16 February, 2011: Allen Feaster: The Shoe Doctor
San Francisco. “You are like a doctor in your field. You just brought my shoes back to life.” With such iconic words uttered by a satisfied customer, Allen Feaster’s trademark was born. Some six years later, The Shoe Doctor has been featured in lifestyle magazines to local newspapers, and voted “Best Shoe Shine” by the SF Weekly. As one of the converted, I am here to sing the praises of the best shoe man I know.
Such a reputation brought Allen to the attention of our Dirty Jobs producers in 2009, and that Allen was just an elevator ride away from another one of our dirty stories made a visit with him a no-brainer. So it was that we spent an afternoon down the hall of the first floor of San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel, our cameras rolling on each other’s haggard boots as we received a much needed intervention in what Allen terms “shoe-icide.” It was a dose of wisdom from an unconventional source, but one that made an impact. Recalling the short-lived overhauls endured by my late great hipster penny loafers from college, it was better late than never.
A military man with a decade’s experience polishing shoes and boots to a lustrous sheen, Allen was a qualified choice to join his cousin, an established shoe shine veteran, as understudy. Gene Cousins had been plying his craft for 13 years, and compared to the military polish technique, had evolved a more civil approach to shoe care involving a conditioning technique. Inspired by a better way–if not Gene’s stoicism–it took an inspired Allen no time at all to unlearn his military training with shoe polish and master Gene’s craft of shoe care. Five years later he found himself sole proprietor of the operation, when Gene handed over the kingdom for good.
Since then, the Doctor has been in. In sharp contrast to his mentor, Allen brings a disarming levity to his work, an enduring joviality that is not only intentional, but as if the day depends on it. If a client is a returnee, you can expect a conversation akin to a reunion, with jokes and stories. But even the most taciturn of out-of-towners wind up smiling, his day brightened by this strange cat who, well, seems to genuinely care about altering the course of the day.
To the uninitiated this might sound odd. Allen’s projection of customer service carries the urgency of that upbeat car salesman you know you shouldn’t trust because everyone knows car salesmen are predators. But, by the time your shoe hairs are being trimmed with precision scissors, any hesitations for shysterism you’ve been harboring have been replaced with a confidence that comes with the satisfaction of having your shoes look the best they’ve looked in ages, and you’ve just been schooled in either: 1.) some life lesson; 2.) how to definitively take care of your expensive shoes; or 3.) all of the above. If this sounds like therapy, well I suppose it kind of is.
Allen brings to his customer a kind of experience. He is a survivor, a warrior, and a messenger. Born in the Bronx in 1954, he navigated an abused childhood with nine half brothers and sisters (with another half sister in Italy) and nine step brothers and sisters (with another step sister in Korea). Alcohol was a part of his life at the age of seven, and it would accompany him into adulthood and the Air Force (for which, along with his grandmother, Allen credits for saving his life). There, despite ten years of superior service, his functional alcoholism caught up with him and he was discharged UOTH, or “Under Other Than Honorable.” That was 1983, though it wasn’t until 1985 that he took his last drink.
On a particularly wild birthday weekend, Allen careened into a gas station when his steering wheel locked up as a result of running out of gas. Hauled off to jail for DUI, he then found himself in the midst of a prisoner riot. In the heat of the moment, Allen prayed.
“All the decisions I’d made in my life had built up to put me right there in that jail,” he says. “I knew that I was responsible for my life and for many things I was not proud of, and it was up to me to turn things around. I told God right then and there that if I ever took another drink, he should take my life.”
Shortly after the upheaval he was released. A few days later he found himself in a night club with some friends. One of those friends handed him a beer.
“I reached out and I took that beer,” he says, reliving the moment with a faraway stare. “And then the strangest thing happened …”
Allan looks me in the eye, and with an expression of wonder and amazement, continues: “I don’t know if that bottle grew smaller or my hand grew larger, but it slipped from my hand and broke there on the floor.”
“I was scared,” he says. “I ran for the door, to get out of that place. I dropped to my knees in the parking lot, and I told God thank you for not taking my life.” He laughs. “There were people driving around me, and they were honking at me to get out of the way.”
“When I stood up, the desire and taste for alcohol was gone. That was my last drink.”
Over the next two decades he would seek to reinvent himself as a better man, as someone who gives back. He would work jobs ranging from warehouse manager to welder, and he wold endure a period of homelessness. He would re-marry a second and third time, father two children of his own, and foster another five kids from troubled backgrounds. He would also become an advocate for the homeless.
We are having lunch at the employee cafeteria when Allen tells me of another major turning point in life. In 1994 he would lose one of his adopted sons while in the custody of a California legal system which Allen considers negligent, if not liable. With but a month left to serve of a year’s sentence with the California Youth Authority (he was first convicted of theft at the age of 15), his adopted son Durrell would die of alleged suicide.
“Durrell was an upbeat kid,” Allen explains. “Though he had ADHD, suicide doesn’t begin to describe him. Yet no investigation was conducted into the circumstances of his death.”
For the next decade, Allen would devote his off hours publishing editorials in newspapers and testifying before the state senate (three times) for general reform in the Youth Authority.
“These kids aren’t given the help they need to reform,” Allen says. “They’re thrown into a violent system which makes them worse. They’re neglected, medicated, and hardly educated. If they survive prison, these kids are different from when they went in. They’re worse off, and experience such despair that they’ll never fit into society. At a critical time in a young person’s life, in their minds they’re criminals forever.”
Back at the stand, Allen feels the weight of our lunchtime conversation. There’s a tiredness there, but not defeat.
“You have to put negativity in your pocket,” he says. “You can’t let the troubles of the world or the people in your life bring you down. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for who’s in the mirror. No one else.” With that said, Allan has a pair of customers. And he’s on.
“What we’re doing here is shoe care,” he says, horse hair brush a-flitter. “When you go to those other stands where they use shoe polish? Well, they’re shoe murderers. If you do it yourself, it’s shoe-icide.” Always good for a chuckle, the customers are nonetheless tuned in by the message; even the serious guy with his Blackberry and clients and concerns on another coast.
Allen goes about his work with dazzling efficiency. As he speeds along, he narrates the process as much for the customer as for me. We are rapt.
“I use a natural bristle brush. Horse hair. And a bit of water to clean the shoe and stitching. NEVER use chemical cleaners because they will destroy glues and erode stitching.”
Allen dabs a cloth into a small jar of Meltonian Shoe Cream. He swipes a tad onto the shoes, and works it into the leather uppers.
“NEVER use shoe polish. And whatever you do, NEVER use wax. They both dry out the leather. I use a good leather conditioner. The leather needs to breathe. Wax and polish don’t breathe,” he says, achieving complete coverage with not a hint of waste. “A little dab will do you.”
Allen moves onto a supple and well-seasoned rag which, with a controlled and practiced fervor, he works the upper to a buttery gloss.
Next is touch up with a dobber. This is a delicate and minimal process.
“NEVER apply heel dressing or edge dressing anywhere but the edge of the sole, and only if touching up prior damage with a dobber.”
The final step is to snip the minuscule hairs you never noticed before–from stitching, laces, and the edges of the shoe leather. This process tightens up the lines, akin to detailing a car.
And just like a good massage comes to an abrupt end, the job is done. All in attendance blink and stretch, shaking off Allen’s brand of hypnosis.
Revitalized shoes are admired by all as coats are gathered and money changes hands.
“Remember–wax and polish does not waterproof shoes, it dries them out, and that junk applied to the top of the sole is the biggest contributor to a shoe’s wear and tear.”
“Shoe-icide!” the customer says, leaving a big tip.
According to Allen’s stringent research, some 90% of his customers won’t sit down at another shoe shine stand after receiving his lesson on re-shoe-vination.
“They know,” he says. “I’m a shoe-ologist who went to the school of shoe-ology!”
As Allen tidies up his stand and prepares for the next wave of industry, a recurring question comes to mind, compelling to me where one does a repetitive task.
“Allen, what do you think about while you work?”
Not missing a beat, Allen’s quick with a reply.
“I think about who I’m going to make smile next.”
And he’s serious. “Oh yeah! I come to work not because I have to, but because I love it. This isn’t just a job. It’s my business.”
In a storage cabinet next to his stand Allen keeps photo albums and scrapbooks of his family. He has a boom box to play his soul CDs and cassettes, and a stack of motivational books for the quiet times between customers. He also keeps a laptop to write letters and view media from the discs he’s received from his grown-up kids.
He hands me the laptop to check out. In current rotation as screen saver is a slide show from his recent wedding in Maui. The bride and groom are dressed casually in white, exchanging giddy vows barefoot in the sand.
“Terry’s my fourth marriage,” Allen says, with reverence.
The photo dissolves to a pic of the newly betrothed, the bride in Allen’s arms. They’re laughing like kids, waste-deep in the surf.
“… But I call her my first. I earned this one.”