This is the way that the story was told to me, it is the way I remember it and the way it made sense, it still does. I don’t know this actually happened or not, but it doesn’t matter, it puts the lesson into perspective. It will tell you the tale in the same exact way; after all it is one of the most important rules of all time.
The story of shit and Shinola.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the great depression that followed was undoubtedly one of the most horrifying and impacting things to happen to a people, ever. By 1933 it had reached its peak. Most of the pictures that we are familiar with from the “Great Depression” were taken during this time; the soup kitchens, the lines of unemployed people seeking a meal, the apple vendors. 1933 was indeed a very bad year for many. Not everyone was affected, however. “Most” of the rich from Wall Street is not the same as “all” of them. There were a few who weathered the catastrophe and they may not have been as wealthy in 1933 as they were in 1928, but they were still “people of means”.
The story takes place during this time. Among the hardest hit were shoe-shine boys. No one thinks about this much, but shoe shine boys were as much a fixture on Wall Street as stockbrokers and bankers, after all, during the 1920’s, walking was still the method of transportation of choice and on Wall Street, this meant looking sharp; a tailored suit and shoes that were shined to a mirror gloss on a daily basis by the army of shoe shine boys lining Wall Street.
In 1929, to be exact, a new product was patented and put to market. It was called Shinola. It was a shoe polish with a wax base that gave birth to the “spit shine”. Within a year of being introduced, even during and after the crash, it became the only shoe polish desired by anyone who could still pay for a shine. By 1933, however, the army of shoe shine boys sat idly, their shine boxes, rags and brushes ready, but not one cent with which to buy Shinola. They simply did not know what to do and so they took to assembling in the mornings near the Northwest end of Wall Street, where it meets Broadway. They assembled quietly and just sat throughout the day; during the time that they would normally be shining shoes. At the end of the business day, they would head back to wherever it was they called home, with nothing more than what they had in the morning.
By the same token, the few wealthy Wall Street gentlemen simply went without their beloved “shines”. One day, during this time, one of the shoe shine boys decided to not walk up the street to where all of the others would be waiting with an ominous silence. On this day, this one particular shoe shine boy decided to walk the other way, and he walked. He walked until he got to the Brooklyn Bridge and kept walking. Back then, there were still cow pastures in Brooklyn, even though it is hard to imagine nowadays. The shoe shine boy walked until his feet hurt and then he sat down. He put his shine box on the ground as sat on it like one would sit on a crate. It was only then that he looked up and realized how far he had walked. He looked in the direction from where he had come and could see the Manhattan Skyline. He turned to look around and realized that he was in a vacant lot with some grass and a few cows. The cows looked at the boy with a bored expression as they chewed. Directly in front of where the boy had put his box on the ground, he saw a fresh, steaming and aromatic “cow patty”. For a moment, he thought that if he had taken two more steps before stopping and sitting down, he would have stepped right into the pile of dung. He sat and stared at the pile of shit; there was nothing better to do anyway and this way he did not have to share his misery with anyone, he could take the full brunt of how bleak life was. So he sat, for an immeasurable and uncounted period of time, just looking at the pile of dung and then suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, he had a strange thought. In some ways, the cow manure reminded him of the one thing he so needed and desired; the instrument with which he practiced his craft; Shinola. He stared at it and stared at it and thought;
-“They’re almost the same color, and from here they could even have the same texture.”
That’s when it occurred to him. He looked left and right so as to make sure no one was watching and reached out. He grabbed a handful of the cow shit and swished it around in his hand, thinking. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was thinking just yet, but he was thinking. After a while, he just couldn’t take it anymore, he had to try and see what would happen so he scooped up some of shit in his Shinola tin, took his rag, dabbed it in the brownish goop and shined up the tip of left shoe (it was all that was left that could be shined). He used his best moves and lo and behold, the poop gave a great shine, in fact it was so good that for just a moment, he could swear it was the shine that only Shinola could muster and for just a moment, he believed it. That was all it took. He filled up his tin and two empty cans he found in some trash and whatever else he could fill with cow dung. Once he had all he could carry, he made his best effort to cover up the smell and ran back towards Manhattan, as fast as his feet could carry him.
The next day, the boy’s cries of
-“SHINE! GET YER SHOE-SHINE RIGHT HERE! ONLY FIVE CENTS!” greeted the rising sun, to the great surprise, and joy, of many. Within seconds, the first man to get a shoe shine on Wall Street in almost 3 years, stepped up to the boy and said:
-“Well! Just in time, too! Looks like I’m first!” The man boasted as he hoisted himself up onto one of the high stool-benches that were placed by the very patrons of the shoe shine boys, so that everyone walking by could see them and know that it was they whose shoes were being shined.
-“Coming right up, sir!” The boy smiled back. He took out his rag and his Shinola tin and got to work as if ne’er a day had passed since he last shined a pair of leather uppers. The boy had let the cow dung dry out a bit during the night, and covered the tin quickly after dipping his rag so the smell wouldn’t give him away. Once it was on the shoes, no one could tell the difference. The boy was good; hunger is an excellent teacher. In no time at all, the gentleman’s shoes where like two mirrors, gleaming in the morning sun.
-“There you go, sir.” the boy said, shyly and just for a moment, he almost hesitated, but he didn’t; he reached his hand right out, palm up where a shiny dime landed firmly, almost as if choreographed. A dime! A dime for a five cent shines! None of the boys had EVER been given an entire nickel as a tip before! The boy’s entire face lit up almost as much as his benefactor’s, who slowly got up from his perch, ruffled the boy’s hair and said: -“See you tomorrow, kid.” before continuing his walk; much slower now and making sure to greet everyone he passed. Word spread quickly and by noon, the boy’s hands hurt. He huddled backwards into a niche between buildings, and emptied out his pockets. He had nearly three dollars! THREE DOLLARS! That would feed him, his parents and his two brothers for a week, and it wasn’t even high noon! By the end of the day the boy added another two dollars to his daily total and it was only then that he realized that he has shined one hundred pairs of shoes and could expect the same every day! He loved that cow manure!
One by one, the other boys approached him, simultaneously in awe and shock. The boy looked at his friends coming towards him and reacted; covering up his tin and protecting it, like a prized treasure. One boy asked: “Where’d you get the Shinola?” The boy hugged his box tighter and said “Leave me alone, all of you! You’re not going to take it from me!” He ran off like a bolt, straight home and fell right to sleep, exhausted.
The next morning, he gave his mother $4.50 of the $5.00 he had made. People say that she cried tears of joy for a solid month. He kept fifty cents, thinking to buy a supply of Shinola and continue his journey towards his good fortune. On the way to the general store, he thought; “Wait a minute! Nobody knew the difference! Why should I spend this money on real Shinola when the cow shit is free, after all, they do the same thing!” He turned the other way and went to the Candy Store and had himself a Malted Milk with two scoops of ice cream for breakfast! He had actually believed his own lie.
The boy shined another 100 pair of shoes that next day, and 100 more for each day after that for 5 days. His grin was so wide it challenged the great breadth of Broadway itself. Everyone was HIS regular customer and he was only shoe shine boy on Wall Street, all thanks to cow’s four stomachs and what they left behind. He would run to the field in the late afternoons, filling up his tin with more of the precious brown goo that had made him so happy. Yeah, it wasn’t really Shinola, it was better than Shinola! He laughed to himself all the way back across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Now, all of this took place in late July, did I mention that? Oh, yes, it was the dead of summer – and a hot one. Manhattan was hotter than anyone wanted to even guess at, and then some. The few rich men who had been getting their daily shines from the boy paraded themselves back and forth on Wall Street; to their meetings, their lunches and dinners, their offices and their homes. None of them were the wiser; no harm, no foul thought the boy. The summer sun thought otherwise however, and after five days and five layers of cow shit on all of those shoes it began, to cook – actually to bake. Baked cow shit on leather; I don’t know if I can even imagine what that would smell like.
On the fifth day after shining his first pair of shoes with the manure, the benefactor of that shine was having a luncheon meeting with another businessman together with their respective wives. They were in the fanciest restaurant around, high noon on a Wednesday. The place was packed with the few businessmen left in a country gone bankrupt. At exactly 12:07 pm. The caked on dung on that first man’s left shoe, where the first dab of cow shit was so carefully applied five days before, finished baking and cracked, a slim plume of heat escaped from the crack, rising higher from the ground. In seconds the other shoe also cracked and a plume of shit-steam began to rise from it as well – and then another, and another! In ten minutes, the restaurant smelled like an outhouse. When it no longer became possible to ignore, it was that first man to have his shoes shined who spoke first. He threw his napkin on the table in a fit of rage and gave his lunch companion the foulest stare he could muster and blurted: ”Well, Sir! I never…” The sheer insolence of the accusation brought the other man to his feet immediately and he retorted “What say you, man? Me? Look to your own loins for the source of the stench, non to mine!” Almost immediately, the same scene played out at virtually every table, and the few rich men left in America, found themselves having a knock-down, dragged-out bar-type brawl in the fanciest eatery on the Lower East Side.
Back to the first man, the one who got the first shine and who started this brawl, he received a jarring left hook that floored him. The man landed with a THUD, right at his opponent’s feet. After recovering his wits, he realized he was no more than two inches from the man’s shoes and saw the cracks that had formed where earlier there was the shimmering mirror-like shine. The man took in two enormous breaths of the stench before recognizing it and screamed; “Bull Shit! This man shined his shoes with bull shit!” and laughter roared from his belly. It spread quickly too, calming heated tempers with the thought of a man resorting to bull shit to shine his own shoes! That lasted for about thirty seconds before every other man realized they were in the same predicament. The laughter suddenly came to a screeching halt and a dumbfounded silence hung in the air – no one knew what to say, they had all played the fool that day. Once again, it was the first man who spoke: “The shoe shine boy! We all got our shoes shined from him; he’s the only one out there! He’s made fools of all of us.” The men stormed out of the restaurant and straight towards the boy’s spot on the side of the road. When the boy saw the literal stampede of men coming at him, he didn’t have time to even react. They were upon him at once and literally kicked the boy’s ass all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge where they warned him to never show his face on Wall Street again or they might just forget he was a boy. He was never heard from again. His first customer was ridiculed by all of his peers for being the first sucker to buy the cow shit shine and the ensuing lambasting ruined him and few others as well. These were tender times, after all, there was a Great Depression going on – but not so great that an entire city couldn’t stop to laugh at one man who could not tell the difference between the cow shit that was used to shine his shoes and the Shinola that he thought adorned them. Sure, you could hardly tell the difference in the shine. In the end, they both shined your shoes, but one of them is SHIT. No one is allowed to make that mistake, ever. And so it was that it came to be that to know the difference between shit and Shinola is one of the more important things, literally or metaphorically, that we must all never forget.
That is how I head the tale, one warm day in December in 1973; I now give it to all of you. Share it if you like, remember it or forget the story, but never forget the lesson. Shit can imitate many things, but in the end, its shit and we know this from the onset. Remembering this will save your life; more than once, without fail.
I always say that we can do better. Maybe this is a start. I love you all; all 7 billion of you.