Commentary

Shaffer: Pretty Booger reigns as Graham’s ‘shoe man,’ witch doctor, teller of tales

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2014 

— The man they call Pretty Booger ran a toothbrush around the edge of my beat-up Dr. Scholls, and as he shined my sorry shoes he explained that he used to be a witch doctor.

It didn’t pan out, from what I could gather. One of his clients got inexplicably naked. Another lost her mind. But before I could learn more, Pretty Booger told me he’s also been a boxer.

Not only that, but a women’s hairdresser. He also did a stint in the saddle business.

Then there’s his side career as a blues drummer and the time he played with Sam Cooke.

“All he’d do is sing and party,” said Pretty Booger, buffing my loafer, “and I was right there with him. I wonder if he’s still living.”

Just then, a white-haired customer walked into the back of the downtown barbershop where Pretty Booger shines for $3 a pair. He hadn’t a heard a word of our conversation, and he didn’t know that I write for a newspaper. But he looked me in the eye and offered this quick advice:

“Don’t believe half of it.”

This 75-year-old, tooth-challenged shoeshine man with a reputation for tall tales is actually named William Hester, a native of Graham. But the sign on South Main Street, painted in the window of City Barber Shop, advertises shines by Pretty Booger – a nickname coined by his grandmother.

“Because I was ugly,” he said.

He told me he’s occupied his space for the past 17 years. Or maybe 10 years. Whatever the number, he retired from his long career as a “shoe man” and now passes the time by shining shoes.

It’s a calling few can withstand. To hear Pretty Booger tell it, you’ve got to have a certain thing in you. But to me, the most important quality in a shoe-shiner is a refusal to recognize that your craft is obsolete – a trait I admire for obvious reasons.

In this age of casual Fridays and overnight shoe delivery from Zappo’s, it’s hard to find anyone so dedicated to preserving used footwear. Nobody has ever flattered my shoes. I’ve never shined them or even replaced the laces. But Pretty Booger rubbed a dollop of polish on the toe and rhapsodized over the tough, lasting material. I soon learned, however, that he’s not as discriminating about what goes on his own feet.

“I wear any pair somebody leaves in here,” he said. “I ain’t never bought a shoe in my life. I got alligators.”

People deliver their shoes to Pretty Booger by the plastic bag. When I stopped by, he had 31 pairs waiting for new luster. He works with 22 different brushes and enough black- and purple-stained rags to stitch a quilt.

“Yes, Lord,” he said. “You better have them. I never clean them. You clean them, you take something away from it.”

I soon understood that Pretty Booger has lived many lives in many skins, and that scrubbing the miles off a columnist’s Dr. Scholls is only a sliver of his character.

I found a few clues on the wall behind his shoeshine chair: a wanted poster advising that Pretty Booger is dangerous among girls of all ages, despite having a wife and four children; a taped-up picture of Rocky Marciano alongside Joe Louis, practically begging customers to start the barbershop patter from “Coming to America.”

His wall also displayed a magazine ad for Wild Turkey, along with this telling slogan: “Lie till they throw the switch.”

When you’ve lived a rich life – one that includes pugilism, leather craft and folk magic – you don’t stop for old age. You keep moving, growing larger, adding to your legacy – embellishing where necessary. I’m certain that if I’d stayed longer in Pretty Booger’s chair, he’d have told me that he used to sell snake oil at the county fair, and that he could read my future by the bumps on my head.

When Pretty Booger finished, I checked my reflection in the toe of my loafer and contemplated the stories I could hear if I had another hour to spare. As my mind wandered over the possibilities, an elderly customer walked into the shop with a pair of shoes for Pretty Booger.

“Watch him,” she warned, dropping the shoes at his feet.

But I believe every word of Pretty Booger’s story. It’s too good to be untrue.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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