I met a shoeblack the other day in Istanbul, right next to Hagia Sophia. On my way from one sight to yet another, he was sitting at the street corner offering to polish my shoes while I passed by: “Shoeshine, Sir? Have your shoes cleaned!” I kindly declined in Turkish, but he was insisting: “Your shoes are dusty, Sir. Better to clean them, I know.” Curiously, I stopped, turned around and glanced at him. And I told him that he probably was right. That I was walking around town a lot that day. And that I wasn’t sure, this really would be worth the effort as I still had quite some dusty roads ahead of me. He made a disapproving flicking noise, explaining that properly polished shoes could bear up a bit of road dust, asking where I was coming from. When I told him and he replied in German (which is not at all that unusual, in particular when meeting senior Turks) we already were engaged in a conversation. “Well, Bruder …” – he said, switching from ‘Sir’ to ‘brother’ in German – “I am doing this kind of work for 45 years now. And apparently, these are bad times for shoe shiners. People today are wearing all kinds of sports shoes.” And glancing to my dusty black leather loafer he added, sighing: “No leather ones anymore …”
That made me think. Of course I’ve seen shoeblacks before. They’re part of the common street scene in most eastern countries. I’ve noticed them. I was aware of them. But I mostly ignored them. Not a single time it occurred to me I could make use of their service. The mere idea just seems odd. Probably because this profession is not part of our western everyday culture anymore. Replaced by polishing machines, shoe shine sponges and the simple circumstance that most people rather buy new cheap shoes than investing into some cleaning and refurbishing of dear old ones. I don’t mean this reproachful – actually, I couldn’t even exclude myself from this discovery. It’s just a matter of fact that we are living in a society of short-lived goods. A society which actually seems to have less and less place for certain professions. I mean, when was the last time you went to a cobbler? A real cobbler I mean, not the guy next to the supermarket who glues your rubber sole (no offence, though). Our sense of needs and priorities is shifting. That is the reason we would feel a bit awkward having someone polished our shoes, immediately evoking pictures of some dismal Charles Dickens London street-scene. A strange discrepancy in our perception between ‘servant’ and ‘service’ maybe? Why hesitate letting the shoe polisher do his job, but accept being served by a waiter without second thought? Because the first one seems so out of time and place to us. A profession becoming extinct, apparently.