Photo Credit: antiquebottles.com
Nickel Willie was a little younger than my father, I guess about 40 or so. It was 1955 and I was 10 years old when I first saw him come into my father's ladies' shop with his smudged shoeshine box filled with a half dozen assorted cans of polish: brown, black, tan, burgundy, white, and neutral.
Willie was a Negro, as blacks were called back then, of medium skin color, but to be more precise the same shade as Morgan Freeman. I mention color because Willie had very dark brown finger tips, in contrast to most black people I knew, stained no doubt from all the years of plying his sole profession.
Starting as a little boy, shining shoes was the only job Willie ever had. He would go from store to store on Broadway, the main shopping center in our town, shining shoes for 20 cents a pair. Whenever he got paid, he'd ask for the whole amount in nickels; even years later when the cost of a shoeshine was much more.
My father asked Willie one time why he wanted to be paid in nickels to which he replied that it made him save his money, and kept him from spending it wastefully. Seeing each nickel separately reminded him of how difficult it was to come by each one.
Over the years, once a week, Nickel Willie would come into our store and shine my father's shoes. Sometimes I would get my own shoes done. I enjoyed Willie's style of working. He did it exactly the same every time: he'd pop open the top of his shoe-shine box and take out a cleaning brush, a buffing brush, a flannel shine cloth, and of course a can of polish of a matching color to my shoes. Then he'd unlace my shoes, tie a perfect bow and tuck them under the tongue so that the lace ends would not get in the way while he worked.
He brushed one shoe, tapped the underside of the shoe-tip to signal me to switch feet and then proceeded to brush clean the second shoe. Then, using a nickel as a wedge, he opened a can of polish, smushed his fingers into it and slathered my shoe with his fingertips. When he was satisfied that my shoe was evenly coated he'd tap again - I switched feet, ditto on the second shoe. Then came buffing the shoe with a flannel cloth which Willie would do as if he were beating an imaginary African drum. Tap - switch feet, buff the other shoe. The finale was the buff brush. Back and forth - side to side - top to bottom until the shoe gleamed. Tap - switch feet, same deal.
Then he would pull out the tied laces, pop open the top of his shoe-shine box and put away the tools of his trade; and ask for his money in nickels.
I should mention that all this tapping and switching might seem superfluous and one might think that it would be more efficient to just polish one shoe completely before going to the second, but actually it was done so that Willie would only hold one instrument in his hand during the entire procedure. The movement back and forth also made you more of a participant in the affair than otherwise. Certainly it was more fun than simply handing someone a pair of shoes and getting them back later.
The shoeshine kit looked like it could have been a hundred years old, but it was hard to tell since those things haven't changed in design since the 18th century.
I stopped working in my father's store when I got my driver's license in 1962 and so I lost track of Nickel Willie. It wasn't until years later that I asked my father if Willie still came around. My father said that one week Willie never showed up and that was that - he never saw him again.
Willie never told us his last name (although we asked) and he never told us where he lived - perhaps afraid that too many people knew he was saving thousands upon thousands of nickels in his home. If Willie were alive today he'd be about 93 years old. I hope he eventually got to spend his hard earned money.