshman at Paschal High School, I was in Dale’s chair when the magic happened. I noticed that the shoe shine guy wasn’t there. It seemed like the first time in 10 years. Something just wasn’t right. A barbershop almost ceases being a barbershop without the shoe shine man. So I seized the opportunity. I asked if I could be the shoe shine boy!
They laughed at me at first. They thought I was kidding. I later learned that most older white guys back then assumed that older black guys were the ones who shined shoes. But I didn’t know that and didn’t care. It was Alton Finney who really owned and ran the shop. He decided to give me the job based on a few conditions. He was a strict former Navy guy and always had a lot of rules. I could have the job as long as I agreed to come everyday after school and on Saturdays, and as long as I agreed to offer to shine or clean every pair of shoes that walked through the door - especially my friends from high school. I took it.
I think Al thought I would be ashamed of working as a shoe shine boy. Little did he know it was one of my more prouder moments. I was now an official part of the heartbeat of Ft. Worth. Al bought all of the supplies for me. I charged $1 per shine and got to keep the entire amount plus any tips. One other condition was that I had to keep all of the barbers up to speed on the latest dirty jokes I learned from school.
Saturdays were amazing. They would cut my hair for free, then pay for me to go over to Minyard’s or Skillern’s Drugstore to buy us all lunch. When there weren’t any customers, I was also allowed to sit in an empty barber chair and watch the TV hung up on the wall. It was usually tuned to sports or news.
My regular customers were amazing and unique. Every Wednesday, I had to hurry as fast as I could from school. The guy who ran the local funeral parlor would be there every Wednesday exactly at 3pm. If I could get there in time to shine his shoes, he would always give me $5. It was the most anyone had ever paid me. Another favorite customer was Vernon Baird. He was Mrs. Baird’s son - the Mrs. Baird who started the bakery/bread company. He would just drop off a paper grocery bag full of his shoes every few weeks for me to shine. It was an honor. There I was shining the shoes of one of the most powerful businessmen in the country. If those shoes could talk! But a real favorite was this one really old man who came every Tuesday afternoon.
I don’t know if I ever even knew his name. He looked like death and seemed as old as the world. I was afraid of him but compelled to him at the same time. He had to carry around a large oxygen container with him with tubes going in his nose. I guess he couldn’t breathe without it. He was also very cranky. He couldn’t talk much and had someone with him who helped him get around. He also never tipped me. I just got the dollar and that was it. I wasn’t the best shoe shine guy on the planet, and when I would get a little polish on his socks, I could tell it made him mad. But for some strange reason, my shines had become part of his life and his every Tuesday reliability became part of mine.
I remember averaging around $20 per week and felt like I was rich. Movies and hamburgers were less than a dollar and you certainly didn’t need 20 of those a week. I even remember Christmas that year being the first time that I was able to buy all of my gifts with my own hard-earned money. I bought everything from the Skillern’s drugstore. The only gifts I remember were the old looking clock I bought my grandparents - my dad’s parents - Nana and Papaw - who lived next door to us; and the case of Dr. Pepper I bought Mema (my mom’s mom who lived near the barbershop). She loved Dr. Pepper and always had a few ice cold bottles of it in her refrigerator. I remember some people thinking that was a terrible gift to give to your grandmother. But I think she and I knew just how awesome it was. It showed how much we knew each other.
Of course, most of the time, I just spent the money on myself. Within the same small shopping center was a train store, a record store (that also sold magic tricks), a bike shop (owned by the mayor, Bob Bolen), and a Mott’s Five and Dime where things really did cost $0.05 and $0.10.
Old neighborhood barbershops like Westcliff are hard to find now. I’m so fortunate that I was allowed to be a shoe shine boy in one. It was the best job ever.