A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

MULTISENSORY: New York City shoeshine

It’s the aftermath of the New Year’s snowstorm, and in annual Sense & the City tradition, I need to cleanse my senses for the year ahead. This year’s mission: a genuine New York City shoeshine for the boots that have taken me on so many adventures across the five boroughs. These boots, about twelve years old, have been resoled and restitched countless times. In this city, walking is a sense in its own right, and shoes need regular cleansing for the rigors of sidewalks and subways.

Perhaps because of this, the subway shoe-shine is a quintessentially New York experience, from the hole-in-the-wall Lexington Express Barber Shop & Shoe Repair, hidden around a narrow bend in the Eighty-Sixth Street station, to the Jimmy Choo–stacked windows of Angelo’s Leather Care, just before the turnstiles at Fifty-Third and Fifth. For its ordinariness, I chose the Rockefeller Center branch of Eddie’s Shoe Repair. (Eddie’s also has a shop in Grand Central Terminal, featuring brass-and-leather thrones on wood-and-marble pedestals.)

Coming in from the slushy streets, my boots are met with concern as soon as I place them onto the brass shoe rests. My bootblack (as polishers are traditionally called) points to the wet spots and waves over the manager. They prod and shake their heads. “These parts won’t take a shine, ma’am,” the manager says. I tell him not to worry. “You just wanna spruce ’em up, eh?” He smiles. I settled back into the armchair. The podium is scattered with the tools of the trade: tins of polish, stained rags, spray bottles, brushes.

As my bootblack rolls up my cuffs and sprays the boots with a vinegary desalting mist, I settle back into the armchair. The buzz of MSNBC on a flat-screen contrasts with the whish of brushes as the other bootblacks work on drop-off shines. Tourists in snow boots and animal-head ski hats clomp past the windows through the underground concourse. He smears the boots with a leather conditioner, working it into lather with an old toothbrush. I can feel the bristles massage through the leather, into the arches and over my anklebone.

He cradles my foot in the crook of his elbow and uncaps a tin of polish with a pop. The room smells creamy and acidic: of wax and vinegar, leather and soap. As he twists a rainbow-smeared cloth into a knot around his index finger and dips it into the cake of polish, I can almost feel the wax softening and cracking.

A businessman walks in, and the manager barks, “Next!” One of the bootblacks stands to attention, ushering the man into his chair, and drops a New York Post onto his lap. The man unfurls his ear buds while the bootblack wraps masking tape around the buckles on his loafers. My bootblack picks up a boar-bristle brush and descends on my boots from a great height, his hands a blur of motion as the toes began to gleam beneath his whacks. 

The final step is a walloping with a terry towel, which makes a satisfying slapping sound. He pulls it along the heels and up and down my calf like someone drying off their back with a bath towel.

And what can beat the synchronicity of sounds, smells, and the ritualized motions of an in-person shoeshine in a subway tunnel on a dreary city afternoon—all for about the price of subway ride?