By David Michael Newstead.
Bernard Gray is a D.C. native that goes by Dr. Shoe Shine. Bernard’s uncle taught him how to shine shoes in 1980 and he’s made a living at it ever since. In all that time, the price has only gone up from $3 to $7. He’s had some of the same customers for the last twenty years. And he’s shined shoes for a few famous people like Muhammad Ali and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I first met Bernard when I was walking down 19th Street in Washington and heard one of his many one-liners to passersby.
“Sir, you dropped something,” he said. “Your shine!”
The comment made me realize that I’d never gotten a shoe shine before. I’d never even thought about it. So, not long after, I had the opportunity to try it out and to sit down for a conversation with the resident expert in our nation’s capital – Bernard Gray.
On the surface, Dr. Shoe Shine has a lifetime’s worth of slogans, jokes, and rhymes, all coming from a self-described people person focused on customer satisfaction.
“If the shoe doesn’t shine, you don’t pay a dime,” was another saying I heard.
But the more we spoke, I got a better picture of Bernard’s background and how the world has changed to some degree.
“When I started out, I was shining shoes for a lot of lawyers and salesmen. But this is a dying art. People ain’t taking care of their shoes like they used to,” he explained.
I asked why.
“They just don’t care,” he said. “There used to be competition out here. Nine other guys. You can save a lot of money, you know? Gotta take care of the leather. Know the leather, the different shades, and types. A pair of shoes can last fifteen years and still look sharp.”
While we talked, Bernard went through the process of polishing my dress shoes and occasionally chatted with his friend, Lorry, a fellow shoe shiner and D.C. native. I was seated on a folding chair curbside with my legs were propped up on a wooden footrest. There was a small pile of Kiwi shoe polish cans beside us along with the various implements of this procedure: a brush, pieces of cloth, a small sponge.
I asked more questions.
“In the summer, it’s slow in the daytime and picks up in the evening when people get off work,” he told me. “Goes up and down though. In the winter, we get a lot more customers who are women. They’ll drop off a pile of boots and we do a delivery service. It’s all word of mouth. You know, I’ve had some of the same customers for years. Even if they don’t live in D.C. anymore, they’ll still come by when they’re in town.”
It occurred to me then that this job being performed had a subtle impact on how professional men and women present themselves. And you don’t really notice the difference until you notice the difference. To quote a significant line from the movie, The Shawshank Redemption: “I mean, seriously, how often do you really look at a man’s shoes?” But they can be the key factor between dapper-looking and drab, between a man who’s put-together and a man who’s thrown-together. And it may be just a finishing touch, but it’s an important one.
Bernard also had this insight. “I respect my uncle for teaching me this skill. Even when I was living on the street, I could work. He’s still working too, shining shoes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He visits D.C. sometimes. That’s what my uncle taught me: No matter what you do take pride in your work.”
It was around that time that I stared down at my shoes. Recently, I had tried polishing them myself. Then, I saw Bernard’s work and there was really no comparison. My shoes, which are two years old, looked brand new and flawless. Since 1980, Dr. Shoe Shine has seen a lot of people walk by, some of them arriving to D.C., and others leaving it. So when he told me to look my best and take pride in what I do, those are words to live by.
Bernard Gray works in the Dupont Circle area around 19th and M.