Worn, blemished, scuffed and scraped.
Shoes bear the burden of our life’s feats and feet.
But with a firm rub balanced by a gentle touch, worn and weathered soles can shine.
I think the same of worn and weathered souls.
It’s tough to measure for William McDowell where he’s had more scrapes and scuffs — in the life he’s lived or the shoes he’s worn.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the latest chapter in the 54-year-old Youngstowner’s life is a new shoe-shine stand downtown. Tucked in a corner off the first-floor crossroads of 20 Federal Place, McDowell plies his new business.
He’s not the only shine stand in town; he knows it.
It’s hard money to earn; he knows it.
But it’s another chance at honest income; and he knows that, too.
It’s an understatement to say McDowell’s life has been as scuffed as the shoes he fixes, like mine.
He grew up in the city’s tough Westlake Terrace projects — the oldest of three brothers growing up with mom. Dad lived somewhere else in the city and was not around much, he said.
“We grew up tough,” said William. “My motto was, I treated people how they treated me.”
“I tried to be peace- maker, not a trouble- maker.”
William has had his share of run-ins with the law.
And he’s had his share of false starts and entrepreneurial efforts.
In fact, he was featured in a 1976 Vindicator article for a previous venture — a popcorn machine on Federal Plaza. He made $50 per day peddling bags for 30 and 40 cents. He and his brother ran the machine for two years, taking it to the fair, around the neighborhood, and to various functions. Then William married and moved to Cleveland, and the machine was stored and eventually sold.
This latest burst of entrepreneurship also was born out of a bit of desperation.
His long-time partner (marriage No. 1 failed, and he is gun-shy about a second marriage), a nurse, had just gone on disability. They have four kids, and bills had to get paid. He had been in training for solar-panels installation but ran short of money to finish the training.
At 3 a.m. one night in 2011, he awoke and made a list of 12 business ideas. He carries around that initial list and proudly showed it to me:
A computer casino, a strip club, a theater on Market Street, a grocery store on Belmont, an intimacy store in 20 Fed, a carrier service out of his home, a shoe-shine stand and more.
The ideas are all neatly handwritten, double-spaced and all absolutely, 100 percent, completely viable, he’ll confidently tell you. In fact, several of the ideas, such as the theater, already are in play by other people, he said.
That one mind would think up a shoe-shine stand and bookstore as well as a strip club and an intimacy shop says as much about William as his past.
He’s a physically commanding presence. A toothpick is a permanent fixture in his left teeth. He’s as comfortable being silent and rubbing away at shoes as he is talking and opining. His eyes fixate on a bad scuff, and they rapidly wander the hectic hallways of 20 Fed.
He’s streetwise brilliant but has made some bad decisions. He’s amid loyal family that comes from a tough environment. He was a tough kid, yet he had some stylin’ shoes.
Of all his 3 a.m. ideas, he settled first on the shoe-shine stand.
“It was a means of immediate income. I’ve been open for 22 weeks, and things are falling into place,” William said.
He built his stand in two months out of scrap wood; his chairs are garage-sale bought, and he reupholstered them all.
He put his business on Facebook (search his name) and his daughter, Shantinae, has helped him after school.
Good shoes have been part of his life since he was a boy.
“The worst thing you want is a bad pair of shoes with a nice suit. My mom always told me that.”
She bought him his first shine kit. He teaches me about shoes as he rejuvenates a unique pair that I brought in.
And he teaches me about a way of life I don’t bump into often. With every rub, a new chapter opens, until you get to his most- personal chapter.
Amid his modest, hand-made workspace is that 1976 Vindicator article that he proudly has framed. Tucked in the frame’s corner is a picture of a great-looking kid in a suit and tie.
It’s Geniro — a son from his first marriage.
Geniro was as entrepreneurial as William, and in the late 1990s, at age 23, started Top Quality Dry Cleaning.
As too many city tales go, there was a shooting. It was a friend of Geniro’s.
William explains a complex and conflicted scenario that the streets filter, then fix. When the dust settled on that shooting, Geniro became a target as well and was ambushed, shot and killed. That was in 1998, and it’s among the city’s hundreds of unsolved killings.
“Those were very cloudy days then ...,” said William, his voice trailing as he pressed more into my shoes.
“And after awhile, I finally broke down and cried. I think it was his birthday.”
William uses the same husky, even-keeled voice — whether discussing shoes or sons. And in that tone, and without any prompting, he looks me in the eye and continues:
“And I talk to him still every day ...”
It’s at night, he said, as he’s headed to bed at the close of another day. He reviews the highs and lows of the day.
And he reviews the work of the day at his new business — one fashioned by his mom, crafted by his street-smarts, and named in honor of his son, Top Quality Shines.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him at @toddfranko.