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Shoe shine

March 2, 2009

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“Shoot me but I can’t remember A je to’s real name” I said to my wife, pitching the brush against the now shining black leather. She had no idea either. Some time ago I realised I have forgotten all the names of guys that I was doing my army time with. What remains is a handful of nick names and a few blurry faces, a couple of which are morphed with those of my high school classmates whom they so resembled at the time.

Doing time in the old barracks which would shiver each day at half past six as the early morning buses would make their rumbling way into my hometown (weekends excluded) had two lasting effects on me. One was the valuable lesion of class relations (seeing who my fellow “citizens” really are), the other was learning the art of shoe shining.

For almost a decade before that, I didn’t have a pair of leather shoes that I’d need to shine, sneakers being my almost exclusive means of transport. With one exception – a pair of Doc Marten’s that I guess had a sort of self cleansing function and the regular weekly treatment of puddles and the sticky black substance that normally covered the floor of student party places (cigarette ash mixed with beer, cheap red wine and human sweat) seems to have done the trick for some three years. Than I got another pair of black boots and a set of brushes that I still use.

For the first few evenings, I just could not get what it was that I was not doing right, as my pair of feet killers always came out mate black while most of other pairs that were inspected during the evening count were shining in the neon lights of the ochre corridor. A bizarre sight that must have been, a line of boys in ill-fitting light blue pajamas (too short, too big, too tight or so loose that they were on the verge of falling down) and disgusting brown flip-flops standing behind a row of black boots.
“You don’t polish them?” A-je-to inquired.
Something like a “no?” must have been a reply that came from my slightly puzzled face. Polish, hmm…
He made a few puffs of smoke and my initiation begun. For the next five months, we had the same routine. After dinner, we would get a cup of coffee from the vending machine and sit on what I would now generously call a bench. We would scrub off mud and paste up the polish. Than A je to would light up and we would drink the coffee, giving the shoe polish enough time to sink in and dry up. Than the polishing with short, strong strokes and another fag for my friend. I can’t really remember exactly what we talked about all those evenings but it often had to do with life, future and girls. A je to was really a nice guy, but also one who would be picked a lot. A bit chubby, with red hair and freckles, he looked more like Jaroslav Hasek’s Švejk than the clumsy animated character he was nicknamed after (a.k.a. Pat & Mat). Though worlds apart, we did get along fine and I guess hanging out with me saved him from being picked at a lot of times. Not that I could really beat the crap of any of those guys but they did have some respect for me as I was among oldest and had the highest level of education in our platoon, including our three commanders (BTW, it worked on them too). A je to came from a depressive nearby mining town where he lived with his mother and brother in an apartment in one of those concrete high rises build in early 1980s. A working class family in stagnating industrial town, they were short on money but not on beer and cigarettes. Unlike his older brother, A je to was also short on girls and at times his primary concern appeared to be where he could find a girl drunk enough to be with him. In those five months before I “quit” my service, his hunt on weekend leaves didn’t bore fruit and I really hope he got through the dry spell in the end. As I said, he was basically a good guy and it would be a shame if he entered into new millennium with his back against a dirty wall, puffing into the low ceiling of some local joint, a bottle of beer slowly getting warm in his hand, indulging in music instead of dancing in the small crowd in front of him.

Of all the things, what I remember the most is the tranquility of our evening routine. The sugar in my coffee, empty corridors of former officer’s building and the gentle yellowish light of spring evenings, murmur on the platform. But most of all, the tranquility, generated in part by the liberating routine of army life and the awareness of the temporariness of our situation, with a real life full of possibilities waiting ahead of us. Many times when I polish shoes on our tiny balcony, I let A je to join me for a smoke and a much too sugary vending machine coffee as I try to attain a bit of that long lost tranquility through the rapid brush strokes and the smell of black shoe polish. The pic is from Istanbul (summer 2006).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2009 2:04 am

    Was military service compulsory for you? It was for boys in Belgium at the time I lived there and it was a sport to try to avoid it.
    My favorite French humorist, Pierre Desproges (may he rest in peace)describes his military service as the worst experience in his life. He was a sophisticated man and was not too much into the farting contests in the dorms. He was traumatized by the whole experience.
    You can get killed for polishing Doc Martens, no?

    • March 2, 2009 10:45 pm

      Yes, at the time it was compulsory and avoiding the service was a national sport in Slovenia too. It became really easy with time and most of my friends opted for “serving the public good”. I on the other hand wanted to use up the year I failed to enroll into my final year at university, plus spending half year helping in homes for disabled was just not my choice.
      In my experience, doing time in the army was both stupefying and relaxing and this topic probably deserves a separate post. I guess the stupefying must have won in the end as I left without finishing my last two months. Apparently, the real sport of avoiding military service really started once you were in the army :)

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