A few weeks ago, I had some time to kill at Boston’s Logan Airport before a flight to Denver, and eventually to Santa Barbara. I’ve taken the same, lonely trip a dozen times or so, and it’s always a tiring day that reminds me again how profoundly disappointed I am that the seven-league boots I coveted as a kid still aren’t commercially produced. They would, after all, make travel so much more palatable. And quicker.
Today was a quiet Tuesday in the terminal, and nothing there (a sundries shop, a TBCY staffed by a yawning clerk) seemed to hold much in the way of a half-hour’s distraction. But as I cased the concourse, the guy who operated the shoeshine stand caught my eye and called out to me, “Hey, Pretty Lady!” he said. “Look at those boots! You need shoe shine!”
If you’ve been in a major municipal airport, in a larger, older US city like Boston, New York, Chicago or DC, you know what I’m talking about: those ancient wooden platforms with two or three seats in a row and a series of brass foot rests beneath, lined up like gold teeth in an old man’s jaw. The chairs themselves are usually oak and sometimes carved, with ancient gummy crud collected in the relief.
Today, the structures seem quaintly and oddly out of place, the stands solidly unchanging even as the terminals around them unanimously get a fresh update with modern glass, tile and better lighting. Many of the stands were likely set in place when the terminals were first built in the 1920s, when commercial air travel started to become viable, anchoring them in an era when most travelers wore the kinds of shoes that regularly needed a good, stiff shining.
Only I wasn’t necessarily thinking about that as the shoeshine man called out to me. Instead, I looked down at my boots, which weren’t of the seven-league variety but plain brown leather and—he was right—quite scuffed. I thought the scrapes and bruises emphasized the mannishness of the flat soles and battered, rounded toes. I’d never gotten a shoe shine before—had never considered it, really—but impulsively I marched my scuffed boots over to him for some shoeshine magic.
The shoeshine guy was 50-ish, wiry and dark. His name was George, he said, which he pronounced with a thick accent I couldn’t quite place. He wiped his stained hands on a rag tucked at his waist, shook my hand firmly, and graciously swept his hand aside with a bit of an exaggerated flourish, inviting me to climb up the three steps to the platform. My perch was a wooden box about three feet in the air, with two wooden chairs planted at the top, their backs to the wall, overlooking the concourse.
George was a gentleman, and charming, and so the whole business of a shoeshine seemed very decorous and old-fashioned. It was also a minor extravagance. Though not expensive, it was a kind of pampering. Since I was feeling a little bit sorry for myself, I decided I deserved it.
“Here you go, Lady,” George said, gesturing up the stairs. The first step up to the platform was surprisingly broad and steep, and that kind of threw me: I suddenly felt like a kindergartener charging up the school bus steps on the first day, faking bravado but ultimately unsure of where to place her foot to cleanly clear the next riser. I was certain I would trip, but I didn’t. Instead I took the stairs awkwardly, placing each step a little too deliberately, like a drunk trying to fake sober.
“Now sit,” he said, motioning for me to take a chair and place one foot on each brass footrest, shaped to look like the sole of a shoe, but smaller, like the footprint a child might leave in wet cement. He eyeballed the leather of my boots and turned to choose a matching polish, whistling.
When I placed one foot onto a tiny foot rest I again felt a sudden wave of unease: The Left and Right foot rests were just far enough from each other to force my legs apart at an unnatural, open air straddle. It wouldn’t be a way I’d ever sit, straight-backed and open-legged, and especially not mounted as I was on a platform. It harkened a visit to the gynecologist; I half expected George to invite me to relax, lean back and let my knees drop open. Then I noticed the swinging door to my right as it popped open: Why hadn’t I noticed that the platform was set next to the men’s restroom?
George brushed on the boot polish. He worked quickly and efficiently, his hands fluttering over the leather, his tea-colored arms surprisingly sinewy. Then he set to the polishing part, and I felt the years of vigor in those arms. The first stiff sweep with his bristled brush knocked my foot clean off its rest. “Oh… sorry!” I sputtered, repositioning my boot back on the miniature footprint. I spent the rest of the time finding the correct little-used muscles in my thighs and calves to counter his surprisingly strong side-swipes. I gripped the tacky sides of the ancient oak seat, and tried to brace myself against George’s strokes.
All the while, George was unperturbed. If he sensed that he had a virgin on the platform, he was too kind to mention it. He chatted as he worked, about his wife, and kids, and grandkids, about his life in Ecuador that he had left 10 years ago to come to Boston.
“The beautiful place, Ecuador,” he said. “You know it? You been…?
“Oh…” he said, sounding disappointed, when I said I hadn’t. He drew a map in the air of where it sat in South America, next to Columbia and Peru. “But you must go, Lady. You must.”
If you were a guy exiting the men’s restroom on my right, I thought, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual—just a woman getting a shoeshine from a talkative shoeshine guy.
Or now, looking back, perhaps you would.
Because as I sat there, hovering with my groin head-level with George, feeling some cramping begin to creep into my shin from the tension of pressing the souls of my shoes onto the tiny foot rest, and already worrying about the dismount, it occurred to me that I must have walked by hundreds of these shoeshine stands, in at least a dozen or so airports around the world, with customers at one, two, or sometimes three of the seats, reading newspapers, or talking on their cell phones, or whatever.
And yet I had never, ever seen a woman getting a shoeshine here, like this. Now, I get why.