The Tale of Two Shoe Shiners

It is interesting to listen to people talk about what they do. It doesn’t matter how grandiose or menial their job. Everyone has something to say, and many times their words reveal just how meaningful their work is to their lives.

There are two types of shoe shiners in downtown Cali: the one that carries his wares in a small box and ambles under the palm trees in the central square hoping to spot a client or someone looking for some specific shoe related work, and the other, who has had a permanent spot with a chair and an umbrella for the last 12 years, donated by the local shoe polish company, Beisbol.

Raúl Armando is the first kind of shoe shiners. He is a 53 year old man, who has been working the downtown area for the last 20 years. “I’ve had other jobs, and good ones; I worked with the government in EMSIRVA (the public works department), and with the police,” he informed me, enthusiastically. But, he added, “But I was a bum and my own laziness ruined my chances for retiring with a company.”

emboladorHis little tool box, with its small pedestal that clients use to rest their feet on as they receive his services, is the most important thing in Raúl’s life. “For me, this is my wife, my mother, and all my family, because this is my livelihood,” he explains, giving it look of admiration. His trade is not lucrative, just bringing in what he needs to get by. A basic shoeshine costs $2000 pesos, about $0.70 US, $3000 ($1 US) if he applies shampoo and horse grease. If the shoe needs more elaborate maintenance, like rubbing out the scuff marks or dying it a different color, he can charge between $5,000 and $10,000 pesos ($1.75 – $3.50 US).

 

These rates require Raúl to live austerely. “I spend $20,000 pesos a day ($7.00 US). There’s breakfast, lunch and dinner, and my room that costs $7000 pesos a night. They come at 4:00 in the afternoon to collect the money for my food, so I’ve got to have that money by that time.” Due to a medical problem, he can’t resort to making ends meet in other ways, unless there are special events in the downtown area and he doesn’t have to move too far. He helps people park their cars in December, when the city center fills up. This means that he has a relatively stable economy during the holidays.

Fortunately, Raúl has a handful of returning customers, mainly judges and lawyers who work in the offices around the Plaza Caicedo, the central square. But things aren’t what they used to be 20 years ago. Raúl has seen how fewer and fewer people look for a shoeshine from him, and he supposes that it must have to do with people using cheaper shoes; they worry less about their appearance. That, and the increase in the use of tennis shoes are what have brought about a reduction in demand. But Raúl has adapted to these changes: “Of course, today I have to offer shampoo for tennis shoes. Otherwise, there’d be no getting by.”

Another change that has affected the shoe shiners downtown is the use of public space. This part of the city has seen high levels of mobile sellers, sidewalks crowded with people offering their wares: from underwear and belts to tape measures and books. And the city has tried to do its part keeping the sidewalk open for pedestrians.

“In February of this year (2016) they called us all into a meeting in the Lloreda Building. We thought that they were going to help us establish ourselves more permanently, but that wasn’t it at all. When we walked out of the building, at 10:30 in the morning, our spot was full of cops.”

There_s a saying-1On orders from the mayor, the shoe shiners were given notice that they would no longer be allowed to “loiter” in a single place, but would have to walk continuously. For the time being, they’ve come to an agreement with the mayor’s office that they can gather on the sidewalk across from the Plaza, but there are “caretakers” of public space, who come each morning to make sure that no one is loitering.

Despite all the difficulties for the shoe shiners in the Plaza Caicedo, they keep a strict ethic regarding their trade. “The most important thing for me is that I do a good job, and that the customer feels happy about the product. If they can see that you’ve done a good job for $2000 pesos, then they’ll throw in another $1000 or $2000 as a tip. This feels right, because you know you’ve done things the right way.

No, Not a Shoe Shiner.

Cross the Plaza Caicedo diagonally from where the mobile shoe shiners are, and you’ll find 12th Street, la Calle Real – Royal Street. On this street, full of casinos and restaurants with their lunches designed for office workers, you can also find the lottery vendors and boot polishers who were relocated by the ex-mayor Apolinar Salcedo, 12 years ago.

IMG_2801 (1)This is where Carlos Julio has his chair and umbrella, and where he continues to work after 21 years as a boot polisher. “A shoe shiner? No. I’m a boot polisher or a footwear beautifier. A footwear beautifier and image consultant. That’s what we do here. Embolador (shoe shiner in Colombian Spanish) isn’t even correct Spanish. An embolador would literally be someone who takes someone else’s clothes off for them.”

This clarification draws a clear distinction between the mobile shoe shiner and his counterpart with his fixed chair and umbrella. To give oneself the title of “footwear beautifier” is to assign a new meaning and value to the same job.

Like the mobile shoe shiners in the Plaza Caicedo, the boot polishers on the Calle Real have also been the victims of marginalization. According to Carlos Julio, they were kicked out of the Plaza Caicedo at the same time as the lottery vendors and the paper-pushing scribes because the mayor’s office wanted to “beautify the park”. But with the sponsorship of Beisbol shoe polish, from a nearby city, and the help of the ex-mayor, Mauricio Guzmán, the boot polishers were re-located on the pedestrian street adjacent to the plaza with all the required paperwork.IMG_2803 (1)

Another difference between the Calle Real boot shiners and their mobile counterparts is their price: $2500 for a shine, $4000 for a shampoo and sealer. But these extra pesos, which may be rightly charged by the privilege of having a fixed spot with a chair, do not mean these footwear beautifiers are by any means making significant money. The difficulties are the same one both sides of the plaza. “You might make 10, 20, 30 or even $40,000 pesos ($3.50 – $14 US) a day – but not all that often,” explained Carlos Julio. “It’s a job that varies on a daily basis. You get here and it’s just luck that your clients show up.”

Shoe shining is a job that is part of what is referred to as el rebusque in Colombia, or the activity of hunting down odd jobs in order to make ends meet. These types of jobs offer a certain freedom: no fixed schedule, you can be your own boss, and you are part of a community of people sharing the same needs. But this informality leaves a lot to be desired. The majority of workers live day to day: there are no savings, and no pensions. The two shoe shiners have access to health care through Social Security which gives them basic care when the need it, but nothing more. In Raúl Armando’s case, not following the treatment recommended by his doctors has left him solely responsible for his own treatment, and he has lost the right to return to the clinic.

Even so, Carlos Julio made a very valid point with regards to the manner in which one works. He said, “You adapt to the job because you need it. It is important that you feel good with your work. Feeling good about it brings satisfaction.”

It’s not a glamorous job, and it doesn’t fill their wallets with cash, but the shoe shiners keep shining shoes. They go to work every day with the tools of their trade, they greet the people and chat about the day’s events, and they shine strangers’ shoes until they glow. Their presence in the plaza in downtown Cali is a reminder that personal appearance is an important value to many people, and that public spaces are still used for meeting with people and working. In Raúl Armando’s words, “There’s a saying: a park without shoe shiners just isn’t a park.”

This story was originally published in Spanish on http://www.e-labor.co

What’s So Special About French Bread?

At times, very rare times, quality is more important than profits: a mini-history of French bread.

Originally published August 8, 2016

This Cotton Gin Story is brought to you by Ary Albán, the shoemaker from Cali, Colombia who continues making and repairing shoes because it is what he knows and what he enjoys.

Listen to it here or read the story below.

The shoemaker’s father was a bread maker. Ary helped him in the bakery and watched him mix the ingredients and knead the dough and produce bread that nourished the neighborhood.

Ary’s father told him about the industrialization of bread making in France, and the story went like this:caption_edited

In France, the corporations wanted to make more money. The bread making businesses decided to change their processes so that, instead of people mixing ingredients and kneading the dough, everything was done by machines.

But what happened? The French people started buying less bread. They didn’t like the industrialized version of their baguette. So, the corporations responded by researching. They discovered that bakeries in the neighborhoods still produced bread that people enjoyed eating. And how did they make this bread? By hand.

The story goes that the corporations discovered that by mixing and kneading the bread by hand, the human touch added something to the quality of the bread. The human touch made the bread good.

So, the bread making industry began to change their processes. They reversed some of the machine mixing in order to involve more people, and produce bread that everyone would buy and enjoy.baguette

Now, what I like about this story is that it highlights the dangers of removing people from the production process. It develops the idea that machines cannot do certain jobs as well as humans, and that while it may not be as profitable, people add an, often intangible quality – humanity – to their work.

It’s a good story. It communicates a lovely message. But, it made me wonder, is it true? Would a business actually be willing to give up profit to ensure higher quality?

As it turns out, the process of industrialization of bread making did not just involve the use of machines. Bread was industrialized through the use of ingredients that had also been industrialized – modified and transformed for a more profitable use in the marketplace.

wonder breadAmanda Benson, from the Johnson and Wales University describes in her thesis, “The Rise and Fall of Bread in America”, how millers and bakers influenced farmers to produce the wheat used to make white flour. She explains that because the extraction of white flour from wheat was wasteful. By being wasteful, it made white flour scarce, and therefor desirable by upper classes. This demand allowed millers and bakers to pressure the farmers to grow the wheat they could capitalize on.

6778252056_6ca59fbbd9Benson goes on to detail the use of bleaching agents to achieve a whiter colored bread, mixing machines that helped guarantee the form and consistency of the bread, and advertising campaigns that reinforced consumer habits and brought us the idea that this bread was better than darker bread that was not completely uniform in its shape.

Michael Pollan, a renowned food writer and activist, pointed out in his documentary series “Cooked”, that the milling and bleaching processes in flour had reduced the amount of nutrition that they contained, which in turn generated the opportunity to create enriched flour. Vitamins and minerals were added to restore its nutritional value. This of course is both redundant as well as profitable, adding an additional process to the industrialization of bread.

Back to the story, though.

Ary claimed that it was the French who had somehow battled industrialization to make their bread better than the mass produced stuff being sold around the world. It turns out that there is some truth in the story. However it was not as heroic as he told me, with a reversal of the mechanization process.

sliced breadWhat happened was that, as Amanda Benson describes in her paper, the French, after a time consuming the extra-white, mass-produced, cheap, industrialized bread – they began to miss their traditionally made French bread. Due to the national pride in their cuisine and the important staple that bread is in their diet, demand for a higher quality product grew. She states, “the quality of bread was more important than quantity and/or volume.”

French millers felt a responsibility to provide better quality flour for the bakers, and to top things off, in 1993 the French government released a decree, “The Bread of French Tradition”, that outlined the standards and processes required by law to make bread.

These steps in conservation of bread making tradition were accompanied by an international bread making competition, that not only brought attention to the quality of bread that was being produced, it also inspired producers of ingredients to amplify their offer of higher grade flours and yeasts.

So, it turns out that Ary the shoemaker’s story of epic conflict: the human versus the machine, a conflict that seems to be won more and more often by the machines as we move second by second into a mechanized and technified future, was not quite accurate. Instead, it was a story of a culture against a corporate consumerist machine. Which is also a story that seems to be won all too frequently by the “machine”. In this case, however, due to a set of factors that favored the quality of the product over the profit to be made, the French were able to save their French bread.

 

Shaved Ice in Cali, Colombia

Jesús María has sold shaved ice in front of the church in the San Antonio neighborhood in Cali, Colombia for 31 years. He’s sold to foreigners, locals, musicians and bull-fighters. His life wouldn’t be the same without his job.

What is the allure of brightly colored, sugary drinks? Could it be the bright colors and the sugar?

The plaza in front of the colonial styled church fills up every afternoon and every weekend with people enjoying the view, listening to the story-tellers that come in the evenings, and enjoying the breeze that blows through after 4:00 in the afternoon.

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San Antonio church in Cali, Colombia, is prime shaved ice-selling territory.

The crowds of people attract vendors of all types of wares: from corn on the cob to hand-crafted, multi-colored leather sandals hawked by travelling artisans. But there is one man who has been there longer than all of them: Jesús María, the shaved ice seller, who has been providing the park with shaved ice for 31 years.

In Colombian Spanish shaved ice is called cholado, and it comes in various forms. There is the simplest version, that Jesús María sells which is ice, passion fruit and blackberry syrups, lemon juice, and sweetened condensed milk. More elaborate cholados will contain the basic ingredients, plus a number of fruits including lulo – a tropical version of the kiwi fruit that is orange on the outside and tart juicy green on the inside – pineapple, mango, banana and whatever else might fit in the cup.

In a city where the average temperature is 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), but often reaching 30°C (86°F), there is no shortage of people looking to cool down. It is a product that is commonly consumed here, as it is in many places where the sun bakes down on beaches and cities. What makes Jesús María’s cholado different from many in the city, and virtually any shaved ice that you could buy around the world is his tricycle bike with an integrated manually cranked ice-shaver.

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Jesús María’s mobile shaved ice machine. It originally belonged to his brother, who was paying too much to keep it parked. Hence, Jesús María’s career as a shaved ice vendor.

Because it is 100% human powered, you have to wait a little longer than you would for a shaved ice that has a motor powered ice shaver, or a slushie that is just waiting for someone to put a cup under the spout, pull the handle and let the brightly colored sugar slush flow. But while you wait, you can appreciate Jesús María’s utter efficiency in production; you can listen to the classic boleros and vallenatos that continuously flow from his transistor radio; you can anticipate the cool sweetness cut by the sour of the lemon juice that you are about to receive.

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Sweetened condensed milk is usually the last ingredient added to a cholado in Colombia.

Selling cholados has been Jesús María’s sole source of income for the last three decades. He charges $4000 pesos ($1.35 US) for a small, and $5000 pesos ($1.70 US) for a large. “On Sundays, I might sell 50. Half of my profits go directly towards supplies, and the other half, I have to spread out over the week. Weekdays are pretty slow, I might sell five or 10 cholados, but I know I can count on Sundays and holidays, when the park is full, to get through the week, “ he explained.

While the days are long for Jesús María – he arrives at the park at 8:30 a.m. and doesn’t leave until after 5:00 p.m. – there are perks to his job. “I’ve served people from all over the world here in the park. But one in particular was Luis Miguel Dominguín, a famous bull-fighter. I remember him because he was sitting right over there, talking on a cell-phone. In that time, no one in Colombia had a cell-phone. So, I asked him who he was, and he told me. But he was just right there, like any other person in the world!”

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Hands stained red with sugary syrups are a sure sign of vocational cholado making.

Jesús María has found vocation in making cholados. “This job brings me a lot of satisfaction. I like it. It’s everything to me. It’s like if I didn’t do this, I would probably get sick from missing it.” He has no plans for modernizing his set-up; it just wouldn’t be the same, for him or his customers.