There are hats and then there are hats. But at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, boots are bigger. There are boots, boots and more boots. I saw boots walking, resting, some, sorta talking.
I followed boots right into Reliant Center where I was then led directly to Larry White of Joe's Shoe Shine Service.
To watch Larry shine boots is to watch art in motion. I thought of Marcel Marceau and the power and grace of Michael Phelps. He makes it all look easy. It's not. Larry's been shining boots at the rodeo for 23 years. "It's cool," he said. "I love it." So do his customers.
Ask Bill Krenek, chairman of the Junior Commercial Steer Show at the Rodeo. Bill had just stepped up into the chair for a boot shine. "Larry's been shining my boots for years," Bill told me. "My wife and daughters' too. He's the best there is."
When he was 9 years old, his father and uncle told him that he'd never get a girlfriend with dirty shoes. "So, I built a shine box the very next day," Larry said.
Over the years, Larry has met folks from all over the world, including Chinese cowboys. Consequently, he's shined an assortment of boots. He rattled off a few as easily as reciting the alphabet. "Stingray, ostrich, elephant, lizard, shark, sea turtle, eel, kangaroo, deer," which Larry said, was so soft that "it's like a glove."
One year, a customer who came to him regularly wore boots that had Larry stumped. "He wouldn't tell me what they were until the last day of the rodeo," Larry said. Finally the man fessed up: Bullfrog.
A boot shine costs seven bucks. For this you get polished results and along the way the pleasure of watching an art form. When I mentioned this to Larry, he said, "It's certainly a dying art."
The process requires more than hand-eye coordination and muscle. It also requires heart. First, he washes your boots with saddle soap and wipes it off well. Then he applies a leather conditioner, rubbing it in good with his hands. He then buffs the boots using a shine cloth. This is something to see, folks. Next, he applies a coat of polish and brushes it off. A second coat is applied, then, he brushes the boots again. Altogether, very cool poetry.
I asked Larry how he got into this business and he told the story in a way similar to how he works.
When he was 9 years old, his father and uncle told him that he’d never get a girlfriend with dirty shoes. "So, I built a shine box the very next day," Larry said. He'd seen the boxes at barbershops so he found some wood, gripped a saw and two hours later, he had himself a shine box.
His uncle showed him the basics. "After that, I started doing their shoes on Friday nights before they went out," Larry explained.
I looked down at my feet and felt a little apologetic. Although they were a far cry from being boots, I mentioned to Larry that my earth shoes could sure use a shine.
His response was as nice as everything else I'd learned from Larry. "If you can wear 'em, I can clean 'em."
You should see 'em now.