Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Black Shoes

Dressed in a navy blue suit, a white shirt and a pale yellow tie, old George looked prim, immaculate. He reminded me of Ed McMahon without hair. I bet a dime that he could see himself if he looked down at his polished black shoes.

At the oak lectern at the end of a long hallway elegantly tiled in muted red, where mirror reflections of iris and carnation and gladiolus leaned out of tall vases in gilded walls, old George stood hunched, bespectacled, reading a reservation book. Five steps below was the dining hall, white with tablecloths, dotted with cherry-blossom pink napkins and bright with summer flowers in crystal urns. Flowers everywhere. Done inspecting each name for the evening reservations, old George folded his reading glasses, tucked them away in the top pocket of his jacket, where the tip of a pastel blue kerchief peeked out.

Around that time I would arrive for my evening shift.

Old George beckoned me with his forefinger to come closer to him. He dropped his gaze at my feet.

“Black shoes,” he said. “Tie and black shoes.”

I wore a tie. To keep my job. “No tie, no job,” he told me on my first day as I reported to work in this New York City restaurant’s cocktail bar. He said nothing then about black shoes.

“Okay, George,” I said.

“Okay, then,” he said.

He grinned. Unhumorous. His gaze trailed my footsteps. I felt it on the back of my neck as I skipped the stair steps three at a time up to the dressing room.

The following evening and the next, I came in when the bar was already packed with a Happy Hour crowd. Facing the opened windows for a rare summer breeze, big Lynn was swaying over the piano. You could hear the sound of the piano from across Third Avenue. Down in the dining hall, alone in a corner and away from the waiters who were folding napkins and cleaning wine glasses, old George was eating before the dining hall opened. He sat, head bent, a pink napkin tucked over his tie. You could see his shiny pate where the last glimmer of sun fell. During the evening, I slunk in and out of the bar to get supplies. I kept myself out of old George’s sight. Sometimes from nowhere the owner would walk into the bar and stand next to me, watching the boisterous crowd, enjoying himself in a piano melody. We talked. The Italian owner was a medical doctor who quit his profession for restaurant business. This upscale restaurant had a sister restaurant several blocks down Third Avenue. That one was painted all yellow like a ripe banana. Young people frequented it. But this restaurant where I worked cost a fortune for a family dinner. Across the hall from the bar and five steps up was a private dinette for special occasions. When you enter it, you’d see your reflection everywhere in wall-length mirrors. I found out that was the owner’s favorite spot where he’d sit in the dim lights observing everyone below, old George included. Then he must have seen and heard old George chastise me on the attire etiquette. But since we met, he’d never bothered with my attire, never glanced down at my brown Hush Puppies. Occasionally he’d entertain his guests in the dinette where voices were mere murmurs and the air smelled of fragrant candles. He must be a part of the Mafia family, I thought. Once in the bar he asked me a question. The music and people’s voices were so loud he leaned his head against mine and spoke into my ear. He smelled like a woman with perfumed earlobes. Usually in the late afternoon he’d come down from his upstairs office and sit in the dinette by himself and, if I came out of the bar suddenly, I could see him avert his gaze in the wall mirror, like a spy who got caught. Sitting up there he was a little God, the wall mirrors his eyes, and I was one of the mortals he kept a watch on. He had soft hands. I felt them on my shoulders many times. Lingering fingers. Reluctantly leaving.

Old George left me alone after those moments. What didn’t leave me was his gaze. Every time I came to work he’d turn from the lectern and eye my feet. He must’ve hated those brown Hush Puppies by his forced grin and a feigned unconcern. But that didn’t last long.

One afternoon, after watching me in the bar for a while, old George came in, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t you have any money to buy yourself a new pair of black shoes?”

His words dripped into my ears soft and loving. Preacher George said, “Dr. Mancini told me you’re saving money to go back to college. So, here.” He took out his wallet, lifted a 20-dollar bill and put it in my jacket’s pocket. Then he patted me on the back. “I want to see you wear black shoes tomorrow.”

I got home late. Tired, I loosened my tie and hung it on the wall. First the tie, now the shoes. “No tie, no job,” old George had said on my first day. “How about bow ties?” I said casually. “Ties,” he said, barely moving his lips, “not bow ties.” I hated wearing ties. Now I had to. But when I was going back to school after the summer, I’d never need a tie again. Why should I bother learning how to make a tie? After I said that to my sister, kindly she made me a tie. Each day after work I simply loosened the tie just enough to work it off my neck and free it from my head. The following day I reversed the procedures before leaving home for work. I didn’t need a new pair of black shoes either—not when I returned to school.

The next morning, with old George’s bribery money, I went out and bought a can of black shoe polish. Back at my sister’s place I cleaned my Hush Puppies and then put on a good coat of polish. Then with a piece of clean cloth, I wiped off any excess of black polish and let the shoes dry.

That afternoon old George saw me coming in and immediately dropped his gaze at my feet. I greeted him as he smiled.

“It wasn’t hard to do what I asked,” he said. “Was it?”

“No,” I said, “not at all.”

A few days later I was caught in a heavy rain on my way to work. I ducked in under a shop’s overhang. The rain didn’t let up. You’re gonna be late. I grabbed a newspaper from a sidewalk trash bin and covered my head and hurried up the street. I got to the restaurant wet from my legs down. I looked down, saw that all the black polish had been washed off my shoes.

Just before I disappeared through the door to the upstairs dressing room, old George called out to me, “Hey, you!”

I stopped, looked back.

From the lectern, he crooked his finger to beckon me to come nearer. Oh, if a crocodile could snap off his finger for that gesture!

“Yeah?” I said, hearing the wet sounds my shoes on the tiled floor.

“Are you going to change into black shoes when you come down?”

“Ah . . . I didn’t come from my place to work . . . And I was late. So I just came directly here.”

Old George nodded. And nodded. Like he finally understood my deep statement. Then he pushed his glasses back on his nose bridge, turned to his alter ego, the lectern, bent, and read the names in the reservation book like nothing had happened.

That night, after work, I stayed up, cleaned my shoes and then put on a thick coat of black polish. In the morning I applied a second coat and then waxed my shoes. The shoe polish hung in the air, in my nostrils. I scrubbed my stained fingers at the sink. The smell clung to my skin. Damn you, George.

But the shoe polish stayed on afterward, rain or shine. Old George still looked down at my feet occasionally. Was that the man’s habit or his eternal mistrust in human beings? Perhaps I was some kind of enigma that caused disturbances to his orderly world.

After that summer I returned to school. The following summer before going back to New York City I bought a pair of Oxford shoes in shiny black. I also bought two ties. The first day I came to work the owner greeted me with a big hug in the sunny hall. He smelled like lily of the valley. From the bar big Lynn was playing the piano and the same old lady cashier blew me a kiss.

“You look good,” the owner said. “Real good.”

“You too, Dr. Mancini,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re back. We’ve been so busy.”

“I’m glad being back. Looks like no one has ever left.”

“None. Especially if it’s a good place.”

“Let me go upstairs and say hi to the boys.”

“I want you to join my family for dinner tonight. Take a break around then.”

“My honor. Thank you, Dr. Mancini.”

I turned to the door that led to the stairs. Then I stopped and looked back at the owner.

“Where’s George?”

Dr. Mancini removed his glasses and nibbled its temple. “George isn’t here anymore.”


“He killed himself.”

“Killed . . . why?”

“I wish I knew.”

“How did he . . . well . . . oh well.”

I went up the stairs. An odor of sweat hung in the air like ammonia. Old George. Killed himself. That didn’t make any sense. Didn’t seem right. No, that did not seem right. I kept climbing up the stairs, the heels of my shoes clacking on the wooden steps. The black leather of my shoes shone under the ceiling lights.

Good old George. Oh good old George. How could that ever happen to him?

[What brought back memory for the writing of this post was a post I read in Kim Ayres’s blog. His post was more than about making a tie, something emotionally deeper.]

[Image from]


  1. I can totally relate to this story, having worked in restaurants and having known many people in the industry, including those quietly smoldering types. I love the details.

  2. Funny how we remember things! And well-told.