By Richard Umbro
It was another busy Saturday mornings as I weaved my way through the pushcart vendors in the Haymarket Square area of Boston. My destination was downtown, in the hub of the retail district, a pre-mall environment of classic department stores; it was late September or early October, circa 1945. I will venture to say that some readers of this article had not entered this world yet. I will also guess that most are reading it from that “Great Reading Room” in the sky. An autumn chill was in the air, as I pulled the frayed collar of my too light jacket up and rumbled with the sometimes non-functioning zipper, toward off the cold. I had a full head of curly black hair in dire need of a haircut; that precluded the use of a hat, which I did not have anyway.
I had just “thumbed” my way through the Sumner Tunnel from the east side of Boston: a neighborhood two shades more blue than most “blue collar” sections, where row upon row of “three deckers” was the habitat of need, not of choice. Cold water flats that housed predominately large families, struggling to keep a precarious foothold on the lowest rung of the then socio-economic ladder; and that humble goal was met with dignity. A place where the term “tenement district” most assuredly had its beginning. A place where one became street smart at too early an age. I was eleven years old and I was what they called, back in the day, a shoeshine boy.
My black shoeshine box felt heavy that day and I adjusted the strap to relieve the tension on my shoulder. I checked inside to see if I had all my equipment. Brown and black cans of shoe polish, cleaning dauber and fluid, brush and polishing cloths, and two extra la-Rosa coupons. Now you may be wondering, what on earth are La-Rosa coupons, and what are they doing in an 11-year-old boy’s shoeshine box, in the middle of downtown Boston? Mysteries and enigmas of youth sometimes need explanation.
Now, during the Great Depression years of the thirties and forties, many matriarchs of large families (they were the true heroines of that era) cooked and served lots of pasta. The most preferred brand was the La-Rosa Macaroni Co., and on the back of this box was a colorful. Red rose on it. Those coupons were cut out, and when enough of them were saved, they were redeemed at the local Mom & Pop stores in the area, for a pot or pan or some other kitchenware. At times they were used as play cards for children, as my youngest sister, Elizabeth (Betty), will attest to. However, if a boy was inclined to be industrious, another use was found for them. Being from a large family of seven children, there were some things that had to be postponed. One of them was having the worn out soles of shoes replaced at the local cobbler shop. This was not a throw away-buy new one generation. I had discovered that those coupons fit perfectly when inserted into the worn out sole of a shoe, to keep out the wet and dirt from the pavement. I had one in each shoe and extras in my shoeshine box. An ounce of prevention was always wroth the proverbial pound of cure.
For some unknown reason, I felt good about that particular day, especially when I found a quarter amidst the windblown refuse of an upswept sidewalk. A day with minus negativity. Everything was bound to be “Yes” to day. A feel good day, as in “Yes Dorothy,” there is a land called Oz. “Yes Virginia,” there is a Santa Claus. “Yes Marie,” they ate your cake. Even without your royal frosting. I arrived at my favorite spot; it was at the corner of Washington and Bromfield Streets, between Filene’s and Raymond’s department stores. I had a good view from this corner, to keep a watchful eye out for a patrol officer, who may ask if you had your license. You had to be 12 years old to obtain one. The skills of an “artful dodger” came early those days. With due deference to a protagonist of another story, from a different era.
“Shine Sir?” I asked, as my first customer walked by. “Yes, I think I will,” he replied. His shoes had not been cleaned for quite a while, and the heels were run down. His pants lacked a crease, and a button on his jacket was missing. He projected the image of the underpaid clerk in a second rate store. However, this was a kindly man, one that may give you a tip. I finished quickly and tapped the side of my shine box to indicate completion. “Thanks kid, good job, he said, and flipped me two quarters, the second as a tip. I was right about the poor soul.
My second customer was quite a different story. His shoes were newer and costly, his suit neatly pressed, and his tie was I a perfect Windsor knot. He was reading the stock market results from the previous day from a newspaper. He had nothing to say and he was the epitome of rampant hubris. There was not going to be a tip from this “dandy.” I was right about the lack of a tip. The cognitive powers of class distinction and social habits were the tangible lessons attained prematurely by shoeshine boys, on the mean streets of a city awash in apathy.
I was a little hungry and was thinking about walking over to Joe & Nemo’s for a ten-cent hot dog, and as I was on my knees arranging my equipment, I noticed a women’s reflection through the store window in front of me. Her gaze was affixed directly at the exposed coupons in my shoes. Immune to embarrassment at this point, I pretending not to notice. “Young man, can you shine my shoes?” she asked. I turned in her direction and replied, “Yes Ma’am, I can.” I had shined women’s shoes before, I was not surprised. Her shoes were of high quality leather that came high to the ankle, and had a fashionable heel. Her skirt was long and draped to an appropriate length in relation to her shoe tops. Her waist-length jacket was trimmed in fur, something like on display in the window of I.J. Fox, a downtown Furrier. In her hand she was holding a round black satin box, with gold ribbon. Imprinted on the box in gold lettering was “French Shop.” This indicated that it was purchased in an exclusive shop on the seventh floor of Filene’s Department Store: where women of high fashion and financial means sat in stuffed chairs to watch models walk up and down, wearing the garment they were interested in buying.
She asked all the questions a woman will ask: How old are you; where do you go to school; how many brothers and sisters in your family; do you give your mother money? Family-oriented questions in a pleasant manner. Unlike men, who rarely talked, save for an occasional grunt or incoherent mumble. “What is your name?” she asked. “Richard,” I replied. “But they all call me Richie.” A smile came to her face, a benevolent smile, one that captures the warmth and grace of a woman. “What is your name?” I asked. She laughed openly at the boyish innocence of my question, momentarily disarming her inherent composure. “Rose,” she said, smiling once more. I finished her shoes; they had a lustrous sheen.
“They look beautiful,” she said, and from her purse she pressed into my hand five one dollar bills. Mesmerized and wide-eyed by her generosity, I stuttered, “Than you” several times. With a maternal like pat to my cheek, as she was leaving, she said, “Now be sure to get home before dark.” I watched her for a long time as she walked down Washington Street, where women very discreetly turned their heads in admiration, some with jaundiced eyes of jealously. She disappeared into that huddled mass of the good, the bad, the perfect and imperfect; caught up in the exciting vibrance of Saturday morning shopping. I never saw her again.
Now, there is a special time in everyone’s life when a rose fashions a memory. A school child creates a colorful rose with crayons and pride, to bring home to Mother on Mother’s Day, to be proudly exhibited on the refrigerator door for days after. A young man brings a dozen roses, to the love of his life. An old man walks a lonely path, in the somber cadence of grief, to place a tear-stained rose at the resting place of his beloved. And of one very memorable day, those many years gone by, there was even a “rose” for a shoeshine boy.