He wasn’t really looking for the job, one that seems like a relic of the past today. Gregory Wheeler was sitting in the little park in Horace Greeley Square on West 33rd Street approximately seven years ago, eating lunch out of a styrofoam carton next to the water fountain when he saw the shoe shine stand somewhat out of place and alone on the edge of the street.
Somewhat jokingly, he approached one of the men operating the stand back then. “You want someone to shine shoes?” Wheeler asked. He was told to come back the next day. He did. “You get the job,” the man told him. “No drinking.” That was it.
A job out of another time
There are not many constants in Wheeler’s life, but the shoe shine job was one of them. Wheeler, 60, was born and lived in Newark, had worked in a warehouse, at a carwash, and on a factory assembly line making toys and clothes. Newark wasn’t always a happy home, particularly the dangerous scene of drugs and violence he remembers trying to escape. He had children who lived in other states. He has been homeless and now lives at his sister’s house in Newark. In recent years, most days, he takes an NJ Transit train around 7 a.m. to Penn Station and his stand.
It’s five dollars for a shoe shine, sometimes he’ll get a dollar tip. The neat green chair structure provided by the 34th Street Partnership, a business improvement district, means he doesn’t have to bend down at work. His tools are spread out below the seat — brushes of different sizes and colors, a few tins of shoe polish. One was a vintage brand: Esquire Boot Polish, 29 cents back in the day, though he bought it recently for 50 cents at a thrift store.
There’s no overhead for the spot: Kati Solomon, the director of operations for the 34th Street Partnership says it’s a “way to activate our public spaces.” There are licensing agreements for some of the food businesses around the park, but the shoe shining is meant more to bring people into the green space.
Solomon says of Wheeler: “It’s a great partnership.” He is one of about five people who have operated the shoe shine since the BID started the stand approximately a decade ago, and he keeps what he makes.
Unfortunately, it’s not much. Winter might be a good season for the indoor shoe shine stores, those that still remain, given the grimy boots gracing peoples’ feet. For an outdoor worker like Wheeler, summer needs to be high season. But few people stop at his stand — on Thursday, two, and on Friday, one in the morning. He might get three or four a day, a fraction of the business he used to get when he shined shoes as a teenager, going bar to bar in Newark with a box and polish. That world is gone.
“This spot is no good,” he grumbled last week, pointing across the street to the 6th Avenue sidewalk packed with walkers. That might be a better place, if he could move the stand.
It’s not entirely about the money
He says he’s retired. The stand is a place to go during the day away from Newark, and though the shoe shines might only take five minutes each he spends the rest of the time listening to a Discman or cassette player, taking a break in the afternoon to work out at a local gym. Sometimes a partner operates the second chair with him and they take turns. When it’s hot out, he sells bottles of water from a small orange cooler. Around 7 p.m., he packs up, locks his materials in the structure’s base and covers it with a rain-proof protector. Sometimes, he says, he sleeps the night on the steps of the nearby Farley Post Office, with others of the city’s homeless. Otherwise, the train to Newark, before the train back the next day.
He says he likes New York, remembers coming into Times Square for movies when he was younger. Now he comes in all the time, though he says he has never ventured beyond Manhattan. But in the center of the busy intersection there’s plenty to enjoy. On Sundays he might give himself the day off, go to the Times Square Church off Broadway. He says he likes the music and large crowd. Then, on Monday, back at his post, setting out his brushes and carefully hanging his cloth.