The American Dream

You can see the problem at a glance. The Shoeshine stand is too far off the beaten path. Specifically, it’s behind a broken ATM in Terminal 2 at SFO. The sign out front helps, but still, when your business relies entirely on foot traffic, you need to be where the feet are. I wandered back and took a seat, as a middle-aged man from another country tried to shine the rubber trim on the ugliest pair of tennis shoes I’ve ever seen. The owner of the ugly tennis shoes was a teenager who seemed grateful for the improvement. I arrived in time to hear the kid say, “Thanks very much. That’s SO much better. How much do I owe you?”

“How old are you?” said the man.

“Sixteen,” said the kid.

“Still in high school?”

“Yes sir,” said the kid.

“No charge for you,” said the man. “Come back again though, when you have a job.”

Next to me, a woman cursed at the broken ATM and stomped off, as the shoeshine guy turned his attention to me.

“Good morning,” he said. “Nice boots. Red Wings?”

“Wolverines,” I said. “Thousand Milers.”

“How many miles do have on them?” he asked.

“Couple hundred,” I said. “Maybe more.”

“Looks like it,” he said. “Have they been shined before?”

“First time,” I said.

As the man went to work, I learned that his name was Tony, and that he’d been shining shoes since 2011.

“You must be very good it by now,” I said.

“Not for me to say,” said Tony. “I like it, though, and have many repeat customers. Where are you headed today?”

“Palm Springs,” I said.

“For what purpose?”

“I’m supposed to give a speech to some very wealthy people about the meaning of the American Dream.”

Tony looked up from my boots, which were speckled with mud and some unidentified grime.

“I know about the American Dream,” he said. “I am Filipino.”

“I thought so. What’s your last name?”


“Well, Tony Alberto, are you living the American Dream?”

“Of course,” he replied. “I am here. My family is with me. I have two jobs and two children, but I lost one during Covid.”

“A job or a kid?” I asked.

Tony laughed, to my relief, and said “the job. But it’s no big deal. I can always get another job. Too late,” he said, “to get another kid.”

Tony had not yet begun to shine my shoes. He was still cleaning them with soap and wet rag. Then he applied some leather softener. The he worked out the scuffs and scrapes. Then he applied some more leather softener. Then, some polish.

“How many shoes have you shined today?”

“You are my second customer,” he said. “It’s slow for a Friday.”

“How many do you hope to do?”

“I would be pleased with ten,” he said.

Next to me, a man kicked the broken ATM.

“Why the hell doesn’t it tell me there’s no money inside, before it takes my card and asks me how much I want?!”

The question seemed rhetorical, so I offered no reply, as Tony’s radio played a song I didn’t recognize, with a lot of trumpets. I checked the time.

“Are you in a hurry?” asked Tony. “I can make your boots look like new.”

The plane was starting to board, but the gate was close.

“Take your time, Tony. Make ‘em look as good as you can.”

I was the last to board, but I made it, and now I’m thinking about what to say to a roomful of wealthy people in Palm Springs about the American Dream. To be honest, I’m still not sure what to tell them. Dreams are tricky things to nail down, especially when they’re preceded by the word “American.” I suspect I’ll come up with something. Either way though, my shoes will look great.

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