Written by Phillip Byron Jones and lovingly posted by his tech savy wife.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end, it leads to death.” Proverbs, 14:12 and 16:25.
Percy’s familiarity with death did not end with his siblings. The losses Percy endured with his family paled when compared to those he later suffered.
When I was a boy my father was the consummate mentor. He taught me how to bait a hook, sight a rifle scope, pack a suitcase and get a clean shave without a cut. He was also adamant that laziness separated men from a gentleman. A gentleman acted a certain way, and always — always, had a high shine on his shoes. Years later, as a lawyer, and because dress shoes are a necessity, the need for a good shine was tantamount. And, with that, I stumbled into Shine Service and met a man that now, 25 years later, I’m glad to call friend. For the past 25 years Shine Service (and Percy), have been a regular part of my weekly ritual; no different than having lunch.
I am a partner in a Nashville law firm, and as a result, dress shoes are a part of my life. In 1991, I paid a few dollars for a Percy shine. From there, I entered into an odd but genuine friendship. Thus, I’ve thought for years that it would be tragic if the spirit behind Shine Service came and went, and so I decided to commit to word the story of the force behind it. I suppose in a way that I am ghostwriting the abbreviated memoir of Robert Person, Sr., a/k/a “Percy” and his shoe shop in downtown Nashville, which is known simply as “Shine Service.”
“Shine Service, Percy.” That’s what Percy says, every time the phone rings. Shine Service is both a noun and a verb, in that it is who Percy is, and it is what Percy does. But, and as he states with conviction, “it’s not a shoe shine stand and it’s not a shoe parlor . . . I’m a shine service.” As he added, “I shine, I stain, I can do anything.”
Percy was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1937 to Bertha Mae Person. “Hell, I never even knew my dad,” he added. However, he knew his mother intimately. He conveyed, with warmness, his opinions of his mother when he told me about his childhood. “Miss Percy” as everyone called her, was a religious person. She never drank and she never smoked. His mother was a cook and a baker. On the side, she made extra cash as an entrepreneur.
According to Percy, his mother would save money and then buy soda, pigskins and chips, in bulk, and sell them off her front porch, on Jefferson Street, on credit. She sold to addicts, who would (according to Percy) “pay her back once their check came in.” She sold those items on a mark-up and then charged interest on those sales. According to Percy, Bertha Mae became renowned in the black community off of Jefferson Street and in the non-black community, as well.
“You won’t fucking believe it, but my momma had a police escort from the funeral home to the graveyard,” Percy said, as if I wouldn’t believe him. I believed him. The fact is, I believe everything Percy says.
Percy began shining shoes in 1948 at the age of 11, and has done so now for 68 years. A handsome black man, no one would guess that he’s nearly 80 years old. Who starts a trade at age 11 — and, who practices a trade for nearly 7 decades? Businessmen, police officers, and politicians, including countless mayors, and a few governors, have stepped up and into one of the four elevated chairs that constitute the small, 15’ x 20’ shop that is known as Shine Service. Percy shines 25–30 pairs of shoes per day. He does so 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month, and for 12 months a year, not counting weekends. That equates to nearly 500,000 pairs of shoes between 1948 and 2016. That man has shined 1,000,000 shoes.
Cash is king at Shine Service and everybody knows it. They don’t take credit cards, and they don’t take checks. Because Shine Service is centrally located by the downtown bus depot, people come and go each day through it, and many of those folks just come in to chat while Percy works. Some bring with them their lunch, and eat from one of the eight small chairs that line the wall opposite the four large shine chairs.
Others come in for the cash. “Hey man, can you cover my bus fare, I’ll hit you back tomorrow…”
The requests for help are almost endless; bus fare, lunch money, help paying a parking ticket, are just a few that I’ve heard over the years. I’ve never heard Percy decline a request. But, I’ve also never seen a single person come in and repay him either. Simply stated, Percy is a one-man welfare system. Most everyone that asks for help is years younger than Percy. His benevolence is biblical in proportion. I asked Percy about the help he provides to others and he made clear the distinctions in what he gives. Gifts are gifts; loans are loans. “Hell, I fork out 1 or 2 dollars all fucking day to people; you know, some cat just short of bus fare or something like that.” He makes it clear, however. Anything higher than $2 is a loan and according to him, “I always get paid back.” He paused and looked me straight in the eye, and reiterated, “Trust me, I always get paid back.”
He shifted quickly to a related topic concerning cash. He told me how since moving to the downtown Arcade that robbers twice tried to take him for cash from the cash drawer. When I asked for the details, he simply said (coyly), “It just didn’t work out for them.”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“It just didn’t work out,” he replied. Pausing, he added, “I’m from deep in the ‘hood, so it just wasn’t going to work for them.”
In many ways, Percy reminds me of my grandfather. He says a lot but without many words. In other ways, Percy reminds me of my father.
When Shine Service started in 1948 it was in one room in a small building off of Jefferson Street. Percy’s original place was small, with a “coal stove for winter and an old airplane fan for summer.” In 1948, a Percy shine cost 25 cents. By 2016, a Percy shine costs $7. Customers tip, which for a new guest or a tourist, is typically another $1 — $2. For regulars, that tip is another $3. Simply stated, $10 is the cost of admission.
Jefferson Street is historically significant to the city of Nashville. Its origins arose during the Civil War. When the Union Army occupied Nashville from 1862 to 1865, several large contraband camps were established in the city. While horrific to believe, the newly freed African Americans that were emancipated as the federal army swept southward were considered contraband or “prizes” of the war. The women and children were sent to camps. However, the newly freed males were sent to serve as support or soldiers in the federal army. A large contraband camp was opened in the area around the side of federal Fort Gillam, north of downtown Nashville. Dissecting Fort Gillam was a foot path which stretched from the Hadley Plantation, east. What developed first as that foot path later became a wagon road. That wagon road was later designated as Jefferson Street.
With the end of the Civil War, many groups began organizing educational programs for African Americans. And, on January 9, 1866, a school named in honor of Union General C.B. Fisk, who was in charge of the federal occupation, was opened. The emerging school was rechartered in 1872 as Fisk University.
By the turn of the century, the Abraham Lincoln Land Company and the Realty Savings Bank & Trust Company offered lots for sale in the Fisk University Place subdivision, where Negro buyers paid $5.00 down and $5.00 a month to purchase a lot.
In the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, that area became the artistic center of Nashville’s black community and to some extent, the region, as a whole. Lined with clubs and speakeasies, it drew the likes of Ray Charles, James Brown and Fats Domino. While Memphis had Beale Street, Nashville had Jefferson Street. That area of town, later prolifically known simply as “Jefferson Street,” was the origin of Shine Service.1
1 Leaders of Afro-American Nashville, 1999 Nashville Conference, Department of History, Tennessee State University.
In the 1970s, Percy moved from Jefferson Street, downtown, to the basement of what was then the First American Bank Building. He had a single chair, or “stand,” with supplies encased below it. From there, he moved in 1990 to a four-chair shop, in The Arcade, which is a collection of shops in downtown Nashville between 4th and 5th Avenues, and between Union and Church Streets. The Arcade houses a collection of shops including sandwich shops, watch repairs shops, and most notably, Shine Service.
From 1977–1980 Percy took a partial break from shoes due to a heart attack. During those 3 years, the major source of his money was from washing cars, with shoes as a side item. When Percy told me of his heart attack and how it happened, it illuminated further for me what I’ve thought for years; namely, that with the exception of truth, which is absolute, everything else in life, to some degree, is relative. I am a 53 year old, white lawyer. I see doctors annually for checkups. I have health insurance for when I’m sick. I have disability insurance if I become disabled. And, I have life insurance for when I die. Yet, somehow I still feel vulnerable. By contrast, Percy probably does not have and has never had any of those safety nets. He has an apartment and a 25 year old Cadillac. How does a man shining shoes in 10–12 minute increments, while his waiting customers gleefully eat peanuts from a jar and leisurely flip through magazines, have a heart attack? According to him, stress led to his heart attack. The full answer to that question and the facts behind it is the real story of Shine Service and the story I am committed to tell.
Percy is a strong man, standing nearly 6’1” with a medium build. Again, it is difficult to believe he is nearly 80 years old. He is fit, which is either natural or a by-product of his work ethic. I suspect it is a little of both, but mostly the latter. Aside from his 5-day work week at Shine Service, Percy also works 5 nights a week cleaning an office. For a few years, he also worked as a beer vendor at NFL home games for the Tennessee Titans. The irony of Percy’s health is that nearly every person he ever loved or ever worked with is gone; siblings, friends, his wife and one child. Death has been Percy’s regular companion for over 70 years. Yet, he swims on, through a sea of shoes, fighting through the incoming tide.
Percy was one of 5 children; 4 boys and 1 girl. All of his brothers are gone, as is his sister. Percy’s sister died when she was 5. Percy has no idea of her cause of death; whether it was fever or something else. The first brother to die drowned when Percy was a child. One brother was shot, and died later in a nursing home. Percy wouldn’t elaborate on that incident, except to imply that it was crime-related.
Left with minimal brain function, he lived out his life in a nursing home, unable to walk or even shave himself. And so it was that three times a week, every week of every month for nearly 2 years that Percy visited that brother, tended to him and shaved him. Think of it; during those years, Percy had 3 jobs — shining, mopping and everything associated with being a caregiver. Not surprisingly, it was during that time that Percy suffered the heart attack that led in 1977 to his partial, 3 year hiatus from running Shine Service as a fulltime venture.
Percy’s last sibling’s life ended much more sadly than the other deaths that he endured. While living in Ohio at the time, Percy’s remaining brother according to Percy, was sad and ill. He drove unannounced from Ohio to Nashville and arrived at Percy’s home while he was elsewhere. He found Percy’s pistol and blew half of his brains out.
Prior to his heart attack, Percy picked up extra cash by doing “off the foot” shines. Those shines are where people, rather than sitting for a shine, drop off their shoes several at a time and then pick them up later. “Off the foot” cost more; $8 currently. Most people drop off a few shoes on Fridays and Percy shines them over the weekends, deep into the night, so that they are ready by the following Monday. According to Percy, when weather was bad, people would delay dropping off 2 or 3 pairs of shoes and then later drop off 4 or 5 pairs of shoes at a time, and expect them to all be ready the following Monday. And so it was that Percy worked, Monday through Friday at the shop, Monday through Friday at the janitorial job, and day-in and day-out over weekends.
“Everybody waited to the last fucking minute.” The stress, to resist the rising stacks of shoes, according to Percy, “caught me.”
“It caught me, man. It fucking caught me right in the chest” is how he described it. He had fallen ill for some time, only to be asked weeks later by his doctor, “Percy, when did you have your heart attack?” “I don’t know, didn’t know I did, doc,” he replied. “Oh yeah, you did. . . I can tell it right here from your test results,” the doctor added.
Shine Service has 4 chairs; each elevated on a riser with iron foot rests. Over the last few years, only 2 of those chairs have been manned; Percy in the first chair, nearest the door where he has worked since moving to The Arcade in 1990. The second chair is manned by Nell. Ravaged by drug addiction, she is, according to Percy, a shell of what she was “back in the day.”
Nell’s chair and the other two chairs were previously filled over the years by 6 other people, including Bobby, Percy Jr., Kenny B, Ruby, Skeeter and Arthur. Bobby was the first to die. He was a small, old black man that looked like Sammy Davis, Jr., save for his very large and completely white afro. He never spoke. He only mumbled the word, “next” when it was your turn to step up into the chair for your shine. He never made eye contact, although he wasn’t timid. He was, from what I could tell, a no nonsense man. When he finished, he would firmly and quickly tap under one of your heels. That meant it was time to step down, pay for the shine and move on. Lung cancer took Bobby.
I’m not sure whether Ruby or Skeeter was the next to die. The irony of Ruby and Skeeter is a story, in and of itself. Ruby was Percy’s wife and the mother of several of his children, including Percy Jr., who also worked alongside his parents at Shine Service. Ruby was quiet and according to Percy, she “stayed to herself.” Percy offers little to describe Ruby, but when I bring up her name, he pauses and gets quiet. I think his eyes heavied from held back tears.
“Damn, that girl sure could dance.” Ruby was tall and pretty, even as she aged. She wore wigs on occasion; some blond and some red with curls. She looked like she had been a backup singer for the Rolling Stones or a member of the Supremes. That look is an irony, given that it was Nell that was the singer. Although Ruby and Percy were divorced they worked together for years, even though Skeeter, one of Percy’s later women, also took up shop shining shoes in the stand right next to Ruby. Ruby died 4 or 5 years ago from a stroke.
Skeeter was a small woman who never talked. She disappeared from the shop one day. When I asked Percy about it, he said only one thing: “cigarettes.” There was nothing else to say.
Percy Jr. was the next to die. He was bright and handsome. He was married and he had several kids. He died in his late 30s from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Percy does not talk about Percy, Jr.
Arthur was the next to die. Arthur started at the shop around 2010 and appeared at that time to already be in his 80s. He was handsome, smiled a lot, and talked in a comical mumble. He always had a smile. Arthur had been a career Navy man and according to Percy, Arthur didn’t need to work. He was an old friend of Percy’s and he worked just a few days a week to earn cash, and to help Percy. One day, Arthur just up and died.
Kenny B was the next to die. Kenny was young, in his late 40s, with stylish glasses and a well-trimmed beard. He was a prolific jazz drummer and worked at Shine Service when not on the road touring. He was, however, diabetic and, according to Percy, a heavy user.
“Can you believe that dude played the White House once at an inaugural gala? Doped himself right out of a job,” Percy added.
Although technically alive, Nell is doing poorly. She was a nightclub singer in her youth. According to Percy, “that gal could sing her ass off.” Now, she is a heavy user. He never said it, but it is obvious Percy adores Nell. He said that at one time he planned to marry her but, as he says it, “she fucked that up too.”
He says Nell ruined herself, her career and their relationship. “I got her two singing contracts and she blowed both of them.” Percy insists that when he met Nell, she was beautiful, kind and talented. Now, her voice gone; she is combative, foul mouthed, and dangerously thin. The cloud of death is probably close to her, as well.
Percy tolerates Nell simply to help her, although she hasn’t really earned that right. The fact is, Percy helps dozens of people who don’t really deserve it and who are younger, and probably more able than he is to earn a living. Percy’s generosity is also a story, in and of itself.
The notes I’ve set out in this story come from a series of meetings. Once Percy embraced the idea, we agreed to meet each Friday around 4:00, after he shut down the shop, but before he moved onto his night job at the office. I had to pepper Percy with specific questions to extract from him any detailed information. I’d pose them in short questions, like “tell me about Ruby,” or, “who taught you to do a spit shine?” His answers were always quick and short, which would then require follow up questions.
You have to pull information out of Percy to find out the details of who he is and where he is from. The details of shining, however, took very few questions. Percy would launch into lengthy narratives when talking about the nuances of how to shine, what products he uses, and the like. While self-taught for the most part, Percy acknowledges James Amos Hardison as one of his early shine mentors. Hardison mentored Percy in the late 1940s and early 1950s about the nuances of the “spit shine.” Hardison was already in his 70s at that time. He had learned from John G. Grudard, who came to the United States as an old man from France towards the end of the 19th century. Grudard learned decades earlier from another black man who, according to Percy, was Napoleon’s personal valet (boot man).
According to Percy, the “art” of the spit shine is friction. The high shine comes from the friction created from the rapid movement of the rag with the water and the polish. It creates a hard shine. “Problem with most shiners is that they don’t hold the rag tight or move it fast enough. A good spit shine wears out your arms but that’s what it takes.” Percy points out, “it’s all in the person doing it. Most who try don’t really spit shine, they half-shine.”
Percy is all about his equipment, as well. “I got shine rags, buffing rags and finishing rags,” Percy adds. Pausing, he quietly adds, “I never stop learning shit about shine.”
Along those lines, he speaks with pride that he buys the best polishes, which he gets from Kiwi, Kelly’s, Lincoln and Angelus. “I even got Japanese polish but it’s too oily.”
When asked why so many brands, he points out that it’s all about the color. “I carry all the colors.” He then shows me how Kiwi Tan is different from Lincoln Tan, and how Kelly’s Brown is different from Angelus Brown, and so on and so forth. Percy is so proud to carry all the best brands and he knows a lot about those brands.
One of those brands, the Kiwi brand, was first launched in Australia in 1906 and as of 2005 it was sold in approximately 180 countries. It is considered the dominant shoe polish in some countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. The polish was developed in Australia by William Ramsay who named it Kiwi after the flightless bird endemic to New Zealand, the country of his wife, Annie Elizabeth Meek Ramsay.
Another of those brands, the Lincoln brand, was founded in 1925. It markets itself as packaging 11 colors in the handy “snap open” can which it has manufactured, for nearly 100 years from its facility in Sunnyvale, California.
Another of those brands, the Angelus brand, was the dream of Paul T. Angelos who arrived at Ellis Island, New York. He made his way to Chicago where he shined shoes and then on to Los Angeles. He later developed his own product line and in 1917, he registered his trademark, adding a “u” for the slightly odd spelling “Angelus.”
I asked Percy to distinguish polishes from creams and he frowned. “Cream just helps add a little life to a dead shoe. Polish is the real deal. I don’t use much cream; got cans back there I’ve had for 10 years.”
He has also over 30 brushes, most of which are made from horse hair. “I got a brush for every fucking color that walks in the door.”
Percy also speaks highly about the fact that he uses steel wool. When a bad shoe comes in the door, he cleans it, then uses steel wool to strip it down. He then adds color with stain and then, according to him, “We get to work.”
“The stain is free,” he says proudly.
Aside from resurrecting old shoes with stain, Percy also has a side act regarding stain. He changes a shoe’s color in order to add style. He proudly shows me a pair of 2-toned black and blue wing tips on display in his shop window. He made them for a rich guy, with a matching set of heels for his girl. “These used to belong to a stripper, “ he adds with a smile curling up on one side of his face. Percy takes great pride in his stain work, which he views as art. To fully change a shoe’s color, it is a multiday process. According to him, he loses money on stain jobs but proudly does the work. He told me several times with a sad tone in his voice that he charges too little for staining shoes. “I’m underminding myself,” he said twice.
“Again, no disrespect to others in the business, but when it comes to color, I’m an artist.” According to Percy, when he first got into staining, he revolutionized stain work for bright blue shoes. It was back in the 1950s. He had at that time a rare white customer, who was a lawyer. The man saw a pair of specially colored blue shoes and asked Percy to replicate them. “Strange color for a white guy but not a brother,” he said. Most of his stain work has been for African Americans, and, as he puts it, “Blacks love their colors; weird . . .”
Along the subject of pricing, he pointed out twice that when he started in the late 1940s, nearly 100% of his clients were black. “I only had one white customer.” Now, the number is nearly 75%.
Over the course of our meetings, I heard more and more from Percy about the racial aspects of shoe shining. “As you know, a black man is only going to pay another black man so much for a shine,” Percy said. But, he added, “It’s worth it. I like what I do.”
After several of our meetings which focused exclusively on his work, I was finally able to get Percy to open up about Percy, the man. To start, Percy, like my Dad, loves to fish. Once I took my Dad into Shine Service. They connected quickly, and in the 5 years since, Percy will often ask me about my father.
“How Dad?” is how he phrases it.
Percy shines shoes because he has a way with his hands. According to him, “I’m good with my hands.” Percy describes to me how he likes to tinker with things in his garage, “fix things, you know.” That tinkering gene is also like my Dad. Both men know the value of a shine; both men have a strong work ethic; and both men like to tinker.
They have another common denominator, as well. As I said, Percy grew up on Jefferson Street, which is historically a low-income predominately black, district in Nashville. However, a few years ago, Percy moved to Hermitage, Tennessee, which is a predominately white, and middle-class suburb of Nashville. Ironically, my parents lived in Hermitage for several years.
I know Percy likes music and on occasion, he likes a shot of Jack Daniels, and so I asked him where he found such fun as a black man in the predominately white suburb of Hermitage. “I go where I want,” he said; “redneck bar or whatever.” “I go where I want because I never met a stranger; I got a way with people,” he added.
Indeed, Percy has a way with people.
“My sacrifice, o God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart that you, God, will not despise.” Psalms 51:17
I began this work in the Fall of 2016. I finished the main portion, but grappled thereafter, with how it should conclude. I’ve since written and rewritten this Epilogue several times. How and why did I meet Percy, how did he become a sage in my life and why did I feel led to scratch the surface of his life and then commit it to words?
It then came to me. “Brokenness”; was the commonality. The deaths and heartache that Percy has suffered could lead no man to any destination other than brokenness. And, yet, he pushes onward; day in and day out against the tide of that weight.
In contrast, my life was, as I naively or arrogantly thought, in fine working order until 2010. I was then rocked, and then remained rocked, in a state of fragility until 2013. Stripped of most of the things upon which I had wrongly rested my foundation, and with them now gone, brokenness arrived and it has been my companion ever since.
“Brokenness” or, to be “broken.” The latter has so many, many definitions; most of them bad. Based on the Latin word “disruptus” it has its origins going back to the mid-16th Century; i.e., to be ruptured, torn, non-functional, fragmented, or reduced to fragments. I’ve grown to embrace the last definition. To be reduced to fragments gives one only two options –rebuild or perish. The deaths, illness, and grief that Percy has endured have no doubt reduced him to fragments, yet every day, he builds, rebuilds, builds and rebuilds. I’ve tried the same over the last 6 years, but with focus over the last 3. I intend to keep doing so, and in the spirit of my friend, Percy. To do otherwise would be a denial of the salvation that comes through pain and sorrow, and more importantly, the redemption. Redemption (or to be redeemed) breeds atonement from mistakes, and from atonement, comes deliverance.
I’ve made many mistakes, and of late, new ones, often allowing my brokenness to nearly break those who’ve selflessly loved me, without conditions.
Thus, I need to be reminded, like everyone, of the importance of brokenness, just as the photos of deceased loved ones that line Percy’s shop walls remind him of his brokenness. I’m glad to have been afforded Percy’s friendship because, yeah, he has “a way with people…”
Phillip Byron Jones Is an Attorney with the Nashville, Tennessee Law Firm of Evans, Jones & Reynolds, PC.