Once Upon a Time in Penn Station

by John Delach

Recently, I rode the train into the Pennsylvania Station on my way to lunch with my son. The ancient dungeon we call the Long Island Railroad level was undergoing major renovations. The plan is to open the roof of the main corridor so that natural light will shine down from Thirty-Third Street. The construction also includes a new entrance / exit from the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-Third from the LIRR level directly to the street.

Temporary scaffolding has been erected to facilitate this work lowering the ceiling to a claustrophobic height. Any person over six feet tall had best approach the construction area carefully.

Newsday reported that construction would necessitate closing the retail shops that lined the north side of the main corridor. Many of the traditional vendors had been forced out several years ago by a concerted effort to attract upscale businesses.

The bookstore that specialized in military histories and other hard-to-find non-fiction subjects had closed together with one of best newsstands in Manhattan. They were both great places to browse. The newsstand carried both an abundance of newspapers, and a magazine inventory that stretched from A for aviation to Z for zombies and included practically every possible publication in between.  

Gone too were several passable pizza joints and the bar we had frequented for a late-night slice or a drink or a beer for the ride home. Terminated, gone, kaput, they were replaced by Starbucks, Shake Shack, an upscale Shushi eatery and Rite-Aid. Now they were all gone.

Only one fixture remained for me to mourn, Sole Man, a shoe-shine emporium and repair shop. Sole Man has occupied their spot since the early 1980’s. Over time they corrupted their theme but in their early years they presented a Blues Brothers motif. The shoeshine staff, both male and female, mimicked Jake and Elwood by wearing black trousers, white shirts, narrow black ties and faux black fedoras.

Beginning a day with a professional shine falls just behind starting the day with a professional shave. I rarely had the luxury or opportunity to experience the latter, so a shine remained on the top of my list.

I have availed myself of this simple luxury many, many times over the years and I have surprised friends, colleagues and customers by treating them to a shine whenever circumstances brought us close to Penn Station.

Curiously, a shoe-shine is more personal than one might expect. Our feet are sensitive, hence foot-fetishes. If you haven’t had a professional person polish your shoes, you have not encounteed that moment when they tackle your instep and you experience a sensation beyond what you expected. The sensation quickly disappears as the artist moves on making your shoes come alive using all the tricks of their trade.

I never walked away from a shoe-shine stand unhappy, the shine alone makes me feel better. Sole Man was the best. It seemed to me that their gang made the extra effort.

I decided to indulge myself one last time. The gal who claimed me went the extra mile returning my shoes to glory. Finished, I stepped down and chattered with the cashier, a young woman with a good sense of humor. The cost was three dollars, the same price as when Bill Clinton was in office.

As I turned to walk out of the shop, I stopped to thank the gal who serviced me, wished her good luck and handed her a $5 tip.

On the Outside Looking in will not be published the next two Wednesdays and will resume on December 18. Happy Thanksgiving.