Sense and Nonsense: The Craftsman

I do a good deal of walking. In the instructions to my new Dexter walk shoes (more anon), I am told “walking conditions almost all of your 650 muscles, and uses all of your 206 bones.” Now, I happen never to have known the number of my muscles, let alone bones. Nor do I do think I have ever walked “just for the exercise.” Somehow, I have always found a walk a kind of everyday small adventure in which something unexpected somehow always happens, even if it is just recalling the word “thorough” or being startled by the small bird I saw just now sort of flitting backwards up the steps by the library.

No matter what you think of going “barefoot in the summer” as we used to say when we were kids in Iowa, walking requires shoes (and socks). I wear the outside of my heels down pretty rapidly, so I try to put on a pair of rubber cleats (or taps) every so often. This requires a shoe repair shop. In San Francisco, I used to go to one on Clement Street just off Arguello. Here, in Washington, early on I found a shop just over the P Street Bridge going out of Georgetown, about 15 or 20 blocks out the front gate of the University. I do not know the name of the shop or the wonderful old gentleman who runs it. Just as you go towards Dupont Circle, it is on the left, next to a liquor store, next to the pub on the corner, by the bus stop.

On a beautiful May Saturday morning, I had a couple of pairs of black shoes that needed cleats. I also was in the mood for a good walk. Classes were just over; the dogwoods were still in bloom. In the meantime, I had had to toss away my heavier walking shoes. What they say about old shoes is true, I think. You sort of grow attached to them. No matter how odd the shape of your feet, old shoes somehow accommodate themselves to them.

These particular old shoes I bought down on F Street maybe ten or so years ago. I bought them for a remarkable $22. They were the only brand of its kind in the store the day I bought them, so they must have been remainders. They were leather, perhaps made in Yugoslavia or someplace, and the right size, 9-1/2 D. They were, for a walking shoe, a rather handsome shoe. As I give shoes a beating, they had to be repaired once or twice a year. Finally, after about nine years, they developed a tear on both insteps, which were also repaired with handy patches. At last, however, I decided that they could not be repaired any longer. The left sole completely broke in two. So, I gave them up, not without a touch of nostalgia for all the sights these shoes and I had seen together.

In the meantime, with the guidance of a friend not impressed with my purchasing habits, I bought a pair of sort of imitation Rockport walking shoes by the name of Dexter. These shoes felt good from the moment I put them on. They were a darker, softer leather, lighter in weight than the Yugoslav variety. But I examined the heels and knew I would wear them down in three or four good walks if I did not have cleats put on them too. Cannot someone invent heels that do not wear down? Of course, that would end the repair business, like fluoride ends the cavity business. I was not sure, however, if cleats would stay on this sort of shoe.

I got to the shoe shop about 9:30. No one was in the shop but the cobbler. The old man was working away. He has one of those old-fashioned shoe repair shops—smells of shoes and polish. I noticed a lithograph of an old-time cobbler on the wall sponsored by Biltrite. I asked him if Biltrite was still in business. He told me “no.” I explained to him what I wanted. “When do you want them?”

“Now would be preferable.” As he had done this quick job for me before, I did not hesitate to ask.

I showed him my new Dexter model. He told me he could put cleats on these also. I took my shoes off and also gave him the other two pairs.

He took the shoes over to his polishing-scraping machine whirring away to clean the heels off. I asked him if these machines were German. He did not think so. “What if they need repairs?” “Oh,” he told me, “that can be a problem. It is not like the car which you can get repaired any place. I have to call the repairman and make an appointment. When the machine is not working, I am in trouble.” I asked him how the business was going. He told me that there are only a few old-time repair shops like his left.

About this time another man came in and stood beside me at the counter. He joined the conversation. He seemed to know the old man. Evidently, he had a pair of shoes to pick up. I asked the old man how long he had been in this shop, “Thirty-two years.” The other man informed me that he himself had been coming there since 1972. “This man is no ordinary man,” the man told me. “I am an information specialist. This man is not a specialist. He is a craftsman. He rebuilds shoes. I need that. Almost every two weeks or so.” I thought this was odd that someone would need to have shoes repaired so often. But I agreed, this old man was a craftsman, a wonderful old word going back to the guilds, to the notion that the making and repairing of things should be a kind of skill, art, the recta ratio factabilium, something one learns mostly by doing, by doing well, honestly.

The customer said that he hoped the old man would stay in business for a long time. The old craftsman had intimated that he would like to sell the place. In fact, I had kidded him about selling it to some bar. He said that he could not get anyone willing to do this kind of work. He told us that he had his sons in when they were young, but within a couple of weeks they were itching to get out. “But they had an education. They are working in jobs with time off and vacations. I have to work all the time. No work, no money coming in.” I said, “Well, your boys will take care of your when you are old.” He laughed and said he would take care of himself.

All the time the old shoe craftsman was busy repairing my shoes. At the same time, he continued putting cleats on various sets of women’s high heels he had hanging from his workbench. I could smell the glue and hear him hammer behind the low bench headboard.

The customer next to me asked him how much for his repaired shoes, which I was holding up and admiring the craftsmanship of the repair job. I suggested “about a hundred dollars.” The customer said about $30. The old man settled for $25. The customer wrote out a check. As he left, again expressing his gratefulness that this man was still in business, I glanced over my shoulder to notice that he was shuffling along as a man who had some limb impediment. I suddenly realized why he was so grateful to this old man who could carefully rebuild his shoes as he would wear them out so fast on the sidewalks. Another customer came in to collect his shoes. Another $25.

I asked the old man how he put the cleats on those tiny women’s high heels. He brought over a box with some long spikes at the end of which were the tiny cleats. He explained how it worked. He said that at one time, women had steel or aluminum heels, but they tore things up too much. He then showed me some women’s shoes. “These cost a hundred dollars or so,” he told me. “Some lady from one of the hotels brought them in as she has just broken them.”

“They cannot walk too much in these streets with high heels can they?” I asked, referring to the brick sidewalks outside. “No,” he said.

The old man next held up another pair of black ladies shoes for my inspection. Even I could see they were elegant. “These cost $300,” he told me, “but they are not worth it. These salesmen can talk them into buying these things for $300 and that’s it.” I was about to suggest that he should gear his repairs according to the price of the shoe, but thought better of it.

A middle-aged Mexican gentleman came in and was listening to us. Finally, the old man said to him, “You want the paper?” The man nodded. So the old man went into the back room and brought out the morning Post and gave it to him. “Bring it back,” he told him, “I want to read it.” Another old man came in with a cup of coffee and brought it over to the craftsman without a word. I suppose this happens every day in that shop.

Next, as if he sensed that I might be interested in taking over his shop, the old man brought over another inexpensive pair of woman’s slippers. “These cost her $20 at a sale,” he told me. “She wanted cleats on heel and toe. Look at this material. No telling what it is. Trouble is today, they make shoes all over the world. No set standards.” To prove his point, he brought me a pile of old heels in various stages of decay. “You cannot tell if this is paper or leather sometimes from the outside, but these are paper. They won’t last at all.” He brought over another pair of shoes to show how difficult it was to tell whether a heel was leather or paper.

“Nobody wants to do this work anymore,” the craftsman returned to the topic of his profession. “The new repair shops in the malls won’t do this kind of careful repair work. They want just to do the easy stuff. Man comes in with a hundred-dollar pair of shoes and the shop in the mall wants to charge him twenty dollars for a little polishing.” He became philosophical, “Shoes nowadays are made to be thrown away, not repaired. These guys [apparently referring to your average D.C. politician] buy a $200 pair of shoes and toss them away rather than have them repaired. What’s money to them?”

I looked down on the counter to examine the reading material he had stacked on it. I had noticed that the crippled man had taken a couple of magazines with him. He probably had brought some back. The craftsman had on the counter a January 4, 1992 copy of The Economist of London. “You have some good journals here,” I told him. He also had lots of the usual Time and such. Nothing off-color, I was glad to see. He laughed.

After hammering in the last nails—which I was happy to see, as some repairmen use staples that last about one walk—the craftsman brought over my six shoes. I had been standing in my stocking feet. “How much?” I asked him. He added, “Let’s see, two dollars and two dollars and two dollars, that will be six dollars.” I paid him. Earlier he had said that he should be in the liquor business like the man next door. “It is easier, all you do is hand him the bottle; you do not have to do any work.” I replied, “Yes, but you get robbed in liquor stores.” He corrected my ignorance of the criminal mind, “Why just last week they broke my front window.”

After I put on my now-cleated Dexters, picked up the other two pairs of shoes, and started out the door, I said to the craftsman, “Goodbye, I will see you next time I wear these heels down. I enjoyed talking to you.” And I did.

Somehow on that May Saturday morning, as I swung along in my new Dexters back along P Street to Georgetown, now sporting a new, firmly secured cleat on each heel, all my 650 muscles and 206 bones just felt better.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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