At 83, 'Shoe Shine King' still polishing his craft

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"My legs bother me, my pressure's up, I got bad nerves."

At 83, Charles "Butch" Craig can't do it like he used to. Yet his customers, like character witnesses, will swear on a stack of Bibles that he's still the best shoeshine around.

He used to wear bells on his wrists and ankles, tap his feet, make be-bop sounds with his mouth and snap the shoeshine rag to make it sound like a drumbeat. Getting shoes shined by Craig was like attending a 5-minute musical production. Age and aching knees have muted the show but not the shining skills.

Oozing confidence that would have made a young Cassius Clay pause, Craig works in a red vest with the words "Shoe Shine King" on the back and will tell you that nobody in the city can polish a pair of leather loafers better than he can.

"A guy once told me I need a helper," said Craig, who moves slowly but talks constantly, usually telling stories. "I said, 'You find me somebody as good as me, and I'll hire 'em.' He said, 'I can't find anybody.' I said, 'I know it.'"

At his three-chair stand inside Fader's Tobacco Shop at 12 S. Calvert St. in downtown Baltimore, Craig reaches inside a trunk for his tools and a few photographs of himself working taken through the years.

In one photo, Craig, known to his customers as Butch, holds a banner proclaiming "Baltimore's Best!" On the matting of another picture, in which he is bent over shining a customer's shoes, his back to the camera, he has written with a black marker: "I am the man!"

Craig works by the old adage, "It ain't bragging if it's true," and he has plenty of customers -- bankers, corporate executives, attorneys, police officers, judges -- proclaiming "Shoe Shine King" to be the truth.

"I get my shoes shined pretty regularly, and I've gone to different guys and Butch really is the best," said Joe Runge, an attorney with the Miles & Stockbridge law firm, a customer for 10 years. "Some guys miss some spots. Butch does the front, the sides, the back, he does it all."

Sylvester Cox, a prosecutor in the city state's attorney's office, said he would only go to Craig.

Best in town

"If I don't shine them myself, I don't go anywhere else," said Cox, while Craig worked on his laced-up leather shoes. Craig gets $3 for a pair of shoes and $5 for boots. And most customers tip him a couple extra bucks. Actor and comedian Bernie Mac, in town for a movie a few years ago, gave Craig a $50 tip, the largest that he has ever received. Craig has the $50 bill framed with an autographed picture of Mac.

As much as for the shine, his customers come for the conversation, similar to that sort of bonding and bantering found in barbershops.

"I get a cigar, a shine and wonderful conversation," said William R. Roberts, president of Verizon Maryland, who has grown fond of Craig. "Seeing him does my heart good. He's like an icon. He's full of wisdom."

As Roberts drags on a Griffin cigar he just purchased and Craig works on his shoes, it is clear Craig is good for Fader's business, too.

"We do a large part of our business with the downtown office workers," said Fader's president, Don Sarp. "So they come in and get a shoe shine and inevitably they buy cigars. He's an asset. And when he's not here, people bemoan the fact that's he's not."

Signs of age

"I've had the stand for more than 35 years and never had any complaints about coming to work. Now my legs give me fits."

When he is at work, Craig puts his shoeshine sign on the sidewalk in front of Fader's.

"If I don't see the sign, I ain't coming because that means Butch isn't here," said Baltimore police Detective Albert W. Marcus, a customer for 25 years. "Butch is the best, bar none."

But these days -- these cold, wintry days -- Craig's sign hasn't been out much. Some weeks he might work only one or two days.

It seems the only thing that can slow Craig down or humble that weighty ego is his health. And he isn't worried about whether his arthritic knees and high blood pressure might affect his life span -- just that the ailments might affect his ability to work.

"The doctor says he wants to give me new knees, double surgery," Craig says, to no one in particular. "But then he said I'll be out for six months. I said no. I can't be away from my stand that long."

Shining shoes today -- as it was more than a half-century ago when he started -- is considered menial work by many, but it is all Craig ever wanted to do since he was a 7-year-old boy growing up in Charlotte, N.C.

At the time, he wanted to play the drums and was learning how to play from a shoeshine man in the neighborhood. One day, in 1927, Craig arrived early for his drumming lesson and watched as his teacher finished shining a few customers' shoes.

Drumming up a career

"I saw this guy doing things with the rag that I would like to do with sticks on the drums," Craig recalled.

"I remember going home and telling my mom I wanted to shine shoes. I think she thought I was crazy at first."

Craig would charge 5 cents a shine. And he learned to pop the rag to make it sound like a drumbeat, just like his drum teacher taught him.

He got his nickname, Butch, after standing up to a schoolyard bully, applying a left uppercut to the taller boy's chin.

"Years ago, there was this tough guy, mean guy that everybody called Butch," he said. "After everybody saw me whip that bully, they started calling me Butch."

An eighth-grade dropout, Craig said he got smart by listening. At age 16, he followed his brother and uncle to Baltimore. He married at 19 and had 13 children. He was in the Navy for one year during World War II and then came back to shine shoes.

That didn't pay well enough to support a family. Craig worked odd jobs and construction.

He still shined shoes on the side and during the 1960s was able to get a one-chair stand and later a three-chair stand and spend more hours shining shoes until it became his only job.

He has had stands on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he has lived for 64 years, at the Inner Harbor, on Baltimore Street, and now at Fader's for nearly a decade.

His style and flair got him noticed. A pair of Japanese filmmakers dressed Craig in a white tuxedo and paid him $2,000 for a small role shining shoes in a Japanese film. Punch Cigars had Craig pose for an ad even though he doesn't smoke.

Like any craftsman, Craig has a specific style and tools. He uses only Lincoln shoe wax and his fingers, not a sponge or rag, to apply the wax.

With a brush in each hand, swinging back and forth on one shoe and then the other, he works the wax into the leather and then puts the finishing polish on with a buffing rag.

Craig wonders how long he'll be able to continue. His doctors have given him shots in his knees that help him deal with the pain, but that doesn't eliminate the need for surgery.

Shining shoes requires a lot of standing. He never learned to drive and walks a lot, usually with a cane, to catch buses or subways to get to work. Some days, he just can't make it in.

Still, Craig wants to work.

"Somebody asked me about retiring. Why should I retire?" he asked. "I hope I got 17 more years in me, at least seven more until I get to 90."

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