What I Learned from a Shoeshiner: How to Build Character

I’ll admit. I wasn’t looking forward to going to New York City. All the people, the traffic, the noise.

Surprisingly the first person I spot on W. 47th Street is the shoeshine guy from the documentary called Shiners. He was one of the main characters in the film I’d seen at the Port Townsend Film Festival a week before.

Don from the film Shiners

Suddenly I’m enjoying the noise, the traffic, the people. Listening to Don, the shoeshiner calling out to people walking by, “Hey Miss, I can’t do anything about your hair, but I can help you with those shoes.”  “Hey Mister, let me do what I do best. Your shoes are crying for a shine.”

He explains to me that in this bustling city he’s got 3 seconds to build rapport with pedestrians. If he doesn’t make a connection quickly, it’s too late. They’re gone that quickly. He’s got to size people up… which ones are open, which ones are closed. It’s not possible to reach everyone, but a clever phrase might just entice someone to play.

3-2-1. That’s all he’s got. I experiment to see if I can connect with him in 3 seconds the next morning.


Me: “Hey buddy, what’s so interesting in that newspaper you’re reading?”

Him: “They’re putting cocaine in McDonald’s french fries.”

Me: “Now that’s a happy meal!” 

We both smile. I keep walking.

Before hearing about his theory on connecting in 3 seconds, I would have passed on this opportunity to connect. I might say to myself that he’s reading a paper. Leave him alone. Why would he care about me?

Or I can reach out and connect with a fellow human being.

This simple interaction teaches me a metaphor for life. We only have so much time. People come in and out of our lives. We can’t connect with everyone in the world, but we can connect with some. We can make an effort to find commonalities, play together and enrich each other’s lives. If we keep our hearts open, we’ll be ready for the next encounter.

Shoe shiners polish peoples’ shoes, giving them a boost in confidence. Most of us feel better about ourselves by taking the time to look the best we can. There’s something commendable about that.

Yet, no amount of polish on the outside can make up for an unpolished interior life.

We each have a sparkle inside of us that may have been stained over the years. Well-meaning teachers, parents or clergy spread their beliefs of lack and limitation on us just as it’s been done to them.

There’s a line in my one-woman show If I Were Me…  I’d Know What I Want where I say, “It was my time to shine!” It’s there to remind us to be the light, creative and free beings we were meant to be, expressing ourselves honestly and authentically.

People are constantly coming in and out of our lives sharing experiences. Sometimes difficult ones. Like the time I innocently followed my fiancé to live in Indonesia. He began a successful career. I entered the dark night of the soul. It was a hard time, but without it I wouldn’t have learned the value of self-love.

By keeping our hearts and minds open, we have an opportunity to build character and deepen empathy. We can use these lessons for good.

We can polish ourselves from the inside out.

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