- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

Lines don't usually get men very far.

But when Barry Douglas calls out, "You dropped something," to pedestrians passing by his wooden bench in front of the Old Ebbitt Grill in downtown, he gets their attention and often their business.

Informed that what has dropped is the shine on their shoes, they sit for a sprucing up from a man who has made taking care of Washingtonians' footwear his business for 18 years.

For the past three of those years, Mr. Douglas, 47, has made his headquarters a spot in front of the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street NW.

"This is one of the [busiest] restaurants in Washington," says Mr. Douglas, surveying the array of mostly black- or brown-leather shoes carrying people in and out of the eatery. "It's a very good place to get customers."

As the sun begins to set beyond Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, not long after 6 p.m., business is good for Mr. Douglas. It slows down an hour later, but then people start leaving, and more shoes regain their shine.

Time to do a good shoeshine: 10 minutes.

Required materials: water in a spray bottle, polish, two different types of brushes, a piece of cloth and energy.

Kneeling on a beaten-up and faded pillow, Mr. Douglas first props the customer's foot on a wooden stand. On each side are materials to work with either brown or black footwear. But before picking from one side, he sprays water on the shoe to remove the dust.

Then he puts polish all over it and starts rubbing the shine into the shoe using his hands.

Depending on the shoe, this process can be done with a cloth, too. But Mr. Douglas likes to get more personally involved in his work. A hand rub gives a better shine, he says, because it heats up the polish and the leather absorbs it more easily.

Another brushing follows; then Mr. Douglas buffs the shoe using his fingers with a cloth tied around them, or again sometimes with his hands.

The final step is the trim, applied to the edge of the shoe with a small, round brush.

Then the process is repeated on the other shoe, a few bills and smiles are exchanged, the customer walks away and Mr. Douglas starts looking around for another pair of dusty shoes.

As he works, the door at the restaurant behind him revolves, taking people in and out and creating a steady stream of well-dressed Washingtonians to parade by the shoe shiner. Here a lone woman stands, her shoes dusty and unglamorous but her attention is consumed by the valet parking attendant fetching her car. Women, Mr. Douglas says, are rare customers and don't seem to be fond of having their shoes shined.

"Some feel it's a man's thing," he says, with an air of puzzlement.

Perhaps to convince them of the benefits of shoeshines, Mr. Douglas gives "beautiful women" special rates. A typical job ranges from $5 to $7 depending on the shoes, but women pay as little as $3 for the same service.

On a good day the shoeshiner takes home $200 for his work. On a bad day earnings can be as low as $35.

Unmarried and childless, Mr. Douglas finds life gets lonely sometimes. He also is a talker, and shining shoes gives him the opportunity to chat with people nonstop, which he likes. "You take care now," is his most common goodbye line. And when repeat clients come by, he never fails to remember their particular situation and inquire about developments.

Famous customers? "A few senators, congressmen. I did Mayor Barry's shoes numerous times like six or seven," he says.

Mr. Douglas, who takes care of his own shoes about once a week, learned to shine footwear from a friend some 18 years ago.

"I took it as a serious trade because it was a way to make extra money," he says. "And then I found myself running around the city, shining shoes."

The trade stuck and he's worked it along other jobs over the years. His full-time job now is as a maintenance man at a downtown club. His weekends are also often taken up by part-time work moving people's possessions to new homes. But Mr. Douglas makes the time to come out to the bench in front of the Old Ebbitt Grill at least five days a week, for several hours each time.

"He's very persistent," says Andrew Clubok, an attorney who works in a nearby building. "He's tried to get me to shine my shoes for the last three days."

On this day Mr. Clubok has left work "early," just after 7 p.m., and after picking up a newspaper he finally caves in to the needs of his black leather shoes.

Another client, Hugh Weathers, says he gets his shoes shined every time he sees Mr. Douglas.

"That's often, very often," he says. "Shoes speak of the character of a man. And if you have on a nice outfit with bad shoes, it just doesn't feel well."

Standing near the bench, another regular customer chimes in: "This man gives you the hand rub," he says, nodding to stress the significance of the hand rub versus the cloth rub.

He works until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., typically, but has stayed as late as 1 a.m. on particularly busy days.

"If it's a nice, warm day and [Mr. Douglas] is not here, I'd be very concerned," says the manager of the Old Ebbitt Grill.

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