Get a shoe shine, have a conversation

Columnist Claudette Sandecki learns more about a shoe shiner

I’ve never had my shoes polished by a shoeshiner even though at one time I walked to work every morning past bootblacks plying their trade in New York City. It was routine to see a businessman hop up on the seat and read his morning daily while someone energetically wielding a polishing cloth restored a military shine to his Florsheim’s.

Who wears leather shoes today? Far fewer than 50 years ago. Since casual Fridays took hold, so many wear canvas shoes, sneakers, even Crocs.

Strolling the concourse of Vancouver airport on a Thursday with a three hour wait until my connecting flight, I chanced upon a shoe shine stand beneath a huge wall sign for Walter’s Shoes.

The stand sits almost opposite Gate 31 from which my flight would be leaving. I was waiting for my Vancouver daughter to meet me there so had to stay nearby or risk missing her.

Several times I walked back and forth past the two-seater stand. The lady was texting, no sign of a customer. Finally I struck up a conversation with her to learn more about her work and to give me an excuse to set down my carryon bag.

Vancouver airport has three Walter’s Shoes stations. The company resumed business here five months ago. They also provide shoeshine service in three other Canadian airports, including Toronto and Edmonton.

Kathleen, a grandmother, works shifts Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. paid by the hour and tips. Despite her station being in a bright area she prefers with high traffic, she counts boredom as the biggest drawback to the job. Prior to shining shoes she stocked shelves at Walmart or did cleaning. She enjoys talking to people, is easily approachable.

I stood by to watch and listen as a young man asked if she could clean his daughter’s pink sneakers. The 11-year-old was about to go to a friend’s birthday party and wanted her shoes to look just so. Shining a pair of shoes costs $8.

Kathleen pulled out one of the two wide drawers at the bottom of her stand to select a suitable colour shoe polish with a dauber on the bottle.

As she daubed and brushed she kept up a lively conversation with the dad. Clearly he also worked at the airport; two co-workers moving a bundle of collapsed cardboard cartons stopped to chat.

Kathleen and the dad weighed the merits of different shoe shine locations, concluded the most lucrative areas are after the arriving passenger has had a chance to learn where he must go next, collect his baggage and pick up a coffee . Then he can relax and enjoy his coffee as his shoes are made presentable.

By the time the pink sneakers were pink once more , I said goodbye and strolled back to Gate 31 to make some notes on a steno pad tucked in a side pocket of my bag. More questions came to me. Could this become a column?

When my daughter arrived, we returned to the shoe shine stand so I could ask Kathleen for details. I never carry a camera; my daughter, formerly a journalist, offered to take a photo with her Blackberry. Kathleen and I posed and she gave me her email address.

When my daughter and I returned to Vancouver airport Tuesday, the Gate 31 shoe shine stand had a new person working. Once home, I emailed a copy of the photo to Kathleen. If you should have to wait near Gate 31, say hello to Kathleen. She’s excellent company.

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