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ĎSpecial handsí

64 years at trade makes customers seek Footeís shine

(Published January 22, 2001)

By SAM STRIKE

Special to The Common Denominator


Eugene "Gino" Foote takes a moment to inspect a customerís shoes before putting finishing touches on a shine. After 64 years at his trade, you could call Foote one of the Districtís expert shoe shiners ó and at 72, he continues to brush, buff and polish at his stand near 13th and U streets NW.

A few paces from the Lincoln Theatre and Benís Chili Bowl on the historic U Street corridor, Eugene "Gino" Foote spends most of his working hours brushing, buffing and polishing.

After 64 years at his trade, you could call Foote one of the Districtís expert shoe shiners. And former mayors Walter Washington and Marion Barry, as well as boxers Mohammed Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, are just a few of the people touched by the hands of Foote.

Foote, 72, works in a space near the corner of 13th Street NW and U thatís just large enough to fit his stand and a shelf for his stereo, incense holder and knickknacks. The walls are bedecked with old photos of musicians James Brown and Miles Davis, former mayor Washington, an autographed picture of President and Mrs. Clinton (presented to him by his Secret Service customers), a letter of appreciation from Jacqueline Kennedy, and an array of female pin-up posters.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Foote is working diligently on a pair of Gortex brown leather boots when two men pop their heads into his cubbyhole and one introduces Foote to the other. The man making the introduction, a former Secret Service agent, said that he told his friend to get a shoe shine from Foote whenever he was in town. Itís a typical scene for Foote, who said many of his new customers come from recommendations.

As Foote continues to work on the boots, two other men wait on the sidewalk outside for their turn. David Coltrane, who lives on North Capitol Street, said he gets his shoes shined by Foote practically every day and has been doing so for years. "Heís a good man," Coltrane said. And his work is the reason Coltrane said he gets so many comments on his well-kept shoes.

Foote, pausing during his work on Coltraneís shoes, said that people should wear a different pair of shoes every day and should get them professionally polished.

"Now they go to the drug store and buy this spray stuff," Foote said. "That messes them up and then they bring them in here."

Next in line for a shine is a D.C. police officer whom Foote met when there was a fight near the store. The two talk a little bit, and Foote comments that his customer was being particularly quiet that day. "I pulled something in my back," the officer said.

Itís not unusual for people, seated high above Foote, to confide in him as if he were a therapist, he said. Others fall asleep from the relaxing motions on their feet.

A shine cost 5 cents when Foote began working in North Carolina at age 8. When he was 18 years old, Foote moved to the District, where police officers would take away his shoeshine box because he didnít have a license. Foote said he kept his equipment in his pockets so he could run away from them as they approached.

"Now theyíre all running to you," the police officer said from Footeís chair.

Foote, who lives on Capitol Hill, moved into his current work space at 1241 U St. NW in 1994 when Jorge Pena opened Georgeís Corner Shoe Repair there. Pena said that Foote brings customers to his business, which is increasing because of recent development in the neighborhood.

"I like him. I donít know why. He loves everybody," Pena said, laughing. He also said that Foote has a good heart and two "special hands."

Until recently, Foote worked weekends at Union Station. The venue made Foote privy to many secret and important conversations over the years. But he said he was never surrounded by more hubbub than during the 35 years that he worked at the Capitol Hill Hilton.

Although he has worked all over the city, the hotel was "where I met all of the big ones," he said Ė referring to luminaries like J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. George Murphy, President Clinton, former president George Bush, boxer Mike Spinks, and many of the Washington Redskins players over the years.

Politics doesnít affect Footeís business too much because the majority of his clients are musicians and police officers, he said. Still, some of his customers who worked in the Clinton administration have recently stopped by to tell Foote that he wonít be seeing them around anymore.

While shining shoes is something that Foote likes to do, it also provides the best-paying livelihood of everything that he has studied Ė including leather, suede, handbags, umbrellas, suite cases and dye work.

Foote picks up a pair of menís black shoes that, to the untrained eye, would seem to be leather.

"See? This isnít leather Ö They canít tell me itís leather because I went to vocation school," Foote said.

Despite his experience, Foote said he canít polish every shoe to perfection, especially those made of "plastic stuff." Such shoes, like the boots that the police officer was wearing earlier, "are not supposed to shine," he said.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator