One way of looking at Misak’s Pirinjian’s shoe repair job is that it consists of several dozen deadlines, usually but not always met, every day. So when Lisa Mann brought in her right size-four-wide Nike athletic shoe with the request that he add nearly five inches to its sole, Misak wasn’t the least bit alarmed. It was early September. Lisa, who suffers from a severe disparity in the length of her legs, didn’t need the elevated shoe until October 15, when she was going to Greece. He’d already altered a few of her shoes, and he knew what was involved. He’d have it ready for her by then, easy.
In the meantime, he went about his business in the usual way, which is to say, he worked hard. He got up each morning at 5:30 and for two hours worked in his home garage in San Rafael, California. That’s where he works on everything other than shoes—the suitcases and backpacks and purses and baseball mitts, things requiring the sewing machines that don’t fit inside the tiny Mill Valley shop. At 7:30 he enjoyed a quick breakfast with his wife Souzi and their three girls. Then he walked the two older ones to the school bus stop, holding hands with the 5-year-old. After driving the 15-mile commute to Mill Valley, he arrived at his shop at a quarter to nine, and did not leave until 6:30 or seven in the evening. On Saturdays, he changed his schedule slightly: he went home an hour early. Each day, from eight in the morning until at least seven at night, he usually didn’t eat. He’d drink a cup of coffee if somebody brought it to him, and sometimes he had a microscopically small box of raisins, but that’s all—food slows him down.
In the two weeks before he began working on Lisa’s Nike, the usual assortment of piquant events unfolded at the shop. He worked on a $500 pair of Gucci high heel boots: “Smell the leather. It smells so good.” Floyd, his assistant who invariably stays behind the work table while Misak handles customers, noticed that when it was time for a young woman to pay, she looked around to see if anyone was watching, and (apparently having failed in this mission), drew money out of her bra. The Righteous Brothers sang “You’ve Got That Loving Feeling” on the radio, and Misak declared, “I’ve got that feeling.” A burly man wearing a Lake Tahoe T-shirt came in with a torn bass violin case, which happened still to contain a bass violin. “They allow you to play a big instrument like this?” Misak said, but the man didn’t notice he was being teased: he was busy displaying the initials that school kids had carved into the instrument sometime after it was made in Czechoslovakia in 1917. When an elderly woman wearing a neck brace said she needed a pair of shoes repaired before embarking on a trip to Italy, Misak told her that a handsome Italian man would rub her neck right out of its pain. “My husband wouldn’t like that,” the woman said, pausing a moment before adding, “but I would.” A plump white cat named Kennedy brassily entered the shop and sat down on the bottom step of the wooden staircase behind the counter. The cat always acts as if the place is his, complained Misak. “Go out,” he said mildly. “Get lost. Let me see your back.” The cat promptly walked to the door, paused long enough as if to assert the principle of its sovereignty, and left, as sullen as when it arrived.
Misak finally got to work on Lisa’s shoe on September 23, at a quarter to four in the afternoon. He held a short-bladed knife in his right hand, and, with his thumb near its nub, cut around the circumference of the sole as if he were slicing the skin, but not the meat, of an orange. Tucking the shoe into his left elbow, he pried the sole apart with his left hand, and cut at the exposed honeycomb of rubber with his right. When he finished, he’d peeled off an even slice of sole no more than a quarter of an inch thick, eyeballing it all the way. He held the sliced-off sole to the spinning sandpaper wheel of his finishing machine, so that when the time came, the sole’s surface would be rough enough to hold glue, and then he slapped the sole on top of the stitching machine in the back corner of the shop. He wouldn’t look at the sole again until the job was nearly done, three weeks later, when he could glue it to the nearly five-inch-high rubber section he now had to create.
Next Misak fetched from upstairs a half-inch-thick sheet of orthopedic soling rubber. He placed the Nike on a corner of the sheet and marked the shoe’s outline with a felt-tipped pen. Then he sliced off a section slightly larger than the outline, and held both it and the Nike to the sander, opening and closing his mouth as he moved the rubber up and down against the whining sander. He hung the shoe on a peg above his work table, and placed the rubber piece on the window sill, where the afternoon sun would heat the glue. From now on the job would consist of cutting, gluing, and shaping these half-inch pieces to the remaining shoe, slab by slab, until he’d made nine and a half layers—that would give the shoe the additional four-and-three-quarters-inch depth it needed. The first step in the building up of Lisa’s shoe had taken six minutes. The job was about a tenth done.
If Misak Pirinjian ever ran for mayor of Mill Valley, many of his customers think he’d win in a landslide. Not that he’s the least bit interested in the job—in a way, he’s the mayor already. Something like a hundred people a day come into his shop; multiply a hundred by six days of the week, fifty-one weeks per year, and you get the idea that virtually all of Mill Valley’s 12,000 citizens know Misak.
If you’re one of them, you might enter the shop after looking in the window down the street at Wilkes Bashford Sport, where a suede sportscoat costs fourteen hundred dollars and the shirts are folded on shiny tables as neatly as linen napkins. Or maybe you’ve been across the street, at the refulgent but oh-so-ordered garden at the original Smith & Hawken outlet. Now you cross the street to the unassuming stucco building with the modest sign over the door that says
The door is open. The first thing you notice is the smell, a brown aromatic blast of a hundred kinds of leather mixed with hints of scorched metal, shoe polish, vanilla, and heated glue. Then you see the mounds of leather goods—the foothills of backpacks and purses that reach up to the counter, the Alpine crests of repaired shoes rising from the work table, and, in shelves along the right wall, the tattered produce boxes heaped with footwear awaiting repair, worn-down shoes crawling right up to the ceiling, like the Himalayas. In affluent Mill Valley, a suburb of San Francisco, Misak’s shop is distinguished by its humble, no-frills appearance.
Maybe Misak is standing at the finishing machine, his back turned to the front door. The whine of the grinder and rumble of the dust vacuum drown out your entrance. On the wall you notice the big clock, barely able to find space for itself amid the shelves of shoes, whose circa-1950s face reads:
It might as well have been placed there to indicate the time shift that overtakes you inside the shop. Misak moves with efficiency, but he doesn’t hurry. It may take him a minute to notice you, and then another minute or two before he stops what he’s working on. Then he greets you and walks over to the counter, performing a limboesque swivel to avoid the wooden staircase that looms over his cramped work space. Say you’re bringing in something a little bit complicated: a 9-year-old loafer that has started to rub against your Achilles tendon, or a torn surfboard bag, or even a set of bar stools that needs recovering. Most of the time Misak knows instantly how to fix the problem, but he hears you out, so you’re not deprived of the satisfaction of having your say. Then, if you haven’t yet learned to trust his work, he succinctly tells you how he’ll proceed, and, if you ask, the virtual pittance that the work will cost. He learned how to do most of this stuff years ago; he’d feel burdened if he charged a lot for something so easy.
If you’re there to pick up an order, he’ll usually extract it from the shelves and find space for it on the counter before you’ve said anything more than “Hello.” He hates tags, and uses them only for new customers. When patrons express astonishment at his ability to find in a few seconds some article that was brought in months ago, he tells them it’s nothing, he just knows his shop. Customers often want to pay him more than what he charges: if they do, he tells them the extra money will go into his “children’s education fund,” a euphemism for the worry at the back of his mind about how he’ll pay for his three small daughters’ college educations. Most of Misak’s customers make far more money than he does, yet envy is far from his mind. Almost invariably, he charges in round numbers—a couple of dollars for a jar of polish or stretching a pair of shoes, three dollars for a shine, five dollars to lower a woman’s high heel, and so on; he can figure out what he owes the state in sales taxes later on. The ancient cash register holds coins, but they’re used chiefly for feeding parking meters. If you don’t have enough money, he unhesitatingly gives you your shoes anyway, and tells you to make it up next time. When thanked, he answers, “You are very welcome.”
Even considering Misak’s tranquil relationship to money, however, the more interesting transactions in his shop are not financial. He’s part flirt, part magician, part fascinated Mill Valley observer. If you’ve been in his shop before, the odds are great that he’ll remember where your last conversation with him left off, even if it occurred months ago. “How was Chile?” he asks a man who told him six months earlier that he was going on a trip to South America. Out the window, he notices that the local Chrysler dealer’s wife is driving by in an expensive foreign car. Misak’s barber, a woman who at the moment is companionless, stops by for a hug, and he cheerfully supplies it. When Ralph Barbieri, host of a San Francisco radio “sports talk” show, comes in during a San Francisco Giants playoff game, Misak asks him why he’s not watching the game. Barbieri isn’t offended; in fact, the next day he mentions Misak’s shop on the show. Between customers, Misak works on shoes, so many in quick succession that it’s all but impossible to track one shoe through the repair process. Floyd, Misak’s assistant for the last ten years, says he still can’t follow everything that happens in a day. “I find something and I’ll say, ‘What’s this? What happened?’”
With most of his customers, he conducts an exchange on several levels. The most striking thing he offers is his undivided attention: even if the conversation has strayed far from leather goods, he listens intently, answers thoughtfully, and gives you as much time as you need to express yourself fully, as if all those yawning boxes of unrepaired shoes did not forever beckon. Misak likes working on shoes—he’s intrigued by every shoe’s uniqueness, and savors the well-crafted ones—but the deepest pleasure in his work extends from his interactions with customers. Because of them, he doesn’t feel enclosed in his tiny shop, consigned to leather repair for 70 hours a week; he’s at the hub of something larger, a participant in the quotidian Mill Valley soap opera. He knows who just bought a racehorse, who’s recovering from a recent divorce, who was injured in a recent marathon. He knows that the woman in the next-door apartment wants to get married, but that her boyfriend isn’t ready—“Have you heard that before?” is his only comment. When two Jehovah’s Witnesses drop by, Misak listens to their spiel, for that’s more civil than asking them to leave. “Misak really knows how to talk to people,” Floyd says. “I wish I did—then I could have a girlfriend.”
Misak is constantly collecting things to give to his customers, and receiving other things in return. When he learns that a customer likes to fish, he offers to give him a surgeon’s knife that is useful in painlessly removing hooks from fishes’ mouths—a local doctor gave Misak a bag full of the knives because they would otherwise have been thrown away. After discovering that two Swiss girls lived in Mill Valley at different times of the year, he kept one’s address, and will present it to the other when she returns, in case they want to meet in Switzerland. For people in financial need, or “nice guys,” or women whose looks he likes, he cuts his prices, and doesn’t tell the beneficiaries of the deduction; this, he says, is his “pro bono” work. He has arranged four blind dates among his customers, though, to his regret, no marriages have yet resulted. He even hands out dog biscuits to customers’ dogs.
In turn, customers bring him coffee and Cokes; one makes him home-baked bread. A German customer brings specialized awls from Germany. Feeling indebted to Misak after he hand-stitched back to life a beloved but almost hopelessly worn pair of hiking boots, a knife fancier regularly takes Misak’s shop knives home to sharpen. Clerks at Smith & Hawken send over plants they’ve been unable to sell. Customers give Misak tickets to sports events and shows; Bill Graham, the late rock promoter, gave him backstage passes to a Rolling Stones concert in 1985. To mark the birth of Misak’s second daughter, a local artist gave him an edition of her children’s prints. Last October, when Misak attended a friend’s wedding in Los Angeles, a customer treated him and his family to a four-hundred-dollar meal. While Mill Valley’s sense of community is threatened by an incursion of faceless chain stores, a village has arisen around Misak.
Yet for all the satisfaction he takes in his work, Misak didn’t intend to become a shoe repairman. As an Armenian living in Israel, Vartan, Misak’s father, was an orthopedic shoemaker until he moved the family to Marin County in Northern California in 1969. Then Vartan bought Tony’s Shoe Repair from a Greek who’d bought it seven years earlier from the original Tony, a member of the esteemed lineage of Italian leather craftsmen who immigrated to the United States in the first half of the century; for years afterward, Vartan was called “Tony,” just as most of the shop’s current customers call Misak that now. Misak helped his father in the shop while attending high school, but, like many immigrants’ sons, he aspired to something more prestigious, not to mention lucrative: he wanted to be a tax lawyer.
For many years, it looked as though he would be. After two years at the College of Marin, where Misak was a Junior College All-American soccer player, he got an athletic scholarship to the University of San Francisco, and played on two teams that won national championships. Then he attended law school at Western State University in Los Angeles, working his way through at a pizza parlor, a title company, and a law firm where he clerked. By the time he got his law degree in 1981, however, he was disillusioned. Misak hated the endless delays of legal work, the emphasis on billable hours, all the obstacles that prevented him from providing meaningful service to the firm’s clients. While trying to pass the bar after law school graduation, he worked not at a law firm, but a luggage repair shop; that at least gave him a practical skill. When he failed the bar a second time, he weighed his choices. On one side was the advantage of a law practice, which seemed to boil down to a substantial income. On the other side were the benefits of shoe repair: morally uncompromised work that promised peace of mind, contact with a rich variety of townspeople, and the capacity for delivering quick satisfaction to customers, again and again and again. Never mind that he wouldn’t make much money, and that he’d have to work twelve hours a day, six days a week: the decision was easy. Years later Misak told a customer that he chose shoe repair over the law because when he died, he wanted to be loved.
Now a woman comes into the shop. Misak wordlessly turns away, and from the piles of leather goods that appear poised to engulf the shop, he extracts a backpack and a sandal, and makes room for them on the crowded counter. He has restitched one of the backpack’s handles, and he has reglued a strap to the sandal. For this, he tells the woman, the cost is four dollars.
“Four dollars for everything?” she asks. “Are you feeding your daughters?”
“Water,” Misak says, only his eyes betraying the joke.
“Water? Maybe you should take five dollars.” She hands him a five and says, “Thank you, sir. I’m so glad I’m making you rich.”
“You are very, very welcome.”
Shoe repair requires strong hand-eye coordination, and when Misak works on a shoe, it’s obvious that he has it. Even at 42, a decade past his last workout, he exudes an athlete’s physical confidence. He still thinks like an athlete: a man of few grudges, he holds one against Ted Robinson, a sports announcer heedless enough to assert on the air that the beginnings of soccer matches are boring. At 160 pounds, five-feet-nine-and-a-half-inches, he’s a compact, solid man, whose power seems to extend upward from his oversized calves—after all, legs are, in a sense, what his life is all about. It’s no accident that his only sartorial extravagance is a pair of two-hundred-seventy-five-dollar workboots, traded for shoe repair work at WilkesSport, the snazziest store in town, that he wears in addition to his jeans, T-Shirt, and black apron. Your feet are your foundation.
When Misak works at the finishing machine, he bends his neck to a flat horizontal, like a turtle with head extended—it’s a worrisome posture suggesting forthcoming spine problems, but the only time Misak has felt back pain has been when he’s worked in the garden at home. There’s a turtle-like cast to his face as well, encompassing both the gentle curve of his nose and the slight recession of his chin, yet his face leaves an agreeable impression, and women find him sexy. His smile starts with his eyes, then radiates outwards along his laugh lines until, endearingly, his whole face is enlivened. He has lost a bit of hair, at the temples and crown of his head, so that what’s left looks like curly, silvery laurels. As a child, he was called “Tomato” for the redness of his cheeks, but now the ruddiness has mostly given way to olive, lending him a slightly unfamiliar foreign aspect. Even by the commodious standards of normalcy in Northern California, an Israeli-born Armenian qualifies as exotic.
Forty minutes passed before Misak returned to Lisa’s shoe: by now the sun had activated the glue. He placed the glued rubber slab against the bottom of the shoe, hammered on it several times, trimmed off the gross excess along the sides with a knife, and hammered again. Then he turned to the finishing machine and delicately sanded off the remaining excess rubber on the sides and gave the toe a graceful upward curve, so Lisa wouldn’t stumble. A slip of Misak’s hand now would be hard to rectify, but he contoured the shoe’s first rubber layer without incident. He built one more layer that afternoon; then he didn’t touch Lisa’s shoe for a week.
Shoe repair was once the province of Italian immigrant craftsmen, like the shop’s original Tony. The work was appealing because it didn’t require much communication skill, and many of the repairmen didn’t speak English; they usually could figure out what to do just by looking at their customers’ shoes. Shoe repairmen then were notorious for their taciturn ways; some were so fearful of being drawn into conversation in English that they didn’t install phones in their shops. The industry reached its acme during World War II, when shoes were rationed and repair was the obvious solution; the United States then had between 70,000 and 80,000 shoe repair shops, in some cities one to a block. Once the war ended, however, so did rationing, and new shoes again became plentiful. By 1970, the number of shops had dropped to 10,000; then it crept back up to 14,000 or 15,000 during the Reagan era. The rise of athletic shoes and rubber “comfort shoes” since then has delivered another crippling blow to the industry; even though most comfort shoes can be repaired, their owners are more likely to throw them away than mend them. The result is that the repair shop population has again dropped, to its current level of about 11,000. Immigrants still comprise most of the proprietors, but now they’re likely to be from Korea, Vietnam, or Russia. They’re also likely to cope with the decline of the shoe repair business by offering other services, from luggage repair, as in Misak’s case, to key cutting.
Though Vartan, Misak’s father, wasn’t Italian, he typified shoe repairmen in another respect, for, despite living in the United States for three decades, he never learned English. When Misak helped out in the shop as a teenager, he dealt with customers while Vartan worked on their shoes. Now, with shoe repairmen facing hard times, the emphasis in the industry is on customer relations: the repairman must be not just a craftsman but a compassionate “shoe doctor,” the person who satisfies patrons by reviving their beloved shoes. It may be a coincidence, but Misak, the quintessential charmer, fits the new era just as his father did the old one.
In one significant way, Misak is an unusually fortunate shoe repairman, since his parents and older brother own the building where his shop is located. As a result, he is insulated from the threat of high rent. In recent years, rent in Mill Valley has driven out many businesses that served the local citizenry: among them are two hardware stores, a pharmacy, a stationery store, and an organic grocery store. In contrast, many of the new tenants—an exclusive clothing store, an art gallery, two bedroom furniture and linen shops—cater to a more affluent and geographically dispersed clientele. As other service businesses have closed down, townspeople appreciate Misak all the more. Though still relatively youthful, he represents a link to an older, cozier Mill Valley.
In the case of Lisa’s shoe, however, Misak was starting to run into trouble. With a week until Lisa’s departure date, he had finished only four layers. Lisa had phoned, and when she learned that the shoe still wasn’t ready, she gave Misak a deadline: she wanted the shoe at noon on Saturday the 11th, only four days away.
When Friday came, he still hadn’t resumed work on the shoe. He entered the shop at ten to nine and flipped on the radio to sports talk. The first customer came in at 9:03; by 9:15 he’d already had five customers, not including the tenant next door who dropped by to ask if the Fed Ex man had left him a package. Floyd came in, draped his droll “DEA” baseball cap over the knob on the staircase handrail, then left for coffee. A woman who was frantic because her taxi ride to the airport was seven minutes late asked to use the phone. The phone is on the wall in the tiny bathroom behind the staircase; Misak dialed the number there and stretched the extension cord over the counter to the woman. A customer announced, “I’m wearing shoes that are a mess,” and asked Misak to polish them within an hour. Floyd returned, and began prying heels off shoes. Three minutes later he briefly left again, this time to put a friend’s repaired bag in his car. The woman awaiting a taxi once more asked to use the phone; this time Misak ushered her into the bathroom so that she could dial herself. At 9:35, Misak turned on the finishing machine; the radio, now tuned to a call-in show, was drowned out by the noise. Floyd left to smoke a cigarette at 9:52, then came back ten minutes later.
None of this, not even Floyd’s comings and goings, ruffled Misak. In a way, Misak is Floyd’s keeper. Though only 38, Floyd already looks gnomish: he’s balding, paunchy, shorter than Misak, and he has a long nose that lends him a waggish air. Ten years earlier he wandered into the shop and asked Vartan to repair his boots, but true to the reputation of old-generation shoe repairmen, Vartan told him to throw the boots away. Misak, however, showed Floyd how to repair the boots himself, and invited him behind the counter to do the job. Floyd liked the casual atmosphere and kept coming back, until at last Misak put him to work. Floyd didn’t have to show up at any particular time, and he didn’t have to work for a set number of hours. The two men didn’t even discuss wages: when Floyd wanted money, he asked Misak for some, and Misak gave him what he needed.
This arrangement of mutual trust is all the more striking considering that Floyd was in and out of trouble for years. He often provoked fights in which he was invariably beaten up. In one notable instance, he was bouncing a puck off a dumpster with a hockey stick. Sheriffs asked for the stick; he told them to get their own. A fight ensued, during which the sheriffs severed a nerve in Floyd’s upper arm and broke it in three places. “Bastards,” Floyd says. Now he has a shoulder-to-elbow scar, and his arm is still too weak for work at the finishing machine. Despite that, he’s in good spirits these days. He takes medication to control his mood swings, attends A.A. meetings, and just got a second job at a deli. Most employers probably would have given up on Floyd. “I give him some responsibility,” Misak says. “I tell him the shoes have to be done by tomorrow. If he doesn’t do it, the customers will bitch at him and not at me.”
On this day Floyd was sporting protective Band-aids on three damaged fingers—weeks earlier, the fingers bled after Floyd got too much glue on them and then tried peeling it off. Floyd worked from the carton of shoes that had to be repaired by Monday, heeding the little notations that Misak had scribbled on the soles, then removing soles or heels as appropriate and putting the men’s shoes in one pile, the women’s in another. Misak, meanwhile, did the more delicate grinding, sanding, and reconstructive work. By the time Floyd left for the day at 11, he had emptied the entire carton, which would fill up again with the shoes as Misak finished repairing them.
At around one, a woman from the city, middle-aged with hennaed hair, walked in. It was clear that the shop failed to enchant her. She’d brought in a pairs of suede boots and Espadrilles way back in May; then she waited until August to pick them up. Misak, however, hadn’t been able to find them then. Well, she said, did he know where they were now? The boots were worth four hundred dollars, she said—and she needed them. “You promised you’d look. You told me you never lose shoes.” It’s true: Misak doesn’t lose shoes, for they have no way to leave his shop. Occasionally, though, the trick is finding them.
Misak didn’t know where the woman’s shoes were. Oh, he could remember them all right—he never forgets a shoe—but he couldn’t say to what cowhide hillock they’d retreated. He was sure that a little reconnaissance would solve the problem, a search had just slipped his mind after her August visit. Now he began stirring through the peaks on the back shelves, behind the staircase, where the shoes nobody picked up were stacked, toes all pointing outward from the shelves like gasping fish—but the woman interrupted. “I don’t have time to stand here while you look through all your shoes again.” She’d come back in twenty minutes; she hoped Misak would have the shoes then.
Letting down a customer is the one thing Misak hates: it roils his serenity as nothing else does, for it suggests he has failed to serve. To avoid that feeling, he’ll do almost anything: he’s even given customers “loaner” suitcases after failing to repair theirs by the promised day. Now Misak pledged to have the shoes when the woman returned. “Scout’s honor.”
It took Misak a couple of minutes to find the shoes. Then his fear turned to slight annoyance, which was as much annoyance as Misak ever felt. Now, he said, he could return to his work, as if looking for shoes didn’t count. And those shoes weren’t worth more than two-hundred fifty dollars—“You see how their prices go up when I can’t find them?”
The woman didn’t return in twenty minutes, or even forty minutes. Standing at the finishing machine, he said, “They do that to me nine times out of ten.” It was almost an hour before she came through the door and said, “Did you have any luck?”
“You’re kidding—you found them?” She softened like hard chocolate in the sun. “Thank you!” Now, she told him, she’d go out to her car and get some more shoes for him. This time, she said, “I won’t wait as long to get them back.”
“You can wait as long as you want. It doesn’t bother me. Nothing gets lost here—it just gets lower in the pile.”
She came back with the additional shoes a couple minutes later. “I always forget your name,” she said.
“No, it’s not.”
She handed him the shoes. “I had to make sure you found the old ones before I gave you more. Thank you, Mischa.”
“You are very, very, very, very welcome.”
After that, Misak worked crisply through the day. He used the old Landis stitching machine to sew a leather sole onto a shoe, and at the same time talked on the phone, cradling the receiver in his neck. Trying to darken a pair of brown suede pumps, he applied dye for the fourth time, and when the result was blotchy, began to feel impatient, and decided to dye the shoes only one more time, regardless of outcome—of course, the fifth time the dye took. He charged ten dollars for the job. A woman came in for her backpack, whose straps he had shortened by three inches; after trying the backpack on, she asked Misak to take off another two inches. Just outside, a man tried to pat a Golden Retriever tied to a parking meter, and the dog, wary of strangers, bit him; the man came in to ask if Misak knew the dog’s owner, and, after Misak said no, waited an hour for the owner to return. One customer called Misak “T” for “tiger”; another called him “Moishe”; Floyd used his Hebrew nickname, Mimo, while Enrique, his other assistant, called him Tony. A customer asked him, “How do you find all of these shoes in here?”; Misak gestured vaguely around the premises and said, “Because I did it.” When the all-news station he was listening to proclaimed itself “the traffic leader,” Misak took note. “The traffic leader no less. Not the news leader. Not the sports leader. The traffic leader.”
Between chores involving purses, a golf shoe, suitcases, a raised heel, the shortened straps, and shoes that were glued, stretched, dyed, resoled, reheeled, polished, stainproofed, and waterproofed, he also worked on Lisa’s shoe. At 1:36 he started trimming the fifth and sixth layers, and worked on them again at 2:14 and 2:44. He picked up the shoe again at 3:13, then thought better of it and put it down. At 4:01 he finished the sixth layer: four more layers to go.
Enrique and his brother Carlos came in at 4:30. A few weeks earlier, Carlos had left Mexico, where he’d been a chauffeur. Now he had no job, so every day during his first week in the United States, while Enrique was polishing shoes, he was outside washing Enrique’s old truck, until it was fabulously clean. Alas, the truck, which Enrique used in his second job as a gardener, was so ravaged that mere ablutions did nothing to improve its appearance. By the second week, Carlos seemed to realize this, for he moved inside, and helped Enrique in the shop. The space between the work table and the polishing machine is less than a yard wide, forcing Misak and the two Mexicans to step around one another constantly, but they navigated it without a misstep; even Carlos learned quickly how to do that dance.
Carlos looks more foreign than Enrique: his hair is shinier, his mustache longer and thinner, his uncertainty about his new country showing in his jagged, cautious movements. Enrique, on the other hand, is supple; in some ways he’s Misak’s Latin equivalent, shorter and darker but just as gentle, perhaps a little more shy. Like Misak, he specializes in a certain kind of observation. Whenever the mother of a female customer he found attractive walked by, Enrique sang out, “There goes my mother-in-law!” Perhaps Enrique’s Guatemalan wife would not have found this funny, but Misak did. “Enrique has that eye,” Misak explained. “If you don’t have that eye, you might as well die.”
Misak is both Enrique’s employer and friend, just as he is Floyd’s. Five years ago Enrique walked into the shop, looking for a job. Misak put him to work polishing shoes. Two years later, after Misak’s parents won $200,000 in a lottery and invested the entire sum in a down payment on a house for Misak and his family, Misak found a suitable tenant for the condominium he’d just vacated: Enrique. Now Enrique’s shoe repair wages are subtracted from his rent. Like Floyd, Enrique has no set hours; he must simply show up some time in the afternoon, five days a week, to polish each shoe in the leather cordillera awaiting him. As he shines, he teaches Misak Spanish. When a Latina housekeeper came in hoping to buy a pair of the ten-dollar shoes that Misak keeps stocked in shelves on the left wall, he put on display what Enrique had taught him, speaking confidently to her in Spanish, his fourth language.
Friday was cleaning day at the shop, the day when Enrique was supposed to sweep the floor and brush the leather dust off the finishing machine. On this Friday, however, even with his brother’s help, Enrique faced an unusually high footwear precipice, so Misak took over the cleaning task. Leather dust is the bane of shoe repairmen. In the old days, they inhaled it for two or three decades, and then they died of lung cancer. Then shoe repair machinery improved, among other ways by increasing the power of an internal vacuum that sucks the dust out of the air as quickly as sanding produces it. The most prominent of those newer machines, the Sutton 2000 model that sits near the right back corner of Misak’s shop, is considered a classic: it sold for $8,000 when it went on the market in the mid-’70s, and reconditioned versions sell for that now. It’s the best and nearly last finisher model made in the United States—since the early ‘90s, all finishers have been manufactured in Europe, where many more people develop long-lasting relationships with shoes. The Sutton 2000’s vacuum device is not nearly as powerful as the new European models’, but it’s still a huge advancement over nothing. Misak found that out a few months ago, when the vacuum unit broke down, and he went on grinding shoes for two weeks while the unit was disassembled and sent away for repair—a thick layer of dust quickly covered everything in the shop, and Misak was plagued by headaches.
Now Misak swept off the dust mounds that had formed around the finishing machine’s sanders and vents. Then he pulled out a wide drawer at the machine’s bottom right, where a week’s accumulation of machine-sucked dust was deposited. The drawer was nearly full. Misak dumped the dust into the garbage can nestled under the work table. Then he swept the floor. Despite Misak and Enrique’s best efforts, a fine layer of dust forms on anything in the shop longer than a couple of weeks—probably including the men’s lungs. Misak knows he ought to wear a mask, but, like virtually all other shoe repairmen, he holds off. Comfort, fashion, and stubbornness are all reasons: it’s like hockey players’ long-time resistance to helmets.
At 5:15, Misak attached and trimmed the seventh layer of Lisa’s shoe. The day’s hundredth and last customer came in at 6:12. By now his hands were caked with glue and smeared with polish. Through the day he had taken in $357, a little more than half of what one teak bench sold for across the street. He went home just after seven, with half a day left to do the last three layers of Lisa’s shoe.
Saturday is catch-up day. It’s the one day of the week when Misak doesn’t try to repair a waiting carton of shoes, but instead tries to fix all the shoes that for one reason or another have escaped the weekday assembly line. Neither Floyd nor Enrique work on Saturdays; the place looks emptier, less cramped. During the rest of the week, Misak tunes the radio to the all-news station, or sports talk, or any number of opinionated radio conversationalists, as he tries to keep up with the zeitgeist. But on Saturday mornings, the Johnny Otis Show is on, and for this reason, mornings are the best part of Saturdays. Johnny plays jazz.
On this Saturday, October 11—the day Lisa Mann said she’d come for her shoe—Johnny was away, but it was okay: Johnny’s good friend Chuy Varela was doing the show. Each time Chuy introduced himself, which was just about every time the music stopped, Misak bellowed “CHEW-y Ba-RELL-a!”, letting the “b” explode from his mouth and rolling the “l” with exquisite Latin extravagance. Within the constraints of a five-thirty to five-thirty regimen of leather repair, every Saturday was a celebration day.
Saturdays always start slow, which is one reason Misak figured he’d get Lisa’s shoe done on time. Most Mill Valley residents sleep in; the first customers are the exceptions, the early morning joggers and walkers. Kennedy the cat appeared briefly across the street, in prowl mode. A man wearing shorts and a baseball cap came in for his shoes, and when Misak couldn’t find them, stepped behind the counter to help look. “Do you realize,” he said to Misak, “that if you got sick, no one could ever find anything?” Misak realized it all right, and preferred not to think about it. A station wagon stopped in front of the shop, and a little girl got out, with a bill in her hand that her mother had given her and the aim of picking up a pair of sandals that had needed gluing. Misak bent over the counter to give her the sandals.
“Here’s five dollars.”
“No, there’s no charge.”
“But you should take this.”
“No, you should give this back to your mother.”
“No, she would want you to take this.”
Misak was emphatic. The bill went back to the car with the sandals.
“CHEW-y Ba-RELL-a!”, Misak said.
At 9:27, while “Tequila” was playing, Misak picked up the half-inch-thick rubber sheet and, holding it between his legs, sliced out two more shoe-sized slabs with a knife. He thought of his own wedding, when all the men formed a train and sang “Tequila” as they danced. He handled a customer. Then he turned on the finishing machine, temporarily drowning out the music, and sanded the slabs and the completed part of Lisa’s shoe. The sanding wheel spins at 1,750 revolutions per minute, fast enough to turn a minor slip into a repair disaster, but that wasn’t going to happen today. Misak deftly sanded the unglued slabs and then the sides of the shoe itself, giving the burgeoning rubber column rounded indentations at the arch and smoothing all its seams. By 9:55 he’d glued on the seventh and eighth layers: two more layers to go. He turned off the sander. A young man with blue-tinted sunglasses walked in and looked startled as he caught sight of the shoe. “I thought my eyes were deceiving me,” he said. “That’s a big shoe.”
At 10:23, Misak glued the ninth layer onto the shoe while talking to Alan, a customer who regularly stopped by during his Saturday run. “I saw your ex-wife,” Misak said. “She looked happy. I thought to myself that Alan is even happier.”
Alan didn’t dispute this assessment. “She’s happy. She married a man with a lot more money than me.” The two men chatted. Alan told a joke about a randy rooster, and left. Misak gave another customer a briefcase that he’d dyed and restitched, and the customer pronounced his work “amazing.”
Then Lisa came in, two hours early. Her head barely reached the counter top. She was on her crutches, carrying her belongings in a backpack. If Misak was disconcerted by her premature arrival, he didn’t show it: he merely said he had one more layer and the sole to go, and asked Lisa to come back in 30 minutes. Lisa accepted the request without complaint.
Misak might have finished the shoe within half an hour if his best friend Avi and a dozen other customers hadn’t shown up. Avi, an Israeli Jew, is a commercial real estate broker in San Francisco. He’s Misak’s best friend, whom Misak calls his brother. Misak’s wife Souzi is a traditional Armenian, who organized a school where the children of Bay Area Armenians study Armenian culture on Saturdays, but Misak is more of an Armenian-Israeli-American mixture, whose friends in Israel were almost all Jews. Avi sometimes brings Misak falafel and Arabic bread from San Francisco, but not today; instead, the two men chatted in Hebrew about the wonderful jar of jam that Elmon, Misak’s mother, had made for Avi. Elmon is an accomplished cook, and just as eclectic as her son: her best friends are all Jewish, and she has taught Middle Eastern cooking at the Jewish Community Center near her home.
Avi left, and Misak returned to the shoe. The tenth layer had to be only a quarter-of-an-inch thick, and the only quarter-inch rubber in Misak’s second-floor stock had a rough, ridged surface. Misak glued it to the shoe, then carefully sanded off the ridges. Once more, he sanded the sides of the rubber column, narrowing it until the shoe’s shape was precisely maintained. Then, at 11:36, he picked up the sole from the top of the stitching machine where he’d put it three weeks earlier, and glued it to the bottom of the shoe.
Everything was done except the finishing touches—and he would have applied those before Lisa returned if the 36th through 45th customers of the day had not come in and required his attention. When Lisa came back, at a few minutes past noon, Misak had just finished using a soldering gun to soften the plastic in the heel of a woman’s shoe. Now he rubbed Lisa’s shoe with crepe rubber to remove all vestiges of glue from the surface, and he daubed the shoe with white polish and took it outside for a final spray of white dye.
“Here is your work of art,” he told Lisa as he presented the shoe to her. It looked almost stilt-like, yet dainty and perfectly white, in contrast to the fraying, muddied right shoe that Lisa was wearing.
“Gorgeous—” Lisa said, “if you can say that about a shoe.” Misak thought you certainly could. He wrapped the shoe in a plastic bag and put a rubber band around that. Lisa paid Misak fifty dollars, the usual rate, then stuffed the shoe into her backpack.
“Tony, thank you very much,” she said, and maneuvered out the door.
It was past noon. For the last twenty minutes Lisa had been the only customer in the shop, as if all the others had declared a lunchtime moratorium on shoe repair transactions. I’d been hanging out in Misak’s shop for more than three weeks. He disappeared into the bathroom, then yelled to me to choose among Gewurztraminer, Bordeaux, and Petite Syrah—apparently the bathroom, in addition to containing sanding belts, rubber cement cans, a toaster oven, a toilet, and the phone, housed a wine cellar. I chose Petite Syrah. Misak brought the bottle to the counter and opened it with one hand, the way he’d learned as a waiter. From the bathroom, he fetched his empty thermos, and found a Styrofoam cup for me. He poured the wine and held the thermos high.
“L’chaim,” Misak said.
“L’chaim,” I said.
For a few minutes, we stood at the counter, chatting, as a blues tune wafted through the shop. Then, without allowing a break in the conversation, Misak went back to work.