40 years as a shoeshine man Career: Since the early 1950s, Joe Green has worked in one block of downtown Baltimore, offering his customers philosophy, theology and advice on shoe care. 'I never dread a day coming to work,' he says.


Some people know law. Others know cars. Joe Green knows shoes -- and knowing shoes, he knows people.

"They say you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes," he says. "If a man comes in daily to get his shoes shined, that means he's got taste. And class is not too far behind."

Green of Baltimore has been shining shoes downtown for 40 of his 60 years at stores in the first block of E. Baltimore St. -- the last 15 at Hess Shoes. But the store is closing June 30, and Joe Green the shoeshine man will be moving on.

His patrons include businessmen who drop their briefcases each day and take a seat in one of three brown leather chairs. They rest their dull shoes on the brass footers just above brushes, Kiwi-brand polish cans, small strips of rags and a rusted cash box for tips, and the conversations begin.

"I talk with my customers about anything from sports, current events and politics to God," says Green, who for $2 may give a dose of philosophy or theology along with a shine and advice on shoe care.

"My customers depend on my advice. The sincerity and spirituality in our conversations has built a 40-year-long relationship."

Tom Kane, vice president of Hess store operations, says Green shines his shoes. "He makes them look like new. He is a great personality, and he is good for business. He knows and loves the people of downtown," Kane said.

Not only has Green seen shoes from all walks of life, he has witnessed vast change in the pavements of Baltimore and society.

"I was shining shoes the day President Kennedy was shot," he says. "I remember when Baltimore was dying. I watched the Inner Harbor turn into the renaissance that it now is." He mentions such diverse memories as the streetcars of the 1950s, social disorder of the 1960s and social acceptance of African-Americans as professionals in the 1970s.

Green acknowledges that in his business, he faces stereotypes. "Some people look at my occupation from the outside," he says. "They don't know why I do what I do. They don't know that I am happy. I love what I do.

"Everybody wants to be a lawyer, doctor or Indian chief. People these days are stuck in professions that are viewed as successful, but they aren't happy. I never dread a day coming to work. This is my success story."

He is married, the father of three college graduates, and has two granddaughters. He is a deacon and choir member at New Metropolitan Baptist Church.

As a youngster, Green never dreamed of becoming a shoeshine man. His father and four brothers worked at Bethlehem Steel; he was expected to follow. "Although the money was good there, I dreaded the prospects of getting into that business," he says.

Instead, Green went to work in the early 1950s preparing window displays at the old Regal Shoe Shop. It was there that he learned about how shoes were made, sold and maintained -- and where && he became a bootblack. "That's what shoeshine men were called back in the 1800s," he says.

What separates Green from other bootblacks is his spit-shine. "The spit-shine is an art," he says. "It involves rotating the fingers in a circular motion to get a high shine. My customers keep coming back because of my high shine."

Green estimates he has shined about 40 pairs of shoes a day -- 200 pairs a week. In one year, 10,400 pairs. In his more than 40 years, that's 416,000 pairs.

In 1972, he shined the shoes of then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Other customers included baseball player Brooks Robinson (whose autograph he has kept), Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

He left Regal after 25 years when the store closed, but did not go far. He moved next door to Hess. Now he's moving again -- and not very far.

"When one place goes out of business, the Lord makes another place available," Green says. In his case, it was Jos. A. Bank Clothiers at Pratt and Light streets, two blocks away.

"I am prepared for this move," he says. "I know that life repeats itself. Life is a plane. I've been on the same plane for 40 years, and I'm still flying."

Pub Date: 6/06/97

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