Monday, February 21, 2011
Veteran Bootblack on the Importance of His Craft to the Leather Community
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The Leather community has a lot of folkways non-Leather people are often baffled by, and one of them is the importance of the bootblack. Curtis Dickson has been bootblacking for almost a quarter of a century and has won several major honors in the craft. In this interview, celebrating the upcoming San Diego Leather Pride events in March as well as the California Leather SIR/boy contest in San Diego in May, Curtis talks about what bootblacking means to the Leather community as a whole and its importance to him personally. Though Curtis is not involved in actively recruiting bootblacks for this year’s San Diego Leather events, the person who is has put out an online call for people who want “an opportunity to shine or … to learn how,” and he can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zenger’s: Just tell me about yourself and your background.
Curtis Dickson: Well, I grew up in Dallas, Texas. I’ve lived in San Diego since 1996, but I’ve been doing boots for almost 25 years and became earnest about doing it while I lived in Germany. I came to the Leather community from the world of the arts, and so everything is looked at through creative eyes, let us say. Because as a bootblack, you have to be creative. You have to be prepared for the unprepared situation.
My background comes from the Leather bars of the 1970’s and 1980’s, so my bootblacking was done in a dark corner with 100 Leathermen and all of the testosterone and imbibing. Half the time you couldn’t see the boots, but you still had to solve all the problems of the boots. That’s what I mean when I say you have to be prepared for the unprepared. Usually, the procedure entails basically the same things you do to all boots. But I had to be ready, in that dark corner of the bar, to solve all the problems, because they’d go out into the light and they’d want the boots to look as good as though I was doing them in daytime.
Zenger’s: What exactly is the big deal? I mean, people outside the Leather community will hear of this and go, “Oh, shining a pair of boots. What’s the big deal?” Why is that important?
Dickson: Why is that important? You have to look at the history of Leather. Our community started from servicemen who returned after World War II, and they formed their own clubs. You know how important boots are in the Army. They were everything, because if you didn’t have good boots to march in, you just wouldn’t last. So they brought this attention to their boots into their secular world. I won’t go into the motorcycle clubs and all that part of it, but suffice it to say that the boots became important. They insisted that their boots be given that same level of attention as their Leather.
We’re talking here about butch boots, not patent leather or those kinds of boots. I know the Leather community has expanded today. We use dress boots and all different kinds of boots, but originally it was just work boots, butch boots with very few flowery details or what have you. So out of this tradition grew the bootblack. As soon as they had people doing this specifically with the boots, the shining of the boots went into their private life, for instance as foreplay.
Boots can be used to stimulate, because the person sitting in the chair receives much more than the bootblack gives. They feel their foot being massaged. The boots will be finished when they step off the stand. It became a tradition that that would be part of the uniform, as you would say. You didn’t just march in in shoes or sneakers or sandals with your leathers. You always wore boots. So it became entrenched as a tradition in the community.
Zenger’s: What drew you, personally, to being a bootblack? Out of all the roles you could have played in the Leather community, why that one?
Dickson: Usually, bootblacks have a foot fetish or something to do with the feet. At least that’s how I got started. And since it is a fetish of sorts, I’m also drawn to sneakers and socks and any male foot attire. But boots are my core tradition because I’m in the Leather community, and it plays an important role. I’ve won three titles of importance. In 1998 I was second runner-up to International Mr. Leather (IML) Bootblack in Chicago. There are two major contests in the Leather community that involve bootblacks. One is IML, in Chicago; and the other is International Leather SIR/boy/bootblack.
San Diego is going to be able to see the California Leather SIR contest. It’s going to be held here in San Diego. I’m going to be coordinating the bootblacks, so it gives us some great opportunities for people who are interested in this to see it locally. This is on May 14 at Queen Bee’s, 3925 Ohio Street, right next to the laundry as you come off of University on the right, right across from La Bohème. It’s California Leather SIR/boy and bootblack. It’s part of a nationwide contest. California is so big it’s made into one area for itself, but there are also regions that can comprise two or three states.
This year we’re adding something new, which is going to be a puppy contest. So there’s going to be the California puppy, the California bootblack, and California Leather SIR and boy. The puppy is an indication of how the Leather community is expanding. It used to be all contests were just the Sir and the boy and the bootblack. In 2008 I won the Southern California bootblack. I went to the International, which was held in San Francisco, and I was first runner-up to the winner.
I’ve also bootblacked around the nation and at the Toronto Church Street Fetish Fair. I’m the official bootblack for several events, including the Utah Rebellion; for Rocky Mountain Mr. Olympus; and the Las Vegas Smokeout, which is probably my best event because it draws over 1,000 Leathermen and bikers to Las Vegas for the first weekend in April. I’ve been the official bootblack for them for — this will be my fifth year.
As a part of the community, I used to be the bootblack at the old Eagle in the late 1990’s, which was a real Leather bar. Now we have a different Eagle, which is expanding and bringing more people in. I’ve retired from full-time bootblacking here in the city but I do these guest visits just to keep my hands in the business, I guess. But locally, the bootblack is seen as an integral part of the community, because boots are still held high in esteem and they are a part of the “uniform” of the Leather community, and they always will be. So there will always be a place for the bootblack.
Now, the approach of the newer bootblacks that are coming along now is a little different from what it was when I came through, because when I came through more of the attention was given to the person receiving the shine. That is, his comfort, his mood, what he wants with his boots done, and all of that was the most dominant thing. As a result, my bootblacking is called “very passionate” because I actually get a vibe going, or a relationship going, through the boots, with the person sitting in the chair. So I can feel what they want with their boots, or how to approach it. There’s a lot of mental in mine.
A lot of that is being lost with the newer bootblacks, because today it’s not about how you do it. It’s more about what you know, the amount of information. Do you know how to get ink off of leather? Do you know how to remove this stain off of that? A lot of things that can occur to leather, but they’re the sorts of problems you can look up on the Web now. A lot of people have been frightened away from doing bootblacking because they feel like they can never memorize all the information. Another thing the bootblacks do today is leather care. That is, taking care of the jackets, the vests, the leather pants, and the other leather attire, harnesses, collars, all of the different accessories that go with the dress of the Leatherman or Leatherwoman.
We’re having a hard time finding bootblacks that will do it week after week after week. We don’t have a full-time bootblack for the community, like I was in the late 1990’s when I was at the Eagle every Saturday, and also I attended and did a lot of community benefits and judged contests and mentored up-and-coming bootblacks. So if you want your boots done, you have to look for when it’s done intermittently. Now, I know once a month [usually the first Sunday of the month from 5 to 8 p.m.] the Fetish Men meet at the Redwing, and there they smoke cigars and have their boots done, so you’ll see a lot of bootblacks there at that gathering and at various gatherings.
There are a lot of roles a bootblack can take in the community. It’s just feeling your way and being open to those possibilities. You don’t even have to create them yourself; you just have to be open and listening, and offer your services, because bootblacking is a service. It is a submissive role. A dominant can still be a bootblack. But the mission of the bootblack in service to the client, to the one getting his boots done, is a submissive position, and you need to have that in your mind even if you’re not a submissive. If you’re a dominant, still remember you are offering a service, and it’s the person in the chair whose happiness or satisfaction you’re after.
Zenger’s: I don’t know if you’ve ever sat down and had to explain it all this way.
Dickson: I’ve given bootblack classes, and I’ve given some of this information out.
Zenger’s: Who signs up for bootblack class?
Dickson: Anyone who’s interested in what it is.
Zenger’s: What would that experience be like?
Dickson: I would come in and I would probably do a shine on the bootstand. I own my own bootstand, which I use in parties and events around the city, and also I take it with me to Las Vegas for the Las Vegas Smokeout. If you come to a bootblack class, you’ll see me actually do a shine. Then I’ll give background and information on how I got started, and how you can get started. And after I do the shine I open my kit up and explain everything you should have in a kit to get you started.
You need very little to get started, because it’s sort of like learning a new game. Once you learn it, the more knowledge you have, the better you do it. I usually discuss the different products, because for every step in cleaning a boot there are about 10,000 products you can choose from. There are some that are the most popular, and some that do the best job.
Zenger’s: You mentioned “surprises.” You have any stories you want to tell about how you’ve been “surprised”?
Dickson: Oh, let’s see, which ones can I share? This is a family paper, isn’t it? When I say “surprise” I mean if there’s a particular scuff. Usually the way you handle a scuff is you clean it off, and then I usually strip all of the polish and conditioning out of that area. Then, if it needs redyeing, I would dye it, and then dry it and then recondition it and rewax it. But all scuffs aren’t that simple. You might find some kind of extraneous mark on it. That’s why you have to be prepared for any kind of condition the boot comes in.
I must say I love the challenge of old boots, because they have more personality, rather than brand-new boots that just came out of the store. The more you work with boots, the more you like the ones that have taken on a personality. Once you have people who come back often — which I enjoyed when I was at the Eagle — the boots get on a rotation. I know exactly what I did with them before, so I know what they need. They need less of this or more of that, whereas when a generic boot comes in I have to cover all the bases.
The owner of the Eagle had six or seven pairs of boots, and each time I did them it was a different boot, but I knew exactly how it had been prepared before. I knew what kind of product was on it, so you don’t have products that don’t go with each other. It was easier to do the boots, and it was wonderful to be able to, because the boots become your friends. You get to know them, you know their quirks, you know what they need. Some boots need a little bit more of this, others need a little bit more of that. Remember, if you look at humans, we all have skins, and each person’s skin is a different texture. And remember that leather is just a skin, so you don’t want to do anything to it that you wouldn’t do with your own skin.
If you’re doing this in a bar or in public, you never know what’s going to happen. You have to be prepared for whatever condition the boots are in. This is what scares away a lot of people who want to be bootblacks, because they don’t think they’ll come up with the solution at the tip of their finger. Once you get into it, it almost becomes second nature, because there are a few basic problems that everybody has with footwear. Either they walk through snow, or they walk through mud, or they have dirt, or some chewing gum’s on the bottom. Or if they bought them at a thrift store, they can’t get the price off the bottom. What do you do with that?
If they bring their boots for me to do and the boots have a problem of some kind that I don’t know how to solve, I’ll just tell them, “I don’t know how to do this. I’ll just work around it.” But make sure you know the answer the next time that person comes back to your bootstand!
Zenger’s: What do you think is the most interesting experience you’ve had as a bootblack?
Dickson: The traveling: Toronto, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego, L.A., San Francisco. All of those places I’ve bootblacked numerous times, and it’s so neat to meet people from all those different areas of the country. If you go to a bar, or you go to a coffee shop even, you might speak to one or two people. But if you’re a bootblack, you’re going to meet at least 20 to 25 people every night you go out to do the boots.