David Usborne: Our Man In New York

Al, the shoe-shine boy who calms the nerves

Share

They feted John Schuerholz last week when he stepped down from running the Atlanta Braves. After 17 years, he was the longest-serving general manager of any major league baseball team.

Robert Byrd of West Virginia has done even better, recently being honoured with a portrait in the halls of Congress as the longest-serving Senator. He's been at it for 49 years. In a country that celebrates "worker mobility" people who stay put in one position for a very long time tend to get noticed. So someone please give a gong to Alan Beasley.

If you have travelled through Newark Airport recently it is possible you have seen him. Most days he is across the hall from Gate 135 in Terminal C, dispensing amiable chat with anyone who stops by, just as he has for 51 years. His latest anniversary of working there was, as it happens, 11 September. He is the man with greying hair moving his hands back and forth in a brisk rhythm over leather.

Running for planes rarely happens these days since they are always delayed. What to do after all that hurrying to wait frazzles your nerves? Get a shoe-shine. I am not much for fancy leather shoes but I try to wear some when flying. It's a bargain too. Shiny shoes, a glance at the New York Post and some idle gossip – all for four bucks plus tip.

Al was 14 when his father, a longshoreman, asked if he wanted a job as a shoe-shine in the airport. "You can't tell your father, 'No'," he remembers, even if his mother was less than thrilled. At 16, he left school to do the job full time.

Nine years later, the boss died and Al, in his twenties, took the business over. Today, he owns all seven shoe-shine stands in the airport's three terminals and employs 25 people.

Things have changed and then again they haven't so much. America's first commercial airport when it was dedicated by Amelia Earhart in 1935, Newark later became eclipsed by New York's other airports, JFK and La Guardia. For years, even New Yorkers barely knew it existed.

"Sometimes, when they diverted planes here in bad weather, people came off and didn't even know where they were." In those days it was only domestic flights on Braniff and Eastern (also both long gone).

Today it is one of America's busiest airports. Milestones Al remembers include the first jet landing at Newark. "People were demonstrating outside, because they made too much noise," he chuckles.

As ever, 90 per cent of his trade is with businessmen. He had a scare in the seventies when someone introduced shoes with fake leather that was never meant to dull. Fortunately, the fad wore off quickly as people discovered their feet couldn't breathe.

He admits, for many foreign flyers, a US shoe-shine man can seem a novelty, almost exotic. "I am hanging on a good number of walls," he reckons. And, inevitably, there are always those who enjoy his attentions – lots of polish from tins but no spit these days – in blissful ignorance of the most obligatory of this country's customs – tipping. He never pushes it. In fact, it's a firing offence for any of his employees to ask for a tip.

It would be nice to think someone will think to put a portrait of Al up in Terminal C when he hangs up his brushes. But still only 66, that may not be soon. "I have eight kids and one is 14. I am quite sure I will be doing this for some time."

He offers customers his this slogan: "Your hair might be combed, your suit might be pressed, but if your shoes ain't shined, you're still not dressed."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to 'adapt and survive'

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?