“People who understand a shine still get a shine,” Pierce McKoy said as he spruced up a customer’s pair of brown, leather sneakers.
McKoy, 60, works as a shoeshine man just outside the lobby of The Durham Hotel, one of downtown Durham’s newest hotels.
McKoy, who polishes life back into shoes as if the arthritis in his large hands was non-existent, was born and raised on Durham’s Pettigrew Street, close to the railroad tracks (still there) as well as the Biltmore Hotel and The Regal Theatre (both long gone), where the stars of Motown would perform when on tour. McKoy’s father cooked at the Biltmore while his mother sold tickets at the Regal.
“No two people shine shoes the same,” McKoy said. “It’s like shooting pool.”
As a child, McKoy’s first job was in a neighborhood speakeasy, cleaning up the trash from the previous night’s debauchery, sometimes finding treasures like loose change or a half-smoked cigarette that he and his friends would smoke down later in the nearby woods. Once McKoy’s father caught wind of his son’s work environment, the 9-year-old McKoy had to find a new line of work.
McKoy and other boys learned they could earn money cleaning used shoes at a quarter per pair at a shoe-shine shop on Pettigrew run by a man named Pee Wee.
“They were nasty, grimy shoes,” McKoy said, “but I didn’t think about that – I was thinking about the quarters.”
Working within eyeshot of Pee Wee, McKoy observed the man’s technique.
“He wouldn’t let you shine,” McKoy said, “but if you’d hang around enough, he could teach you.”
‘Popping the rag’
McKoy began learning about different grades of leather and how they responded to different shades of polish. What remained a mystery to McKoy, however, was how to properly use a lamb’s wool cloth to polish the shoe – what Pee Wee called, “popping the rag.”
“When will I learn to pop the rag?” McKoy would ask.
Pee Wee would direct him to the worn shoes that needed cleaning.
A year went by, then another. McKoy kept cleaning the used shoes for a quarter. Then one Saturday, a customer walked in for a shine, and Pee Wee directed the customer to McKoy.
“When I got the chance, I got nervous,” McKoy said. “I forgot everything. He told me, ‘Don’t worry, just do everything I do.’”
“Then came time to pop the rag. I’d seen it, but I had never tried it myself,” McKoy said.
“I looked foolish when I tried. Pee Wee finished the shine, then he explained to me about the lamb’s wool rag, how not to burn the leather.”
The trick, McKoy said, was to rub the shoe vigorously with the cloth, but with a loose touch, leaving some air between the rag and the shoe. Pee Wee told the young McKoy to keep trying, that instinct would tell him when to switch up, when and how to “pop the rag.”
McKoy did switch up, to a singing career, first nurtured by grade school and high school choir teachers who admired his range. He served four years in the Marines before getting a taste of fame as a vocalist, replacing Cuba Gooding Sr. in the soul group The Main Ingredient after its early ’70s heyday.
He married, had two sons, was widowed, tried and dropped the ball on a second marriage, then returned to an old but familiar instrument, both soft and strong, made of lamb’s wool.
“I like life, man.” McKoy said. “I have built a life on …” McKoy pauses, looking right through the exterior walls of the hotel. “…something other than a Social Security number.”
‘Gonna show you’
Shining shoes less that a quarter-mile from where he grew up, McKoy does not compare himself to his long-gone mentor Pee Wee. He’s too busy drumming up business for himself, racking up before-and-after shots on his cell phone of the footwear he has worked on.
McKoy calls out to a man entering the hotel with his wife, telling him that he can spruce up the look of the man’s penny-loafers. The wife smiles and tells McKoy that her husband had shined his shoes himself before leaving home.
It is a polite brush-off, but not one that McKoy hasn’t heard before. He watches the couple proceed into the hotel lobby and over to the front desk. A moment later, McKoy is inside the lobby as well, pitching his $5 shoeshine services again.
The husband wearing the shoes that he polished himself is soon ushered back out of the hotel by McKoy and invited to take a high seat inside McKoy’s shoeshine booth. The man and his wife are visiting Durham from Omaha, Nebraska, to see their son receive his MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
“I’m gonna show you what I can do with those shoes,” McKoy tells the man.
McKoy starts with a toothbrush and a touch of polish, followed later by strokes from a horsehair brush. McKoy then pops a lambskin cloth over the man’s loafers.
“You said these shoes were ready to go?” McKoy asks the man, keeping his eyes on his work.
McKoy whips away the cloth, revealing a gloss on the black leather that wasn’t there before.
‘Shoes are character’
The Durham Hotel opened in July 2015. General manager Craig Spitzer wanted to “activate the storefront.”
McKoy saw the hotel’s vacant shoeshine stand. When McKoy approached Spitzer from off the street and offered his services, the two began what Spitzer describes as an “symbiotic relationship,” where hotel guests can connect immediately with a native of Durham.
“This is his office,” Spitzer said.
“It’s all about status with shoes,” McKoy said. “It’s, ‘Hey, look – I’m tough,’ or ‘I’m clean’, or ‘Bet you can’t beat the price of these shoes,’ or ‘I’m just trying to have fun tonight’.”
“Shoes are character. They let other people know about your stature.”
When asked what his favorite brand of shoes to work on are, McKoy stops what he is doing when he can’t recall to his satisfaction the correct spelling of the brand he has in mind, going as far as calling a young bellhop out of the lobby for help: Cole H-a-a-n.
“You’ve got to know your art,” McKoy said.
Correspondent Steve Bydal