David Usborne: Our Man In New York

Al, the shoe-shine boy who calms the nerves


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."

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