Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Life's a bit brighter with city shoeshiner

His spit and polish rubs downtown the right way

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It's one of life's least expensive and most enjoyable luxuries.

The shoeshine.

Just three bucks for an old-fashioned, put-your-feet-up-and-relax, brush-and-buff shine.

But Winnipeg has only one shoeshine man left. At least, 63-year-old Jimmy Duguay can't think of anyone else who's still in the spit-and-polish business.

And if it hadn't been for millionaire Hartley Richardson, Jimmy's career in the Portage and Main concourse would have ended two years ago.

Right around the time he almost lost his life. 

* * *

It's a weekday morning in the concourse under The Fairmont Winnipeg, and Jimmy is doing what he always does.

Shining shoes and waving at people passing by.

Making their day.

"Hello, gorgeous," Jimmy smiles and waves.

"He knows every fine-looking woman who goes past the door," says Ernie Kurbis, who's seated having the luxury laid on his shoes.

While he works, Jimmy tells me how he grew up in a family and a house reminiscent of the nursery rhyme about the little old lady who lived in a shoe. And had so many children she didn't know what to do.

Except Jimmy, the second youngest of eight, didn't really grow up with a mother.

"Mother passed away when I was five years old."

His dad worked in the Transcona CN maintenance yards, and lived in a wartime house in Weston.

"My dad used to drink, too," Jimmy says. "And gamble."

So the kids had to fend for themselves, I suggest.

"Oh, big time. No kidding. Do your own wash, do your own ironing, do your own cooking a lot of the time. That's how I learned to cook."

And that's what Jimmy did for a time.

For a decade, he worked at a restaurant in Polo Park. And before that, when he was 25, in Halifax, at a nightclub across from Citadel Hill, cooking black-eyed peas.

Halifax, he says, was the happiest time of his life.

But the happiest time of his life only lasted two or three weeks, and it didn't end so happily.

"One night, I got into the juice a little bit and I went into the club and a black guy started picking on a Chinese sailor. So I gave him a good shove."

And Jimmy ended up in jail.

"Back then, I was full of piss and vinegar."

But before that he was already into shoe polish and brushes.

Jimmy quit school in Grade 9 and started shining shoes at the old bus depot by Eaton's.

"You had to work. There was no two ways about it."

It was after his time as a cook, while he was on unemployment insurance, that his brother Daniel suggested he join him shining shoes at O'Hanlon's men's shoe and clothing store in the Portage and Main concourse.

That was 20 years ago.

Shortly before his brother died.

"That's my brother's chair," Jimmy says, pointing to a captain's chair with a worn spot on the oak seat. "I keep it because of him."

"All five of my brothers are gone now," he says.

Only his two sisters survive, and they're in their 80s.

Old enough to be the mother he never really had.

"So a lot of times we had a hard upbringing. But what the hell. I wasn't the only one. A lot of people were the same way, Gordon."

I ask Jimmy if his clients tell him their troubles.

"Oh, big time. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got a lot of guys who are hurting, saying the wife did this or did that. You know. The guy's got a divorce and the wife took the whole thing. But I'm just saying whatever's said in here doesn't go out there."

So the shoeshine chair is like a confessional.

"That's right."

I wonder if he ever wept when people told him their stories.

"No, no, no. Just when people pass away. If I have to go to their funeral. That really, really hurts. Because when you go... "

Jimmy almost went two years ago.

He had a brain aneurysm. He spent four months in a coma. Jimmy says his doctor told him his lifestyle may have contributed to his survival.

"He said it's lucky I drank so much because it thins your blood."

Jimmy could hardly wait to tell his wife.

"I said -- see?"

It was while he was in the hospital that O'Hanlon's closed, and Jimmy was left without a place to shine shoes. Until one of his regulars stepped in.

"So Hartley Richardson asked me what I was going to do. And I said, 'I'll find a place somewhere.' And he said, 'No, I'll find a place for you.' So I came in and this wall was up and the two chairs were here."

I wonder if Jimmy thinks he's had a good life, or a tough life?

"A good tough life," he answers.

I only have one more question.

What do you like about shoe-shining?

"People," he says.

Especially the women whose day Jimmy makes every morning with a wave, a smile.

And a, "Hi, gorgeous."

 * * *

It's as I'm leaving, after he's put a shine on my shoes, that Jimmy offers me one piece of professional advice.

"You know you can't make a deal with a dirty heel. That's the truth."

The truth also is that Jimmy Duguay doesn't just leave a shine on people's shoes.

He does something even more important.

He leaves a shine on people's lives.

Bless his sole.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2009 B1

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