Jul. 21, 2008
Our favorite loafer tries to be a good fit
Two gentlemen approach. Shoeshiner Bill Lucero goes quickly to work on one. The other heaves his $240 City Slicker crocodile-and-leather demi-boots onto my stirrups.
Nineteen of 20 customers at the Goodfellows Shoe Shine stand at the Rio are male, even though the service is unisex.
"Women think it's just for men," Lucero said earlier. "They're scaredy-cats to get up there." (And what better way to put them at ease than with stirrups?)
My customer identifies himself as Edward Brodsky.
"From Russia," he says. "Jewish-American."
He adds: "Single."
Lucero instructed me not to talk to the customer unless he talks first.
"You gotta feel them out," he explained earlier. "Some people don't care about a conversation."
It's safe to assume that Brodsky is not one of these people.
"I'm into the Zodiac," he tells me. "What's your sign?"
In the summer, Lucero shines about a dozen pairs of shoes in an average 4 p.m.-midnight shift. This represents a third of his winter business.
"Too many flip-flops," he said. "I only made 90 dollars last night."
The World Series of Poker, with its thousands of registrants in tennis shoes, doesn't help much. Lucero prefers more loafer-heavy gatherings such as the Consumer Electronics Show.
"I can make up to $300 a day," he said. (Most of that is in tips.)
I ask Brodsky to guess my sign and he nails it: Gemini. Then he says "you can do me," and it's not entirely clear whether he's referring to a shoeshine.
"I have a swinger's club in San Diego," Brodsky says as I squirt my Cadillac leather cleaner.
Bouncing his eyebrows, he adds, "only couples."
I think my next adventure has just found me.
"Too much talking," Lucero leans over his shoulder to tell me. "Not enough shining."
It's impossible to take more pride in one's work than Bill Lucero does.
"Everybody has their own application," he explained while training me. "My application's just a little bit better."
For instance, Lucero uses a toothbrush to apply sole dressing instead of the bottle's tip. And for black shoes, it's dye in addition to polish, which he dries with a hair dryer. ("This makes the shine more durable," he explained.)
Lucero -- who refuses to give his age, saying, "I don't have no more birthdays" -- moved to Las Vegas from Monterey, Calif., 18 years ago. His first job here was dishwashing at Patrick's Restaurant & Lounge. His current field found him only because he got lost.
"I asked the shoeshine guy at the Luxor how to find the personnel office," Lucero said. (He had planned to apply for a porter job.)
"I told him I shined shoes when I was 10 years old. And he said, 'The next two guys are yours.' "
As I start in with Brodsky's wax, Brodsky starts in with my wife, who is videoing for the R-J's Web site.
"Do you prefer my sexy shoes or his grandfather shoes?" he asks Jo Ann.
That's a low blow, because my puppies look sharp. Earlier, I sampled Lucero's service, and he made the leather good as new.
"That's not leather," Lucero said. (Damn you, Payless!)
Brodsky continues, telling me, "I wish I would have your hair and I would have your wife."
Initially, Lucero declined the offer from Goodfellows, which expanded from a single location at Circus Circus in 1992 to its current presence in 12 Strip hotels, an office building and McCarran International Airport. He didn't like the sound of the very job that completes the expression "not fit to."
"I said to myself, 'No, this is beneath me,' " Lucero remembered. "Then I told myself, 'Try it one time.'
"And after I started, I said, 'Yeah. All right.'"
Two things eventually won Lucero over. The first, he said, is "meeting people from around the world."
The second is the $100 tip.
"That happens about once a year," Lucero said. "Usually, it's from someone dressed like he doesn't have enough money to pay."
Lucero also mentioned that he enjoys "working alone." However, I suspect this is more a hint about how much he enjoys working with me. (He stared me down when he said it.)
"You're pushing the brush too hard," Lucero tells me, repeating his earlier lesson about sweeping lightly and at a sideways angle.
"You won't bring the shine if you don't break the wax," he says.
After 30 minutes, I finally finish shining the shoes of the man trying to steal my wife. Of course, Lucero's customer walked off, in a shiny blur of footsteps, a full 20 minutes ago.
"Amazing," Brodsky says as he hands me a $10 tip.
I'm not sure whether he's referring to my performance or my wife.
"Why are you wasting your time?" Brodsky asks Jo Ann.
The question is apparently a good one, since she has no answer.
Fear and Loafing runs in the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.