What I learned this year I actually learned in 1999, and that is this: go ahead and buy a lifetime of shoeshines.
In the late ‘90s, a street-walking shoeshiner worked the area around Larimer Square in Denver. A wiry fellow with a broken-tooth grin, his approach to selling shines consisted mostly of heckling passersby. “Shabby shoes! Shabby shoes! You got shabby shoes!” he would sing with a smile. “You ain’t got no woman on your arm ‘cause you ain’t got no shine on your shoes!” I heard that one a few times.
I worked for a small agency called Reece and Company at the time. The agency was located a block off of Larimer and we would see the shoeshine guy regularly on coffee walks and lunch breaks. Dave Reece, owner and leader of the agency, had been an occasional customer, stopping by for a buffing before meetings. I know that along with the shines, Dave enjoyed the conversation.
Dave Reece was, among many things, an adman. He loved the business, he loved the creative process, he loved his clients and he loved the group of people he got to work with every day. He could tell a good story, and he knew how to listen. Clients appreciated this. We all did.
Early in 1999, Dave visited the shoeshine guy and was given a sweet offer — a lifetime “membership” for just $50. Dave took the deal and parted with a 50-dollar bill.
In March of that year, Dave was diagnosed with brain cancer. In September, he was gone. He was 46 years old.
In the months after his diagnosis, Dave made just a few visits to the agency to see the crew. We were all in a fog of sadness and uncertainty. Our leader was dying and the future of the agency was not yet determined. On one of those visits, he mentioned his ill-timed shoeshine deal to someone.
“Well, isn’t this a bitch,” he said. “I just bought a life’s worth of shoeshines and I get freaking cancer.”
Here was a man facing his own mortality and he was making a joke to soften the gloom, to make us laugh. It made sense. That’s how he approached the business. When the self-imposed seriousness of the work was getting us down, Dave was always there with an inappropriate wisecrack.
What I learned then I remember always – even in the dark hours, you have to make room for lightness and levity. The other message? No one really knows what’s around the bend, but $50 for a lifetime of shined shoes is a good deal. Take it.
To read the entire 2012 'What I Learned' series, click this.