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She's Got the World at Her Feet

I won't lick your boots--but for a reasonable fee, I will spit-shine them
Tony Nelson

Buy her a cup of mocha and say something to the tune of What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this and she will rub at the black stains on her hands and glance at the Caribou sign and say she's happy. She'll say this is the best job she's ever had, that it's like being a bartender. Try to get her to talk wistfully about her dashed dreams of becoming a flight attendant or bitterly about the assholes who walked out on her and her two boys, and you will not get her to talk.

Men. Ask her what she's learned about men. "From this job?" she'll say, a sheep asked to comment on the wolves who parade past her every day. But hang out with her long enough at her shoeshine station at Southdale and the impressions will come, just like the men who visit her. There's the security guard who stops by to ask about her new apartment, the retired probation officer who used to shine shoes in a barbershop in the '50s because it was the only work a black kid could get, the "weird guy" who just got out of some facility the other day wearing latex gloves and needed an emergency shine, and the gent who gave her a $500 tip just before Christmas and told her to buy some presents for her kids.

Men. They come to her like flies to honey. They are lonely hearts in a building that feels like a fishbowl of antiseptics, where everything is for sale.

Women. Some of the older ones see her dressed in her lingerie or her rock T-shirts and admire her sass. They see her as both a feminist and a throwback to a time when the street corners were filled with shoeshine boys and boxes. But others, younger, dressed in business attire or in the uniform of the mall, clopping out of the Talbot's or the Banana Republic or the Gymboree next door, they just talk on their cell phones and look down at the tart who spends her days with men at her feet--or rather, at their feet. Some won't allow their men to get their shoes shined by her.

"I don't care what anyone thinks," she will tell you. Ask her again. Ask her a few different times, a few different ways. She will shake her blond mane slowly, and she will repeat herself.

She's shy, and kind. What she's doing is resting. When she was 15, she started hanging out with metal bands. After classes got out at South High, she'd go to Burnout Hill by Lake Nokomis and wait for boys to give her a ride in their cars. Her face still contorts with the thrill-joy of that memory. She got a fake ID and became a regular at the old Mirage nightclub, which is now, she notes with a trace of irony and melancholy, a French bakery.

She was a legend. She'd go out every night. She and her girlfriends were dubbed "the Bus Tails" by one of the local metal impresarios, for their reputations as tour-bus good-time girls. She never did drugs, only drank a little. But things happened to "very young girls" on the tour buses that still make her otherwise soft face turn sick, and make her glad she doesn't have daughters.

She's not attracted to the nice guys in suits whose shoes she shines and who tell her that women judge them if their shoes aren't just so. She likes long hair. She likes rockers. She saw Disturbed at First Avenue a few months ago and it wasn't the same. She used to quit jobs to go to metal shows. She's 31 now. She spent New Year's Eve at Target and the Mall of America with her two boys and she liked it like that.

Her customers tell her haircuts and shoeshines go together. A pair of shined shoes, one guy explained, says to the world that the man wearing them takes care of himself. Everyone asks her about her life and wants to know how she got into shoe shining. Her name is Angie. She loves her kids and likes being single. She worries about the train in the backyard of her new apartment in southeast Minneapolis, and her train-fascinated two-year-old.

She has worked in restaurants, at Home Depot, and day-care centers, but three years ago she answered an ad in the newspaper seeking shoeshine girls for the airport. There were eight of them there, but most quit because they didn't make enough money. The others got sick of being hit on by businessmen and of hearing women complain about the shoeshine girls in the low-cut shirts. Angie got hooked on it. She likes people.

She's a legend. No one complains about her here. Walk through the mall with her and people will look up from their coffee or cinnamon bun or peak out from their kiosk and, in various languages, say, "There goes the shoeshine girl."

She has a dream: To buy a massage chair and give foot massages and shoeshines. That would be the life. Her customers tell her that a shoeshine feels good, like a foot massage. When she was a little girl, her mom used to give her foot massages until she'd fall asleep. Her mom's mad at her right now. Her mom lives in Las Vegas, off the strip, and she wants her daughter to move nearby. But Angie's nine-year-old doesn't want to live in Vegas.

And she's doing fine right now. She averages a hundred bucks a day. She's an expert in the St. Louis Spit Shine. She starts by brushing the shoes. If there's a lot of salt, she uses vinegar, then conditioner, a good polish, water from a spray bottle, then she buffs it with a rag until the leather gleams. It takes maybe 15 minutes, a little longer for boots.


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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