Shoeshine Man Tries to Stop Business From Walking On By

Don Ward may be the best-known shoeshine man in New York City.

Mr. Ward, 45, has been shining shoes on Midtown streets for more than 20 years, and has spent the past decade on the southwest corner of the Avenue of the Americas and 47th Street.

It is a bustling area, near the Diamond District, the News Corp. building and other corporate beehives, and Mr. Ward regularly points out the lack of luster in the footwear of passing tourists and office workers, scolding them into a shine.

“Sir, look at those shoes,” goes one of Mr. Ward’s countless sales pitches. “How long are you going to ignore that?”

If a man is with a woman Mr. Ward may address her and say, “Ma’am, his shoes — how long are you going to walk around with him looking like that?”

Few things seem to catch Mr. Ward flat-footed, but when his longtime roommate, John Swain, 71, died in December, he was left grieving, and in arrears.

“He was a good man, and now that he’s gone, I got to pay the whole rent,” said Mr. Ward, who grew up in Brooklyn.

Mr. Swain was the shoeshine man arrested in April 2010 on arson charges in a case that made headlines. The authorities said he set fire to a rival shoeshine stand on 42nd Street near Bryant Park.

Mr. Ward said Mr. Swain died of cancer, but he was broken spiritually by his arrest and the years of competing in the highly competitive but low-paying world of shining shoes in New York. The two shoeshine men shared an apartment on Franklin Avenue in the Bronx.

The charges against Mr. Swain were still pending when he died, the police said.

Mr. Ward said he could not make up the difference with his usual $5 shines — “I have three kids to support” — so he came up with a marketing plan to raise what had been Mr. Swain’s share of the rent.

It was an extension of his longstanding offer of a flat rate of $100 for a year’s worth of shines.

“That’s for one person, their own shoes,” he explained. “If you come wearing size 7’s one day, and show up and ask me to shine your size 11’s the next day, we’re going to have a problem.”

Mr. Ward said he had sold a handful of shines for a year.

He decided to raffle off a lifetime supply of shoeshines. Well, lifetime is perhaps a bit of a stretch. Mr. Ward says he may buff and shine for another 10 years and then hit the open road, traveling the country in a camper.

“People say, ‘How do we know you’ll even be here next year?,’ ” he said. “I tell them, ‘I’ve been on this corner for 10 years and I love what I do. I’m not going anywhere.”

This seems so. Mr. Ward has hung in there, despite the occasional rousting by managers and workers of nearby buildings and despite being smacked in the head once with a briefcase by a businessman who resented being told his shoes were dirty. Last year, his shoeshine stand was stolen and it took him two weeks to construct another.

He announced the shoeshine raffle on a cardboard sign, printed up raffle slips, and began selling $10 tickets for a June 1 drawing. After few takers, he dropped the price to $5 and rescheduled the drawing to June 15.

Someone even made up a phony $5 bill for him, superimposing a photograph of Mr. Ward shining shoes on the bill, and listing the dollar amount as: “For Life.” But then came a long stretch of rain, and the $5 tickets barely sold, so now — to avoid giving back the tickets he has sold — Mr. Ward has decided to raffle off a new fold-up bicycle, which he plans on displaying at his stand.

“This way, they can see what they’re getting,” he said and, perhaps, not have to worry that Mr. Ward might unexpectedly pack up his shoe polish for good.

As he buffed the shoes of a man from Boston in town for business, Mr. Ward somehow seemed to sense that the man passing behind him had sheenless shoes.

“Sir, the shoes, sir,” he said. “The first step is admitting you have a problem.”

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