- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

The old man had long ago given up fixing shoes, and had gone into other work since then, buying and selling and making a nice living. But he had never found any other line of work that gave him as much satisfaction as putting a pair of good, fresh leather soles on a still good pair of uppers. Or putting a pair of Cat's Paw heels on shoes that still had a lot of wear in them, and doing it cleanly, securely to last.
He loved the feel and aroma of new leather, the grain in the old. He was seldom as happy as when he could hold a pair of shoes in his hands, turn them over and over, feel the tread, admire the workmanship, and sometimes even name the local shoemaker who had fixed them.
He would not have used a rhetorical word like "labor" for his work, but he knew that what he did took sweat, patience, craft and some ineffable quality. Call it self-respect, and respect for the work.
His boys could remember those rare occasions when the old man showed his anger, too. Once he threw a poorly repaired pair of shoes against a wall in his fury. What a sloppy waste of good leather. What a waste of time and the customer's money.
In his old age, he was unable to contain his contempt when he would drive past one of those glittery new shoe stores that sold cheap, shiny imports the cardboard kind sure to come apart in the first rain. He took poor workmanship as a personal affront. Labor wasn't a factor of production to him, it was a calling, and a comfort.
The old man's English was incomplete; he hadn't started speaking it till he got to this country, almost grown. His kids used to compare the letters they got from him, trying to make out the words. He spelled phonetically, so they could almost hear his voice when they read the letter aloud.
No, the old man wasn't much on theory, but he understood value received, good will, repeat business and, above all, the importance of trust between people customer and merchant, boss and worker.
All the talk he heard about labor and capital, first from agitators in the old country, and then as the standard fare of politics in this one, seemed textbookish to him, not real like his own, personal economy, which consisted of a web of relationships:
There were the customers he sold to on credit; the workers he hired and helped and sometimes had to let go; the banker he depended on to lend him money; the landlord who collected the rent from him; and his own tenants after he began to buy a piece of property here and there, and even build some rental houses.
He liked the houses kept up, the lawns mowed, so they would look like something. Like a good pair of shoes.
Like most Americans, the old man was too deeply involved with capital and labor to think in those terms. Instead he thought of the people he dealt with as personalities by their work, or their creditworthiness.
There was a man named Henry Johnson, for example, whom he had hired as a boy and taught how to fix shoes, and who would stay with him for the next 50 years and through various other businesses, and who would become almost a part of the family. The old man's apprentice would die two weeks before he himself did. The family said that, as usual, Henry had gone ahead to scout things out.
No, there wasn't much theoretical about the way the old shoemaker had lived and prayed and very much worked. Yet he would have understood instinctively what a politician named Abraham Lincoln once told a convention of farmers:
Labor, according to Mr. Lincoln, "is prior to, and independent of capital, that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence labor is the superior greatly the superior of capital."
Mr. Lincoln cited the farmer as an example of both capital and labor. But the old shoemaker wouldn't have had to be told about the identity of interest between capital and labor; he had lived it.
On this Labor Day, a great deal will be said in the usual press releases, but none of it will be more relevant than Mr. Lincoln's words, or more eloquent than work done well. To me, two new soles on a pair of well-shined shoes can say more than all the Labor Day speeches ever written.


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