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A Copywriter’s Blog
I’ve Had Stranger Lessons Ben Levy 10, January

A few weeks ago, The Wife and I were on vacation in California. We were walking along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco when the following occurred. Every word of it is true.

Walking down the street, we noticed several people, clearly tourists, having their shoes shined. This was not a fancy airport “sit in a chair and look like a Southern White Land Owner reading a newspaper” shoe shine. This was a “lift yer foot off the curb a second so I can run this dirty rag over it” shoe shine. You had 50/50 odds of your shoes being dirtier at the end of it, and everyone’s expression seemed to say “If I hadn’t agreed to this, he would have robbed me!”

I smiled to myself as we walked past them. How hard is it to avoid a guy on the street? Don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk to them. Don’t respond if they talk to you. Stupid tourists. It was their own fault that they-

“Hey, man- hold up. If I can tell you exactly where you got ‘dem shoes, will you let me clean ‘em for you?”

The Wife had moved on a couple of steps, but I was trying to figure out the catch. I ran through the most common cons in my head, but I couldn’t see where this was going. Technically, my shoes were from “a shoe store”. Was that the trick?

“I’ll tell you exactly where you got dem shoes- city, state, the exact place. If I get it right will you promise to tell me the truth, and lemme clean them?”

City and State? I took a quick look at The Wife and myself. Nothing on us screamed Florida. The shoes in question were black Converse. I could have picked them up anywhere.

“You can whisper to her where you got ‘em. Just promise me yer gonna be honest if I get it right.”

Could he read lips? There was a trick here, but damned if I could figure it out. I cupped my hands around my mouth and whispered “Miami, DSW” to The Wife.

The guy leaned over my left shoe, pulled out a rag that was significantly blacker than my Converse, and started wiping at it.

“Ok, I told ya I was gonna tell ya exactly where ya got yer shoes, right? Exactly- city and state. Well, ya got dis shoe on yer left foot.”

Oh, son of a-

“Yah got dat one on yer right foot.”

Where you “got dem shoes” not “where you got dem shoes from”. Sneaky, freaking-

“And yah got both of ‘em right here in San Francisco, California.” He tilted his head intently as he wiped at my foot. “Now, Momma always told ya not ta talk to strangers. And she was right.”

I smiled ruefully. It was a good trick, and well-played, but I wasn’t about to start making small talk.

“I’m not just a shine shiner, ya understand? I’m an entertainer. I’m like PT Barnum.”

The hell? PT Barnum? You’ve got to be kidding me here. Had this guy read Hoopla*?

He was on the right foot now. “I don’t just provide a service, I entertain. And you learn summin. So it’s $5 for the lesson, and $5 for the shoes.”

I gave him $10. 50 cents for the shoe shine, and $9.50 for the lesson. He could have been a beggar harassing people for money. He could have been a thief (he was, but an honest sort of thief). But he was out there entertaining people for some money. I respected that. And one more thing.

“I don’t just provide a service, I entertain.” That right there is pretty much my entire post-graduate education, summed up in 8 words. For $10 and slightly wet feet, I got an important reminder of what my job is as an ad guy. Sell the product. And entertain.

Oh yeah, and never talk to strangers. Idiot tourist.

*Hooplah was a book written by Alex Bogusky and CP+B about some of the philosophies and experiences behind the agency. Among the many crazy things inside it is a conversation between Alex and the deceased PT Barnum, in which the latter is given much credit for pioneering many of the techniques CP+B used to become one of the best agencies in the world.