Shoeshine Buddha, or what I learned in Bishop, part I

My left pointer finger is jammed into a small hueco in the volcanic rock face. It cuts the skin a little, at the edge. My right hand awkwardly grabs the sloped edge of a giant crater by my right foot. My cheek kisses the cool rock.  My toes, squeezed into my sweaty second hand climbing shoes, grip the smallest of cracks, a ridiculous inch off the ground. I balance, graceful as a bear on a tricycle, and slowly bring my right hand over my head, in front of my face and down to a rock protrusion at my chest. My heart beats in my ears, I bounce my chest to the protrusion, release my left hand and match my right. My forearms are already tight, like the skin shrunk in the sun.

It took a solid fifteen seconds from setting my feet to completing the first move of this boulder problem. It is my third try just starting.

And Rueben, my roommate and climbing buddy, standing a foot behind me on the hiked in crash pad, says calmly and firmly – 


I send it.  

The next day I am I am sweating. My shirt smells like two days of wear without a shower. My legs sprawl to a different rock face, I grip a giant flake in my chalked white hands, and  I tense for the first move, the pull up, the reach, the power.

My nerves tingle in my arms and finger tips like Christmas anticipation, expectation, the rush to realization of some gift.

Behind me Rueben says –


I don’t send it, but I get farther than I have all day.

The next day, after camp stove coffee and flax seed granola with warm almond milk, I sit on the picnic table with Katherine, my friend and other climbing buddy. She cradles a worn Tich Nhat Hanh book in her crossed legs. We watch the sunlight creep down the far off mountains sparking the grays to reds. The sprawling camp ground is scattered with bright colored tents as giant hunch-back bugs, and the lifers stumbling from their dusty vans, the smell of drop toilets finally reaching our far off site, like the memory of something vaguely bad.

She reads to me from the book-

Smile, breathe and go slowly.

So we sit a moment longer.

The next day at LAX I sit high on the shoe shine stand. I am awkward, a king without ceremony, a pauper plopped on a throne. Marvin, the 45 year-old Black shoe shine is at my feet. The symbolism is heavy on me.  I think of my father cleaning puke from the floor of the elementary school where he was a janitor, pouring saw dust from a bag  and sweeping the smell into a garbage barrel. And no matter how many patronizing union fights, and no matter how much my dad stood up to the bosses and the teachers and the kids, I saw it for what it was.

But my boots are dusty from the desert, so I sit in the chair, and Marvin bends over my feet. He reads me. He tells me about doing what you love and be an expert at it. If you shine shoes be the best shoe shine, he says.

He tells me how college wasn’t for him, but shoe shining, and boat upholstery, he can do that. He owns all the shoe shine stands in the airport and they are all complimentary. Tips only.

Tips only?
Cuts the read tape of having to register the business.
And this is a service for everyone, not only rich white travelers like you. This is for the people who work here too.

Marvin shows me real power with each brush scuff and smear of leather conditioner. He hands out legitimacy with his rags and banter, shaping destiny with a shine. You can always tell a man by his shoes.

I’m no longer awkward. Humbled. Marvin, the rock, the mountains. They mug me of arrogance. He punches the smirk off my face.

He stands up straight, looks me in the eyes and says, when you come to a life decision, a big one, something that stresses you out, that you are scared of –



About JTP

An occasional reader, an occasional writer, an occasional podcast producer, an occasional strategist.
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