The shoeshine man on 42nd, two blocks west of Grand Central, snaps a rag across winged-tipped Berlutis, buffing them to a sheen so reflective he can see his own smile. He takes pride in his work. The shoes, whose slick soles have barely been scuffed on the sidewalks of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, belong to a pinstriped man with his face buried in The Wall Street Journal.
Berluti isn’t alone. Other patrons are throned next to him on the pedestaled stand, busying themselves with their Blackberrys, and glancing at their Breitlings to check the time. Maybe they do these things to avoid eye contact with their shoeshiner, or to convey they have more pressing matters to attend to than having the exotic hides of their Ferragamos, Testonis, or other Italian imports buffed and shined. And yet, there they are. Taking the time.
Other shoes march the side streets of Manhattan. Oxfords. Monk-straps. Loafers. The stilettoed heels of Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos clicking the concrete. These shoes often show more personality than the people who wear them.
A blonde and brunette trot after a Yellow Cab they hailed, careful not to spill their Starbucks across the pavement. Nothing unusual about that, but rewind the mental footage and it tells a different tale. Now I’m David Attenborough, naturalist filmmaker, observing their animal print shoes as they leave a nearby watering hole, the cheetah pattern chasing the zebra stripes on the plains of the sidewalk Serengeti.
Or maybe I’m Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist, studying humanity through its footwear, observing the unique coexistence of the varied social strata of New York. This is indeed a well-heeled society, but one in which haves and have-nots roam these well-worn paths together. Because it’s not just Berluti, Ferragamo, or Testoni getting spit-shined, or Burberrys and Blahniks that stroll the streets. There are also standard Skechers, and Vans, and Adidas, and Reeboks, and Keds, and Timberlands, and well, you get the point. It’s fascinating to witness the interaction between the social classes of shoes, to watch the high tops, with tongues wagging, follow the quickened steps of the red-soled Louboutins, before each reaches the crosswalk and goes their separate way.
Or maybe I’m Rod Serling, your narrator, reminding you this is Midtown, a place that’s neither here nor there, and warn we’re traveling together through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. A place where shoes are the living beings, and the people are the accessories. I tell you that’s a signpost up ahead. Your next stop: The Twilight Zone.
Or maybe I’m just me, the writer, the people watcher, the observer, the note taker, the judger, the walker of a mile only in his mind, the wearer of Nikes who’s bored at Bryant Park before seeing Berluti sit down. Before watching him prop his buttery leather attaché near the shoeshiner’s row of Kiwi tins, horsehair brushes, and soiled rags, creating a disquieting juxtaposition between the disparity of their trades.
Now, Berluti sees the sign, “$5, $6 for boots” and adds an extra buck for the shiner’s troubles, extending a manicured hand. The shiner accepts the payment and tip with a nod and smile, then walks in his tattered Chuck Taylors toward the flow of pedestrian traffic in search of other shoes to shine.