Moscow shoeshiners, both female and male, take their time and have the time to take. Their booths, as tall as a man, lockable, with the surface area of a narrow bed, are small temples of dignity which, if one were to call it human dignity, would be the very prerequisite of dignity. In these holy halls one has already gone further. Those who engage there in a seemingly demeaning activity all resemble one another, as if they were mothers and sons, siblings. Their eyes, the narrow faces with long noses, these profiles I all know from fresco and vase reproductions. I thought Syrian, perhaps Assyrian – gleaned, I suppose, from school books with short narratives about the history of Asia Minor; later I heard that one did not know for sure. Probably from what is now Lebanon, Maronites, forced migrants from one of the largest forced migrations after the First World War. Shoeshining seems to be their privilege, their fief, an unwritten law, just as the sale of roasted chestnuts in Rome seems to have been the privilege of the Apulians.
In these booths the passer-by can do more than simply have his shoes shined. A stain remover is available to clean dirty clothes; a sewing kit to re-attach ripped-off buttons is there for the borrowing; scissors exist in order to cut off fringes and tamper with briefcases and shopping bags. Shoeshining, the main activity, proceeds without haste, without the implication of subjection or lowliness, without any attempts on the part of the shiner to ingratiate himself. Rushing customers who evince impatience and wish that the ritual be abridged are asked by a dark-eyed look and a gentle shake of the head to indulge in the ritual's full, uncut length. Woe is woe, dignity dignity, shoes are shoes, and here one can learn what the word "application" means, which might come closest to correctly translating "sacrament." (Marriage would then be the application of love.)
Carefully, in an appropriate manner, are bootlaces tucked in and socks protected by paper cuffs. Left shoe on the footrest: with brushes of varied toughness dirt and dust are removed, fluid shoe polish is applied from a bottle. Right shoe on the footrest: the same application. Left shoe: brief polishing with a special rag for the liquid shoe polish, the same fate then befalls the right foot. Left shoe on the footrest: solid shoe polish applied from a can, the same occurs with the right foot. Left and right foot: blacked shiny with a soft brush. A shake of the head, a gentle request from a pair of dark eyes: one more time must both shoes be placed, one behind the other, upon the footrest. Then, from a special bottle, a special blacking is applied which again – left foot, right foot – is rubbed on until it shines.
The ritual application is over. The time that one believes one has lost comes back doubled from that pair of dark eyes. Gained, not lost.
More I do not know about Moscow shoeshiners. They are forced migrants who have found a homeland here. They return lost time to us with one hundred percent interest. Their profiles seem familiar to me, from vase and fresco reproductions about which I once read in school books. I would like to know more about Moscow shoeshiners – everything, in fact – and will try to do so. I envy them.