Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shine On

One of the things I miss the most about my dad are Sunday mornings that were spent lining up his various dress shoes outside the front porch and polishing them until lunch time.

It was a very ritualistic event. First we'd gather up all his dress shoes and bring them outside. Then we'd drag his shoe shining kits and set up our respective benches. Then he'd light up a cigarette and get started while waiting for one of us to bring him an ice cold beer. And over the strains of Frank Sinatra or Julio Iglesias we'd spend the better part of 3 hours shining, buffing and polishing about 30 pairs of shoes.

Those were good times. Over the smell of cigarette smoke, San Miguel Pale Pilsen and Kiwi shoe shine polish my dad and I would talk about anything and everything under the sun. When I started going to Catholic school, my regulation black shoes were included in the pile of shoes that needed to be shined. And when I started working my leather shoes got the same treatment.

He was always so scrupulous about shoes - how clean they had to be, and how important it was that they were well polished and maintained. He would always tell us that the state of one's shoes reflected a person's habits, sense of self-worth and work ethic. A person who takes pride in himself and isn't afraid of hard work should always, always, have clean and well polished shoes.

I always thought that it was about vanity, until I was about 10 and I asked him why he always took such pains to make sure his shoes were clean and why he always made sure he polished them himself. Then he told me this story:

My dad didn't come from money. He was only about 5 when my grandfather passed away from a heart attack, leaving my grandmother, who was a school teacher, with 6 kids and a small income. To help his family make ends meet he used to sell cigarettes to US army officers that were stationed near his hometown in Masbate. He then moved on from selling cigarettes to shining shoes because the margins were bigger and you could get a tip on top of everything else. For a little kid who wore slippers to school, those big shiny army boots were something he told himself he'd have one day.

When it was time for him to go off to college, my grandmother and my aunt, the eldest in their family, pooled together what they could so that he could go to university in Manila. He went to FEU to study Political Science, in the hopes that one day he would become a lawyer just like my grandfather. He arrived in Manila with 2 white short sleeved shirts, a pair of pants and 1 pair of black leather shoes.

He used to tell me that the second shirt was a big thing, since it allowed him to make sure that he always had a clean shirt to go to school in. When he'd get back to his dorm room he'd immediately wash whatever shirt he was wearing so that it would have the whole day the next day to dry up and he would always have a clean shirt. Since he didn't have much of a wardrobe --- it was a source of pride for him that no matter what happened.... his shoes were always clean and presentable because he polished them himself.

Even while in college, he'd still take the odd shoe shining job to earn extra cents for food, or to help defray the costs of his going to college so that he could make life easier for my grandmother and my aunt. So he never forgot those shoe shining skills.

He had to drop out of college in his 3rd year, because he had younger brothers and sisters who also had to go to school. He applied to PAL as a purser, lied about his college degree and started working.

A few years later, at a hiring event, he applied as a Medical Representative to Mead Johnson and the rest is mythic Eppie Titong history.

He became the youngest president of a multinational pharmaceutical in the Philippines when he was 39. He finally finished college, and was able to earn masters degrees from Columbia University and Insead. And when he retired, he was the head of a Fortune 500 company.

But through all those years, and all those achievements, he still spent every Sunday polishing shoes. From the GI boots, to his single pair of college shoes, all the way to his handcrafted fancy dress shoes --- he polished each and every one of them himself. More often than not, he said, to remind him of how far had he come --- on sheer hard work and determination --- and also so he would never forget his humble beginnings so that he would always be grateful for what he had.

To this day, almost 7 years since he's been gone, his shoes are still in his closet. Like they were waiting for him to come home and dust them off and shine them again.

I miss the smell of cigarette smoke, San Miguel Pale Pilsen and Kiwi shoe shine. I miss those long conversations spent covered in shoe polish.

But his stories, his lessons, and the shoes, shine on.

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