Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | I joined the Lifetime Club
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I joined the Lifetime Club

UPDATE April 13, 2009: I went to drop off some shoes with Claude the King of Shoes in advance of an out-of-town trip, and was disappointed to see he wasn’t at his usual spot at Welton St. and the 16th Street Mall in Downtown Denver. As I turned to go back to my office, I saw him — about 75 feet away from the intersection, looking lonely.

He told me the Downtown Denver Partnership organization was forcing him to back away from the intersection at least 50 feet, or pay for a vendor’s license of over $500 a month. I wondered if he makes that much more than that. Here’s a story from the Denver Post.

He’s also being criticized for making remarks at people (and their shoes) as they walk on by. Today as I waited he commented to a man walking with a woman, “You must the key to heaven… because you have such an angel with you.” He got a smile from both the man and woman. He called out to another woman, “I can’t imagine the world without your beauty in it.” She smiled too.

Some people (maybe even me, if I didn’t know Claude) might take these comments to be sexist and inappropriate. But in the context of his “act,” they seem awful cute to me. It’s how he gets peoples’ attention to sell his top-quality shoeshines.

He’s been shining shoes downtown for 14 years, he said, and 11 of those years now, at one intersection: 16th and Welton. He’s trying to raise money for a lawyer to help him fight the “eviction” on grounds that it’s limiting his ability to make a living, and on freedom of speech ground (it’s true — like me, many people seem to not see him when he’s away from the corner, and he can’t keep up his nonstop upbeat patter at passersby).

I wish him luck.

I’m glad he was able to shine my shoes, and also handle the three pairs I dropped off. (The following post was written April 29, 2007; I made the video above about a year later.)

OK, I’m feeling sheepish about admitting this. But I signed up this week for a lifetime membership … to get my shoes shined by Claude, the King of Shoes.

I’ve seen Claude for years. In fact, he’s plied his trade on the corners of Denver’s downtown 16th Street Mall for nine years. A few weeks ago, as I was hurrying back from lunch to my office a block off the 16th Street Mall, Claude looked up from a customer’s wingtips and glanced my way. “Are those “Bjorns?” he asked. Yes, they were, and yes, they look ratty, but I was in a hurry to get back to the office, without acknowledging the question.

A few days ago I was out to lunch again and saw Claude on the corner, shining up another customer’s shoes, using his fingers to work in some liquid leather conditioner. He looked up again — I wasn’t wearing my Bjorns this time — and so I asked him if he really recognized my shoes. He remembered me from the Bjorns, for one thing (OK, maybe my beret and Asian face had something to do with that part), but he explained with some patience, like I shouldn’t have to ask, that he’s seen every brand of shoe that god’s put on Earth and he knows what to do to take care of every one of them.

Claude is an African American man whom I’d put at mid-50s. He looks like a thin version of Danny Glover, and he keeps up a steady banter throughout the day, at people who pass by him, mostly looking ahead or engrossed in conversation or work or thoughts or their iPods and who treat him like he’s invisible. But there are people who seek him out — a lot of them, as it turns out — and once you’ve made contact with him he’s anything but invisible.

I was entranced watching him work the guy’s shoes, and Claude saw his opportunity. “Hey Lifetime!” he called out to a guy walking by. The man waved and kept going. Claude gave me a long look and said, “You can be a Lifetime member too, you know. He is,” he added, rolling his eyes upward.

The guy nodded his head in my direction. “Yup,” he said, a satisfied grin across his face. “It’s the best investment I’ve ever made.”

Claude called out several more “Hey Lifetimes” and kept up a steady stream of low-level sexist humor at folks walking by, while I waited for my shoeshine. All the Lifetime members acknowledged him — including a woman, upon which he told me he had a lot of women Lifetime members — and a couple came over to have a conversation with him before they went on to finish their day. It was cool. It was a bit of humanity, a way to slow down and feel a sense of community amidst the hectic frenzy of a downtown workday.

When it came my turn, Claude explained the Lifetime membership deal. For $40 he’d give me shoeshines anytime. I could stop by every day if I want. I could drop off up to four pairs of shoes or boots for him to shine and pick them up later. My wife (he noticed my ring) could have her shoes shined anytime too.

Meanwhile, he massaged my shoes and rubbed on polish with a cloth, which he then buffed, then added the liquid conditioner with his fingers. He went on about god and animals and how animals keep their skin clean and healthy and it’s his job to keep those skins clean and healthy on shoes. He went on about how shoe-shining is a lost art, and how he’s the last of a dying breed.

I was hooked, even before the urging from some other Lifetimers who stopped to chat with Claude. I signed up. He handed me a little block book and turned to the page for names starting with “G” and asked me to fill in my name and phone number (for when I drop off shoes) and a notation to show that I’m a Lifetime member.

I’m planning on wearing my Bjorns tomorrow, and getting them shined up. And, I’m looking forward to walking along on the 16th Street Mall and hearing Claude call out to me, “Hey Lifetime!” so I could go over and chat with him.

I’m part of a cool club!