I’m 39 years old and up until a few weeks ago I had never had my shoes shined. That wouldn’t have been a big deal if I hadn’t met Jimmie Marshall. Jimmie is one of the most wonderful parts of our Tampa adventure. We met at the Oxford Exchange. Oxford Exchange is part restaurant, part workspace collective, part coffee shop and part bookstore.
It’s right across the street from the University of Tampa and near the heart of downtown, a beautiful white brick building with dark wood floors leading to a grand staircase that takes you to the Shaw Library where I do most of my work. As you enter you pass the bookstore and follow the foyer down to the coffee shop and an open common area enjoyed by some of most prominent culture shapers here in Florida. Just the other day I met Governor Rick Scott while having coffee with a friend. It’s that kind of place. Were it not for Jimmie Marshall, I would feel really out of place working there.
Jimmie operates his shoe-shine business in the foyer area, and I will never forget the first time I met him. Let me insert some back story. A friend here in Tampa knew I was looking for a quiet place to work. He not only recommended Oxford Exchange but vouched for me to get access to the library. Most days I ride my bike to work, not because I love riding a bike but because a bike is what I have. A typical commute means gliding along Tampa Bay getting passed by a Lamborghini, a Rolls Royce, a Bentley, lots of Porsches and maybe a Ferrari. I’m not kidding. Tampa is crazy; Mercedes are like Honda Accords out here.
Picture me peddling away in my jeans, boots and ridiculous helmet, heading for my first day at my new office. My commute is about 5.5 miles, and by the time I arrive I’m sweaty. Given the length of legs and the height of my bike, I’m lucky to dismount without falling over. My dismount routine includes an awkward little hop. When I don’t get it just right, I dump the whole thing, basket and all. Luckily that day I got it right. Remember all the cars that passed me? They are now all parked out front, proudly displayed like kings and queens on a chessboard.
Once I’ve taken a moment to cool down, situate my lunch bag, backpack and helmet, I open the doors and my shoes hit the marble floor. Looking like an extra from a Macklemore video, I pass all the beautiful people who own all the beautiful cars. By now I want to die, hide or turn around and head right out the door. In Portland, I could be a young Phil Knight, an important writer/activist or design firm owner. In Florida, I don’t even look lost, just strange. About the time I feel most out of place, Jimmie Marshall turns around and with grace and warmth he creates a place for me. From that moment on we were friends. In fact, he joined my family for Thanksgiving this year.
A couple weeks ago I was having one of those weeks. My knees felt like buckling under the weight of beginning a new work. The pressure to meet all the expectations I create for myself and the realities of relocating across the country had gotten the best of me.
It was Wednesday morning. I went to work doing my best to be glass-half-full guy and orient forward, but I was tired.
Jimmie and I exchanged our usual morning greetings, and he started to share a story from the previous day. All of a sudden he stopped and invited me to “get up in the chair.” I resisted. First of all, I didn’t have the money to pay him. Second, there was no way this friend was going to shine my shoes. That’s when it hit me. That thing that happens when you know you’re about to learn a lesson. A biblical weight kind of fills the moment. You can sense it and I knew my job was to stop talking, stop resisting and obey. I stood up and took two steps to the shoeshine chair, ascended to the high seat and placed my feet on the brass footrests. Jimmie took a knee on a perfectly worn rug and began to apply polish to my boots. I just sat there. I couldn’t speak. I was afraid if I did I would just start to cry. Jimmie is a craftsman; he worked back and forth with the leather like they had an understanding, his attention to detail transforming both soul and shoe.
Those were some of the sweetest and strangest minutes of my life. I wish I had words to describe the impact his care had on me. I don’t. All I can say is that for a few minutes I was completely quiet and powerless. My shoes needed work but Jimmie knew I needed something more than that. When he finished, I stepped down and confessed I didn’t have the cash to pay him. He just shook his head. About that time another customer came by with a bag of shoes. He dropped the bag and stressed that he needed the shoes in 15 minutes.
Jimmie humbly responded, “I can have them in 35 or 40.” I thanked him again and started to get up in order to let him get back to work. He had already started in and as I started to walk away, I heard him whisper, “Blessed are the feet of those who carry the gospel.” I walked away fixed and broken.
By the time I head home each night, Jimmie is usually gone for the day. When I pass that chair I almost can’t look at it. It has a humbling holiness to it now. When I was a stranger, I was welcomed. When I was weary, I found rest. Being loved like that leaves a forever mark. Oh, to rise and love like that.