The arms of Carlas Holt move like gears as he uses a thick, wood-handled brush to spread the polish and a weathered rag to summon the shine as people pass by.
Among the regular whir and blare of speeding trains and the robotic announcements in Penn Station Holt's rhythm is more human and old-world. It goes: clean, polish, and shine.
When Holt looks at a pair of shoes, he notices the small, but telling details, such as if leather has been beaten down by the sun or whether a shoe is vintage or just a moldy boot. While most pay attention to price, it doesn't matter how cheap or expensive the shoe is—a good shoeshine can really bring a pair back to life.
Most days, Holt works out of Penn Station. It's one of three High Gloss Shoe Shine Service locations that he manages in Baltimore. It also may be where he's needed most. "I deal with professional, corporate people," he says. "They come to me all the time; people from New York, down South, Ireland, Europe . . . I love this little train station because this is like a little hub."
Still, Holt admits that shoe shining is not as popular as it was 30 to 40 years ago, when shoeshiners were pretty much on every corner, but he maintains that the business still thrives in the corporate sphere, where a shoddy pair of shoes can break a deal.
"If I'm gonna go ahead and spend millions of dollars to invest in this area or that area with you, and you got dirty shoes or a $20 suit on, I'm gonna bypass you," Holt says. "But if you're clean from head to toe—you're immaculate—your clothes and shoes not only speak about you, but they command respect."
Holt applies the same standard to his own work, always on the clock in a dress shirt, bowtie, slacks and, of course, shoes that are spotless. Even if he's not selling stocks on Wall Street, Holt believes that looking professional establishes a sense of trust between him and his customers. "Because I mean when you go to a beauty salon or a barber shop and you got a nappy-headed barber over there and a nappy-headed cosmetologist, you're not gonna let them do your hair," he says, letting out a deep, belly laugh. "So your shoes gotta be right, know what I'm saying?"
Before beginning his career in shining shoes twelve years ago, Holt drove long-distance tractor-trailers. But he had fallen on hard times and, one day, his friend came to him with a proposition: He was opening up a jazz club, barbershop, and shoeshine stand. Holt knew that shining shoes didn't require a four-year degree, so he went and learned the trade at a local Jos. A Bank, believing that it would be the right decision.
"And now I can look back all of these years later and say 'wow, look how far I've come,'" he said. "My wife and I say this—who would have ever thunk a shoeshine?"
He's seen the soles of Spike Lee, cast members from "The Wire," and countless other celebrities at his stand. Some customers visit him because they've heard about Holt from friends. "Guys come by and say 'I heard you the best shoeshine in the world!' and I look back at them and say, 'you heard right.'"
The customers sit on a red velvet chair, perched high above the ground as Holt bends low. Clean, polish, shine. Another train rolls in. People pass by. And in about five minutes, it's done and Holt is ready for another customer.
Some spend their shine time using their Blackberries or reading the New York Times, but others end up divulging a lot. Holt casually refers to himself as a psychiatrist, lending an ear to his customers' troubles and serving as a familiar face in a setting where you may never see the same person again. For some, the anonymity is what gets them talking.