Friday, December 17, 2010

The Street Lawyer: Shine On, Son, Shine On

The Street Lawyer is the Cultured Barrister’s necessary counterpart. Offering a viewpoint sometimes at odds with CB’s, the Street Lawyer takes a no-nonsense approach to the realities of law practice. Sometimes cynical, usually irreverent, and occasionally serious, the Street Lawyer welcomes your feedback.

While it’s hardly as if there’s a dearth of off-topic lawyer-fashion posts on this blog, the Street Lawyer nonetheless presents another this week. At the outset, you should note that I am a fictional, androgynous every-lawyer character. I am neither a male nor a female entity; you should think of me as a gender neutral unicorn. That said, even a gender neutral unicorn needs to keep its shoes in good repair. I also need a sheath for my horn to stop from impaling people in court.  But that is another story. Scuff marks are unsightly and—as you will soon learn—easily taken care of.

I have been shining my own shoes since I was a young, err, unicorn. One of my favorite lines on the West Wing is when presidential candidate Arnie Vinick says to Josh Lyman: “Never trust a man[-woman] who doesn’t shine his [or her] own shoes.” While Vermont may be a bit removed from the fictional power corridors of Washington, D.C. portrayed on the West Wing, I don’t trust people who don’t shine their own shoes. Why? Because Vermont lawyers who don’t shine their own shoes are: (a) too lazy; (b) flying to JFK Airport in New York (the closest place I know for a professional shoe shine); (c) making their kids or an associate do it (let me come out here against both child labor and partner-mandated boot licking); (d) wearing wool clogs with their suit; or (e) they’ve kidnapped Santa’s elves to shine their shoes (you may find this last one a little farfetched, but consider first our proximity to Canada, which abuts the North Pole and then the well-known elf–shoe connection). Another reason to distrust the non-own-shoe-shining Vermont lawyer is that it’s an easy enough skill to learn.

Today, lucky reader, I am going to tell you how to make your shoes so shiny that they will mesmerize a jury. When we are done, your shoes will be so striking that the jury isn’t going to be talking about the bad things your client did when they go to deliberate; they will only be talking about how they could see their reflections in your shoes. Do not scoff at this tactic. Remember that Clarence Darrow—back when smoking was allowed in courtrooms—once stuck a long pin through a cigar so that he could smoke it without dropping any ash. The jury was so enthralled by Darrow’s amazing smoking abilities that they paid virtually no attention to the other side’s presentation of the case, and Darrow won the case.

No doubt, you’ve heard the term “spit shined.” Note that the term is not “sprinkled-water shined” or “dabbed-water” shined. Water—in the shoe-shining context—is for sissies and wimps. Spit has shined many a shoe to perfection. If you’re afraid of using your saliva on your shoes, you should stop reading now and just go buy one of the many varieties of “instant” polishing products on the market. You should also forego any claims of hardiness in the future because you are clearly a sissy.

The first step is to grab those decrepit, once-black-but-now-scuffed-to-a-dull-gray shoes that occupy a dusty space in your closet. Now you need to gather supplies. Preferences vary, but the essential tools are as follows: (1) plain black shoe polish; (2) a soft rag; and (3) your spit. You can also use applicators, buffing brushes, and a slew of other items, but the three essential tools mentioned are all you really need. The only other requirement is time. I suggest an activity—like reading summaries here on SCOV law—while you polish. 

Now, clean your shoes. Get rid of the dust, spilled condiments, bodily fluids, stench of human failure . . . that are caked to your once-decent shoes. You can use a damp rag if necessary. If you do, let the shoes dry before you start in with the polish. You may have to clean the shoes again once they dry. This is hardly rocket science, but there is a right way to do it. Grinding dirt into your polish—I need not tell you—is the wrong approach.  

Once your shoes are clean and dry, it’s time to start applying the polish. Because the process seems to work better the longer you let the polish dry, I like to do two pairs of shoes at a time. If you only have one pair, just take your time. Start by wrapping the cloth around a finger or two and dipping it into the polish. Apply the polish with a circular motion, pressing lightly. At this point, you’re just slathering on the polish. Don’t worry about applying pressure while you put the polish on. That comes later. You should be going for a fairly thick and even layer on the first coat.

At this point, you should have a dull-black colored shoe, unless you are polishing brown shoes, then stop. You have ruined them. Pour yourself a drink and quit while you are ahead. Otherwise, move on to the next one, repeating the process. You should let the first shoe dry for about ten minutes, longer if you want. Once the shoe is dry, dab your tongue with the polishing cloth. Shoe polish is tasteless and, as far as I know, it’s not going to kill you to have it touch your tongue. I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve never gotten sick from it. Don’t start eating the shoe polish, though, it tastes nothing like the paste you used to eat in kindergarten.

The proper amount of moisture is the amount that occurs naturally on your tongue. Too much or too little moisture and you’ll end up with an inferior shine. There’s no need to hork loogies or just touch the very tip of your tongue. Just man (or Unicorn) up and touch the polishing cloth to your tongue.

Using a finger or two—and dabbing your tongue as needed—work the polish in a circular motion. The circles should be Goldilocks-style: not too big, not too small, but just right. You’ll learn over time the most effective way to do it, but for the novice I suggest using a one-to-two inch motion. You’ll notice that the circles get less streaky and shinier as you work the polish. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Once the shoe starts to look smooth and shiny, it’s time to set it down and move on to the next one. Then repeat the process from the beginning (put that damp cloth away, you dolt, I meant applying the polish). Eventually, the layers of polish you apply will get thinner. When your layers have covered all imperfections in the shoe, you’re very close to finished. Do a final polish with a small amount of spit and a clean part of the cloth. At this point you should be able to see your reflection in the shoes.

Why do I care so much about polishing shoes? Perhaps it is because I like to see the whole world shine. It might be because you can transform something that looks ready to be tossed in the trash into something that looks better than brand new. Since we live in Vermont, we should tell ourselves that it is about making things last and reducing waste. We live in a throwaway society. Planned obsolescence is the norm. Indeed, some might wonder if there’s a point in polishing your shoes when you can just buy a shiny new pair with a lot less hassle. . . .

Polishing your own shoes might be old fashioned, but it provides a certain sense of satisfaction. It lets you see the results of your hard work as you do it. It’s even possible to achieve perfection—and perfection is a rare achievement in any area of life. Personally, I take a great deal of personal pride from a small job, done very well, with visible results. How do others feel about things like shining one’s own shoes? Do you have some small thing you do that that gives you a sense of personal pride? If so, dear reader, let the Street Lawyer know about it. This is one magical Unicorn who would love to hear from you.

—The Street Lawyer


  1. I shine my shoes whenever they need a shine.
    The girl at the dance said they looked fine.

    The trouble came this morning when I picked up the spray starch to iron my shirt, and after some minutes saw in my hand a can of furniture polish.

  2. I find the ironing itself impressive--even if you used the wrong aerosol. My idea of ironing is throwing my wrinkle-free shirt into the dryer for a few minutes.