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Denver International Airport Shoe Shiners Keep Me Grounded

Nick Bustos is working. Back bent. Head down. Hands moving quickly but with certainty. The heady smell of polish and leather surrounds him. He is a block of a man — solid and determined — as he shines shoes on a late weekday afternoon at Denver International Airport.

Nick doesn't know it, but he is my anchor.

See, I have a tendency to drift along at the airport, weaving from side to side, checking the gates, one shoe still untied from the security check, no belt because it's too complicated to put it back on, and my flight ticket, my only tether to Earth, clutched in a tight fist.

If we weren’t in an airport, you’d hand me a dollar and ask me not to drink it all up.

The problem is that everybody and everything is moving. People flow up one side of Concourse A in a whoosh and then down the other side in a whirl. Concourse A may actually be where Sisyphus pushes his roller bag up and down for all eternity. People are going places. Where? Got me, but everyone walks as if they are late for a funeral, which they really don’t want to attend but there is that inheritance to collect. Serious business.

I gave up serious business years ago.

Look, isn’t that the same guy I’ve seen twice before? Are these folks just actors paid to walk up and down? And does the moving walkway actually stop in western Nebraska?

I take a breath...and get rammed by a tall man in lederhosen. What did I tell you, actors going to a funeral. In lederhosen.

Up ahead, a dog gets on the walkway with his owner. The dog puts his front paws on, and then wisely decides to plop down in peaceful protest. He’s not stupid, he’s not getting on that. But the dog doesn’t foresee that his front paws will keep on moving while his hind legs, which started firmly on the ground, are along for the ride. Stretched out, the dog glides along on the walkway. Oblivious to fashion and the ridicule of his peers.

Thank goodness for Nick Bustos and his calm oasis.

"This is a fun job. We see people from all over the world."

Nick continues polishing the shoes of his current customer sitting in the end chair.

I stand next to him, happy to be out of the rush.

Fun, you say, why?

“It’s fun because in fifteen minutes we can bring shoes back alive. I like to see the expression on people's faces, 'I can’t believe my shoes.' It’s kind of a great feeling."

And to prove his point, his customer's shoes begin to sparkle and shine, bringing a smile and a laugh to them both.

"You’re frequently dealing with businesspeople. Sometimes they just want a rest and not to talk. You give them a good shine and give them a big smile."

And your favorite customer?

"My favorites are funny guys.” Nick pauses. "But, really, I just like our work product. A Colorado shoeshine is famous in all the United States. We take care of the customers. We have a good method of shining shoes. And we are professional with the customers because they're professionals."

My goodness. And how long can you continue doing this?

“I’m 54 years old. I'm going to do this as long as I can.” Nick laughs and goes back to work.

Someone you can count on.

But apparently not on the Saturday of my next trip, Nick’s day off.

Bryan Sanchez will shine shoes through college.
Bryan Sanchez will shine shoes through college.
Joe Weeg

Bryan Sanchez, age eighteen, is the go-to guy on Saturdays and Sundays, shining shoes in Concourse A.

"I love shining shoes. I meet people from all over the world. They tell me these crazy stories. I learn a lot from them. I’m interested in what they do, where they come from, their families. I’m just interested to hear things about people."

Wow. And are your customers bothered by you being the age of their youngest child?

"People treat me with respect," Bryan smiles. "I’m actually a senior in high school right now. People are mind-blown when I tell them I’m a senior. They love to see a young person working. I get here at 7 in the morning and leave at 8 at night on Saturday."

Do your buddies give you a hard time for shining shoes?

"It catches people by surprise. 'You shine shoes — that’s kind of weird.' They don’t have any idea how cool it is, or what it involves, or the people I meet. My friends think it’s cool."

And the future?

"I plan on going to college. I’m definitely going to work here through college to help me pay for college. Make my parents proud."

I suspect they're beaming right now.

And a romantic interest?

"No girlfriend. But I’m talking to a girl."

It's time to catch my plane. I say farewell to Bryan and race for my gate with one shoe untied, no belt, and a crumpled ticket in my fist.

Outside the small window on the plane, the world moves past with an uncomfortable whoosh and a whirl. But the smell of polish and leather lingers in my nose as I sit in seat 26A, thinking about Bryan's interest in his customers’ lives, Nick bringing shoes back alive, and both loving their jobs.

They’re the real Colorado shoeshine.

But enough of that. I have to get home and talk to a girl.

Joe Weeg is a retired criminal prosecutor reincarnated as a freelance writer and columnist. Email him at josephpweeg@gmail.com.

Westword occasionally publishes op-eds and essays on Colorado issues. If you have one that you think would work well here, send it to editorial@westword.com.

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