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    Wednesday, February 20, 2013

    Bootblack Graduation


    Once upon a time, a couple of years ago, in a land far away, known as STL, there was an anime convention. I had no interest in attending said convention, and no money with which to go, had I wanted. But there were some kids I knew who badly wanted to go, and I was their only possible transportation. So they begged prettily. If they paid for all the gas, and let me stay in their hotel room for the duration of the convention, could I pretty please drive them there and back home? I said yes, and my life was forever changed.


    I searched my social calendar for things to do while I was in STL and found what seemed to be an interesting event. Some educational social thing that you had to RSVP to, in order to be allowed in. Sounded fun, so I signed up. When I got myself and the kids settled into the hotel room, I trekked on over to the facility where my event was being held, and where I would unknowingly step my first steps on a path I never knew existed.


    When someone wants to learn Kung Fu, they find a local Dojo in the phone book, and take classes. When someone has never heard of Kung Fu, and meets freaking Bruce Lee in the local spa, and he offers to train them, they freaking learn Kung Fu, and they learn it from the best!

    Tales Part 1:

    So there I was, that 12th day of March 2010, meeting new people, making friends, learning new skills and so forth, when I dropped in at the hospitality room of the event space. As I grabbed myself a can of soda, I noticed a presentation going on, with quite an impressive attendance, so I walked around to the other side of the room in a roundabout manner so as not to disturb the presenter, and watched.

    The presentation was informative, entertaining, surprising, and creative. But even with how intrigued I was, I still had no idea what the panel was about. I had come in in the middle, see, and didn't get the lead-in or the explanations, so I was rather lost. I wandered off after the panel like everyone else, but something was niggling at my mind, so not long afterward, I returned when the presenter was alone, and asked one, simple, question. “What exactly is this 'Bootblacking' thing, besides shining shoes?”, I said, once I'd gotten his attention. Little did I know, this was almost the wrong question to ask. Almost, but not quite. He was taken aback for a moment, told me that what he did was more than just shining shoes. and I responded that that was why I asked what it was besides that. He relaxed noticeably. He told me that most folks think all a Bootblack does, is shine shoes. Little did I know that I had hit a nerve with how I had asked, but that was the moment my education began.

    Tales Part 2:

    This person told me about what it was he did, how it was a vital service to the community. The way a Bootblack's job is not only to care for the leather itself, but should always strive to be the glue that holds the community together, remaining free of any interpersonal or inter-community drama and strife. He even told me that some folks will title themselves as an expert without any actual training, but that you could tell a real Bootblack in quick time if you knew what to look for. I was warned that while Bootblacking is really rewarding, it wasn't the road to wealth and fame. He used words and turns of phrase that sounded like a sermon. Preaching the way of the leather, as it were. Filling my ears and mind with the passion he felt for his personal calling. It was almost hypnotic, and I was awed by not only his devotion to his craft, but also the nearly poetic, impassioned way he spoke of it.

    Seeing as how my mother has some old leathers from her cowgirl days, I asked him how I might go about keeping them in good shape for her, so they didn't crumble into dust. He gave me some tips, and told me about the products I'd need to do the work of conditioning her stuff, as I took some notes, and after I thanked him for his time, we parted ways.

    Time Passed:

    A few weeks later, we got back into contact via one of the many social networks we are both on, and we got to talking. We talked, and talked. About geekery, numerous categories of nerdy things, and, of course, leather.

    It wasn't my intention to learn all that was and is the art of leather care. I had no desire to become an expert. I only wanted to learn to care for my own things, and sometimes the things of those I care for. To make those items stay in good shape. That is it, nothing more. But this man, this Bootblack saw in me something. He saw a love of community, the drive to help others, an insatiable passion for learning and discovery, and a high midichlorian count.

    That's not to say that he didn't try to scare me off from learning. It's hard work. Very hard work. He says that he warned me that it was the path of pain and heartache, your body screaming in protest as you work your fingers to the bone for whatever small token the customers chose to tip. He says he told me all of these things and more in an effort to save me, but that I didn't listen. The truth of the matter is that I don't think I even heard him when he said these things. All I heard was that I could save people money, create joy, make memories last longer...

    I do remember him telling me that it was often the case in his area that Bootblacks were treated like servants, or like a commodity instead of the highly skilled experts in their field that they are. He told me of his experiences serving his community, the good and the bad, and I remember those too. Most of all, I remember him telling me, in that first short bit of getting to know each other, that Bootblacks are people just like everyone else, and they come in all types. That you can tell a real Bootblack by their attitude, and by the quality of their work.

    I still needed to know though. What I didn't know was that my wanting to know just enough about how to properly care for a small few items, would somehow turn into a lifelong devotion.

    The big announcement:

    For those that may not have known, for the past couple of years, I have been participating in old-school Victorian-style studies under a master Bootblack. One-on-one apprenticeship with a master of an ancient and endangered trade.

    Bootblacking is a calling, a passion, and requires a devotion that one is hard-pressed to find in the modern age. This is why it is one of the few remaining arts that can only be properly learned by studying under an established master of the craft.

    To the uninitiated, Bootblacking is the art of leather care, repair, and restoration. But in reality, there is something more sacred than all of the technical skill, attention to detail, fields of knowledge, and artistry required to do the hands-on work. A true Bootblack's solemn and sworn duty is to hold the history and memories of a community carefully in their hands, and to help preserve those memories for generations. A Bootblack is a part of a long lineage, a family, and community, of those who care for the items that carry and protect us from our harsh world, and those items that hold, in some cases, our dearest and most cherished memories.

    This time of study has been very challenging. A lot of hard work, sweat, tears, and pain. Times when I was pulling my hair out with panic over a repair I thought was impossible, moments of bliss when I mastered a new technique, and even surprise when I learned that I had developed a technique that had never been tried before. Saturday February 9th, 2013 at around 6:15pm, the Leather-Fu Master I was studying under, SirLoki Bootblack, granted me full status. I am now a Bootblack.

    Thanks to the patience and devotion of the wise and generous Jedi who honored me with the gift of his precious knowledge and time, I am now myself, a Bootblack, and ready to serve my community. I will never stop learning new things, refining the techniques of my trade, and sharing new discoveries with the others who hold the title and sacred duty tattooed on their hearts. I swear to pass on my knowledge when I feel that I am ready to teach, and have found a worthy and devoted student.

    And I will accept always, the opportunity to participate in the high holy old-guard Bootblack ritual of the chocolate cake. <3 p="">

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