Every week, Jessie Thibideaux, 63, rolls his suitcase to a rusted park bench on the corner of Third Street and Congress Avenue. From the tightly packed bag he pulls out the essentials: tins of saddle soup, horsehair brushes, Kiwi shoe polish, conditioners and Vaseline. The buzz of food truck generators hum in the background as Thibideaux ties his red apron around his waist. As men and women scurry by he looks at their feet: sandals, running shoes, a few leather loafers here and there.
Originally from Lake Charles, La., Thibideaux started shining shoes when he was 9 years old. His knowledge and love for the craft developed over years of working in his cousin’s shoe repair shop and department stores like Nordstrom.
"Welcome to Austin, Texas, folks!" his voice cries out. "I’m the shoe shine guy when you get time!"
A woman smiles at Thibideaux as she approaches his wooden chair and leather shoe stand. As she takes a seat, she lifts up her dark burgundy leather boots.
In smooth, swift movements, Thibideaux begins to clean the leather with a soft cotton rag occasionally pausing to rub it in firm saddle soap.
"I would compare shoe shining to an artist painting a painting," Thibideaux says. "He’s taking his time, he’s making sure the colors are right, the patterns are right, the balance is right. I see an empty canvas I’m about to turn into a masterpiece."
After cleaning the shoes, he rubs the surface with Vaseline. The two talk about living in Austin and his background with shoes. Thibideaux’s smile spreads across his face as his body-shaking laugh breaks up the constant drone of traffic. The woman smiles at Thibideaux as he adds the last layer of conditioning and a water resistant spray on the boots. He coaches her on how to take care of the shoes along the way.
The woman’s husband crouches down to take a photo with his cellphone as Thibideaux gently bats the shoes with a rag. He hands him a crisp $20 and shakes his hand. The woman’s deep red boots shine bright as she and her husband walk away across Congress.
To help other people is personal for Thibideaux. As the oldest of nine children he always took care of everyone before himself.
As the clock nears 3 p.m., Thibideaux begins to pack his belongings and undo his apron. As he rests on the bench, a young man briskly walks up and hands him a small white envelope. Thibideaux’s eyes light up as the two men exchange small talk and shake hands. The man, dressed in a suit jacket, jeans and black leather shoes, is a regular customer of Thibideaux.
As he carefully unfolds the envelope back, crisp, green bills lay neatly on top of each other. Thibideaux looks up at the sky as if to thank it. Then he laughs and shakes his head.
"Someone said if you get a job that you like, you’ll never work a day in your life," says Thibideaux, who is retired. "I don’t know when I’ll quit but I won’t quit anytime soon."
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Thibideaux will almost always be on the corner of Third Street and Congress Avenue every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
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