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On the Sidewalk

Cabbages and Kings


One of the last enterprises in the world free from government regulation is facing disaster.

"Competition is hell." This largest single fact in the grim little world of a shoeshine boy came from a youngster of eleven, a veteran of four years on the sidewalk. George sat glumly in front of Briggs and Briggs on an ancient, beaten kit box. "All the shoe stores grab everybody. Some Saturdays I ain't had anybody."

I suggested that Briggs & Briggs patrons might not care about scuffed shoes. "Oh, I move," he said. "Y'gotta move around. Last year I tried some buildings in Harvard Yard, but they threw me out."

"There are quite a few shoe shine boys?"

"Gees, yes--all over. I seen three guys fight over a man once. Those shoe stores get the most people, though." He went on for a while against the forces of Evil, particularly cobblers and No Trespassing signs in Harvard entries. Trying to change the subject, I asked if shoe shining was profitable. "Sometimes. Some weeks I get five or ten dollars. Not always. I make lunch money--not too much."

"What made you take up shoe shining?"

"My mother. She said I oughta earn money for stuff. There ain't much else to do." I agreed that he should and that there wasn't, when he shrieked, "Get out."


"Get out, or I'll hit you." A boy of eight or so sulked down Mass. Ave. dragging his kit. "What was that about?" I asked.

"He's always comin' around where I am. How can I get anyone with him hanging around. Some guys work in teams. That's no good: you don't get anyone."

"Oh," I said. Then George volunteered, "Everyone around here wears white bucks--you don't shine white bucks. A guy told me they're s'posed to be dirty. Trouble is, there's nothing new--no new kind of color. I'm a Kiwi man," he said, confidentially. "But it's all the same."

"That's bad," I said brightly. "Businesses die with no new gimmick." He eyed me uncomfortably. Bankruptcy was decidedly not the most prized topic of conversation. A man strolled up, and George applied himself furiously to a deep mahogany finish. "He's a steady," George whispered.

"Do you have many steadies?"


"You must meet some interesting people."

"Some. A nut once asked me to do his sandals and wouldn't pay 'cause I got black on his stocking. He had a beard like Lincoln. One guy always makes me polish the tip of his shoe laces." That exhausted his list of Unique Persons. "Do you like to shine shoes?"

"Nope," he nudged his mangled kit with a sneaker toe. "Mostly we just stand around and wait," he shrugged. "I gotta do it." A street light blazed and George leaned wearily against the wall. "It isn't much fun," he whispered and stared very hard at the brick patterns of the sidewalk. I left, quietly.

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