I shined shoes when I was about eight years old. This is my shoeshine box from around 1960.
When I was growing up in Chinatown, a bunch of us kids shined shoes for pocket money. This box was made by the mean brother in law. I remember going with my mother to Kaye’s Footwear on Grant Avenue to buy all the supplies for the shoeshine box. I really didn’t know much about shining shoes but I learned fast.
The brother and I each had a box. We first went to Union Square to shine shoes. We found that there were already a bunch of Chinese kids already there doing the same thing. A handful of the kids we knew from Kin Kuo Chinese School. They greeted us newbies asking to see what was in our box. Next thing we knew there were a swarm of kids coming up to our box and pulling things out of it and scattering it all over. Some of them took my things. That was our welcome. From there on I learned that it was a hostile place with a lot of competition.
I don’t know how many times I went to Union Square, but it wasn’t much because the competition was fierce and I don’t remember shining much shoes there.
The area around Kan’s Restaurant on Grant Avenue in Chinatown became my favorite area to shine shoes. It was only half a block from the store where I lived. There were a few other kids that did the same but it wasn’t as bad as Union Square. I recall there was a Raymond Lee. There was also Katreena’s mom and her brother whom spent their money at Eastern Bakery as fast as they made it.
Sailors used to ask us where can they find girls. I didn’t know what the hell they were getting at but I heard Raymond Lee telling them to go to the Rickshaw Bar in Ross Alley. So when the sailors asked me I learned how to say the same without a clue what it meant.
I only charged 15¢ but most customers paid 25¢ or more. I remember even getting a dollar. After awhile I went out at night and on the average I made $2.
I don’t know exactly how long I was out there shining shoes but I don’t think it was that long. A year…maybe two? It was not very consistent neither. I wonder if I can do the same nowadays. At the rate of inflation, 15 cents is now $1.21. That’s a lot of shoes to shine to make minimum wage.