“It’s like I say, doing this you have to be very patient with it,” says Henry Mays. “Because if you’re not patient with it, forget about it.”
Mays, seventy years old, wears all black—a puffy jacket, a linen scarf, chinos, and a baseball cap with the Michael Jordan logo. Since the early 1980s he has worked the same trade in the same place. Mays is a shoe shiner in the transportation hub of New York City: Grand Central Terminal. On this Friday night Metro-North commuters, after-work hordes and subway crowds enter the Vanderbilt Avenue and 43rd Street entrance. They are all rushing by. It is cold, around thirty-five degrees. The city is covered in lights after the early sunset; Mays’ wood shoeshine stand is partially covered by a green tarp.
Mays is a one of several dozen shoe shiners who regularly set up shop in and around Grand Central Terminal. Others do the same down on Wall Street, along Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and in other busy business districts throughout New York. The NYC Department of Consumer Affairs confirmed that there is no official regulation of shoe shine stands; Mays is unique in that he has an official stand where he works as an independent contractor hired by the Grand Central Partnership.
There have been attempts over the years to reduce the prominence of what some see as a sidewalk blight. Robert Moses—the equally praised and hated master planner of New York City in the twentieth century—attempted to target and close many stands. While there are no official statistics on the number of shoe shiners working in the city, it has most likely declined significantly since Moses’ era.
All shoe shiners — well, the more social ones anyway — seem to have one thing in common: that their favorite part of the job is the people.
“I started doing this in 1990, full-time in 1995,” says Kevin Tucker. “I tell jokes non-stop. I have people that come back to me five, six, seven years later that tell me the same jokes. That is how I know that I have done them already.” Tucker then proceeds to tell a string of jokes that induce uncontrollable blushing.
Tucker even appeared in the movie “Elf” after impressing the actor Will Ferrell with one particular joke that is way to dirty to publish on the site. A master storyteller, his motto is what he lives by: “Let me put a glow on your toe when you go.”
Mays started much earlier, when he arrived in New York City in 1968. He started shining shoes in a barber shop. “It wasn’t really my intention to be in New York all this time,” says Mays, who was born in the Peach State during the Second World War. “I only planned to be here for five years. Go out to California for five years and then go back to Georgia.”
Mays says he began working in the main entrance of Grand Central since 1977, setting up chairs and a stand unofficially. In September 1986, Mays and three others—Jimmy Dancer, Jimmy Bryant, and George Breckenridge—were given the boot by the Metro-North commuter railroad from their unofficial spot in the terminal—part of Metro-North’s quest to clean up the terminal, including a ban on all kinds of unofficial business in the entrance area.
In the end, the clean-up worked out well for Mays and his cohorts. “The ban led to the Grand Central Partnership giving us our own stands,” says Mays, who attended hearings and meetings to receive clearance to have an official space in the terminal for the first time. “It all worked out.”
But upcoming work to One Vanderbilt Avenue—a giant luxury tower being built adjacent to the station—has Mays worried his spot won’t last for long. “After they finish renovating Grand Central, they are most likely going to kick me out,” he says.
The Grand Central Partnership confirmed that there are no plans right now to move anyone but Mays’ fears could be justified. His stand is directly across from the new tower, close in proximity to the entrances near Posman Books, which will soon close to make room for the new construction. Three decades ago, renovations brought Mays an official stand in the train terminal and now another renovation is possibly bringing him out.
In his heyday, when his stand was closer to the main area of movement, Mays had at least forty customers a day. Now, less foot traffic means fewer polishes. “Twenty-five to thirty shines a day is what I strive for now,” says Mays, who works from one to nine, most weekdays depending on weather. “That’s a good day for me.” Shoe shines go for five dollars, plus tips, meaning he pulls in less than $200 most days. his overhead is low though, with tins of polish selling for around $6 to $8.
Mays likes to say, repeatedly, that shoe shining is “not like it used to be.” “The other guys all died on me,” he says. “I’m the only survivor of the whole entire group. We were six guys all together. We started working on 42nd Street together—before the stands.”
May gets back to work. He now has arthritis, which has slowed him down, but his hands are thorough on every set of shoes that he polishes. He bonds with a forty-year-old commuter over the terrible season the Jets are having. When the job is over, Mays taps the shoes, signaling the end of the shine. He has transformed the pair of brown faux-leather monk straps into something presentable. The customer thanks him, pays, and walks into the terminal like so many thousands have before.
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Garrett McGrath is a regular contributor to Narratively and Uni Watch. Follow him on Twitter at @garrettpmcgrath.
Thomas MacMillan is a writer and photographer living in Brooklyn. His shoes could use a shine.