Christmas Eve is the end of the road for the shoe man.
For three decades, Grady Parker has been a fixture in uptowns Latta Arcade, greeting the masses, dispensing advice and rejuvenating shoes. Tuesdays his last day.
He doesnt look anywhere near it, but Parkers pushing 80. His kids are nagging him to retire.
Retirement, they know, doesnt mean hell entirely quit working, because work is all hes ever known.
I was born six blocks from here, Parker says while sitting in his roost at the arcade shoeshine stand. Born in Brooklyn 626 South Plum St. Ill never forget it.
He was the baby of the family in the old second-ward neighborhood, the last of nine children. Hes the only one still alive. He started working as a kid.
There were two things you could do to make a little money back then, Parker says. You either caddied or shined shoes.
Still has golf injury
He points to a scar above his right eye. Got that from an errant shot on his first caddying gig. He switched careers that day.
Soon he was working at the J.D. Janes Shoe Shine Shack at 324 S. Long St., charging a dime a shine. After graduating from Second Ward High School, he went to work at the Biltmore Dairy on West Morehead Street, stacking glass bottles that clinked at every turn.
He did other odd jobs, then landed with Piedmont Airlines. He moved bags or whatever else was needed. That was his first official career. He retired after 30 years, and went looking for something else to do. He went to his friend Al Russo.
Russo, who served on Charlotte City Council before his death in 2001 at age 76, ran the Brownlee Jewelers store back when it was in the Trotter Building on Tryon Street. They got acquainted when Parker was still a teenager, wooing his girlfriend Eva with sweet talk and shiny things.
If Russo believed in you, hed let you buy things on installment. Russo believed in Parker.
Id buy jewelry from him and hed let me pay on time. Hed do that if he trusted you. He was a good man.
Jewelry was apparently a good investment for Parker. He and Eva celebrated their 60th anniversary this month. They have 10 children ranging in age from 48 to 60.
A helping hand
So Parker was talking to Russo and let him know he needed something to keep busy. Give me a day or two and I think I can do something for you, Russo told him.
He got Parker a job in his old business, doing shoes at the stand at the Latta Arcade. That was about 30 years ago.
Those were the days when shoes were mostly monochrome, when people took care of their footwear, when you could pretty much tell what a person did by the way they dressed. Those days are long gone, Parker says.
Now, they spend all that money on shoes and dont take care of them, he says. People dress like theyre ready to go out and pick cotton. I think if you dress casual, you work casual.
Pride in technique
Parker has always taken pride in the shoes that leave his stand. He starts with a good application of saddle soap. It loosens grime and seals up thread holes to prolong the life of the shoe.
He applies polish with his bare fingers to work it in, and he works it in hard. He doesnt advertise it, but its like getting a professional foot rub.
Then comes the brush, the buff, and the shoes sparkle away, down the Latta Arcade.
Some tip, some dont
At the stand, shoes get done for $6, boots for $10.
Whats your biggest tip?
Ive gotten several hundred-dollar tips over the years, Parker says. And why not? Hes made old shoes look like new ones.
Some customers dont tip at all, sometimes the ones with toughest shoes. No biggie, says Parker. He makes sure they get the best possible job anyway.
When they leave here, they represent me. I do my very best for them.
On to his new job
Parkers had hip surgery three times, followed by a staph infection. Its hurt his mobility. When he hangs up his brush Tuesday, that will be it for the shoe-shine phase of his life.
He plans to start working at his lifelong church, the United House of Prayer for All People on Beatties Ford Road. I see something that needs to be done, Ill do it, Parker says. But I wont be told to do it.
Yep, thats the way retirement should work.
Hell also keep doing part-time catering on the side. All his kids are good cooks and all of them help out when needed.
For a few days, the Latta Arcade shoe-shine stand will sit quietly. Then, on Dec. 30, Walter Neely will take over.
Parker and Neely grew up three houses apart. If Neelys like Parker, he should be there for many, many years. Hes only in late 60s.
Hes a good man, Parker says.
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