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Monday, June 28, 2010


Shoeshine lessons
MANO-A-MANO By Adel Tamano (The Philippine Star) Updated June 27, 2010 12:00 AM

Illustration by REY RIVERA

I’m 10 years old and I’m in my dad’s dressing room. I’m sitting on the floor shining 20 pairs of my father’s shoes. My father has a shoe fetish. He claims that it was the result of his wanting new shoes, which my grandfather couldn’t afford, for his high school graduation. (My mother disputes this tale as my father’s lame attempt to instill values but, as a child, I believed him.) So, after his bout with shoe poverty, he is now the proud owner of some of the world’s best and most expensive shoes. (His favorite brand was Bally.)

That was 1980 — my job was to keep all of my dad’s shoes bright and shiny. It was a job I relished because it was our time — a luxury when you have eight siblings — and the opportunity for him to pass on life lessons through the experience of shining shoes. These were some of his best pieces of advice, delivered wearing a ratty white undershirt and ugly shorts (the de rigueur pang-bahay or house clothes) of fathers in the Eighties):

1. Strive for excellence, even if it’s something as simple as shining shoes. Maybe it was because of his Islamic upbringing — the Koran preached excellence in all things — but my father hated half-hearted work. When you do something, do it well, even something as mundane as shining shoes. There was a technique and logic to it — remove the dust first with a brush or soft cloth; choose the proper color of shoe polish; don’t put too much, especially with the liquid waxes, because it will over stain and destroy the leather; only buff the shoes, using a top-quality horse hairbrush, when they are completely dry; shine even the parts that people will not see, because although they won’t know that you missed a spot, you will know that you didn’t complete the job. As a matter of fact, my father explained to me that the very best shoes were painstakingly handcrafted and it was the shoemaker’s meticulous care and desire for making something both utilitarian and beautiful that enabled him to make such wonderful shoes.

2. Look your best. Either vanity is a learned behavior or it’s genetic. I don’t know but my own vanity, in the sense that I don’t like going even to the supermarket unless I look decent, seems to be a result of both. My father would constantly remind me about the value of looking neat, clean, and at your best. It was just as much about respecting others as it was about respecting yourself. A gentleman — or boy — should look good. Period. He told me that you can tell a lot about a person’s character — if he’s a slob or not, what his hobbies are, and if he cares about fashion, etc. — by just looking at his shoes. This was why we were taking pains to shine my father’s shoe collection: so he could always put his best foot forward.

3. You have to work harder than others because you are a minority. This may seem far removed from shining shoes but it isn’t. I think part of the reason why my father made such an effort to always look dapper was because he was actually quite insecure. He grew up in a society where Filipino Muslims faced discrimination and stereotyping — our current culture still has aspects of this — and so one method of overcoming this was to work hard and excel. Achievement, whether in politics, education, arts, etc., earns respect. It may be given grudgingly but it is given nonetheless. Since winning levels the playing field, my father said that we should act and look like a winner — and the first step was to have clean, well-shined shoes.

4. You got to have fire in your belly. Initiative was one characteristic my father valued and one of his lessons was that I should not have to wait for him to remind me to shine his shoes. I should remember to do it every week. What it really meant was don’t wait for others to push you to do what has to be done. Just do it. And initiative included appearance. He wanted me to look like I enjoyed my job. Meaning that part of initiative was doing things with zest because without enthusiasm, the results would be substandard.

5. A little luxury isn’t bad. My father would explain to me that, since he studied well and worked hard, he deserved a few luxuries — like having nice shoes. In fact, for him, his shoes were an affirmation that he had achieved some level of success. So now, as an adult who also works very hard and has studied well, I allow myself my luxuries. Perhaps, more importantly, I allow myself to take pleasure — actually it is really more a sense of gratefulness — in being able to buy things I like.

So now, every time I see a pair of beautifully shined men’s shoes, I cannot help but remember my father and the lessons he imparted. Strangely, I never inherited his desire for expensive shoes. For me cleanliness (because of my shoeshining experience) and style — not price or brand — are what I look for in a pair of shoes.

In hindsight, a lot of my own success was due to his lessons. And as I go through life, I see that shining his shoes has served me in very good stead. And my shoes always look brilliant.

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