Slick the shoeshine man carried 78 RPM records of black artists,
the ones that Mrs. Evelyn Stein at the Melody Record Shop around
the corner didn't.
But for some reason it was Christmas, and he was pushing a new song
written and sung by a white cowboy film star, Gene Autry. It was
"Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer." And it was the Christmas season
of 1949, and that song was on its way to becoming the first tune
to ever reach the platinum benchmark in sales, even bigger than
Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."
The tiny shoeshine parlor was just behind Galveston's Interurban
Queen Newsstand at the corner of 21st and Market Street, and it
had been in business since the war years. I have no idea how many
black men owned it over time, but they were always known as Slick.
The 1949 version of Slick the Shoeshine Man had two gold capped
teeth in the front, one with a perfect five-point star carved in
it, and he had a great head of black hair that was pressed back
and held in place with Peach Dressing pomade. He wore brown and
white spectator shoes year around, and a pocket watch on a long,
gold chain that rode along on the side of his right leg. He all
but danced when he walked. He was an impressive sight. We later
Slick had a vintage RCA radio-phonograph combination in the back
of his shine parlor. He had taken the big speaker out, put it in
a wooden box with loads of holes drilled in it with a nail he had
hammered in, and had wired it with red and white doorbell wire so
that it could sit in the transom above the parlor's door. He'd turn
up the volume so everyone on the sidewalk could hear.
On both sides of 21st and Market there were end-of-the-line bus
stops, where every bus route on the island began and terminated.
Men waiting for the bus could step into Slick's to get a shine,
but mainly to get away from the foul smell that rose from the gutter
A spit shine -- Slick's specialty -- was 15 cents plus a dime tip.
was Christmas Eve, a Saturday, and the stores downtown were finally
closing. The sales ladies from the dime stores had balanced their
cash registers, and the men who sold shoes and haberdashery were
on their way to the Corner Bar for a Christmas toddy before they
caught the bus home.
Slick was still there, catching the stragglers who were planning
to eat supper at the Peacock Cafe's counter, even though they knew
they would be eating the leftovers from the lunch, play the slots
at the Interurban Queen, pull a few tips, and nurse a few highballs
before going to St. Mary's Cathedral for midnight Mass. No sense
in going home only to turn around and come back, they reasoned.
Their families would just meet them there.
Father Dan was a kind soul. He always made certain that he had a
doctor and a nurse on duty to rescue those who would pass out and
fall off the kneeling benches. After all, when you mixed a day on
your feet selling shoes with a few toddies at the Corner Bar, and
combined that with a stuffy, incensed filled cathedral, your chance
of making it without a whiff or two of smelling salts was just this
side of zero.
This Christmas Even night was cold, damp and foggy. Slick had eaten
a take-out plate of turkey with a cloverleaf roll and banana pudding
from the Peacock, and then closed his shine parlor down as the last
bus left for the barn at 10:15.
He and his third wife had five children living at home. They lived
in a two-bedroom apartment above a beauty shop on the northwest
side of 25th and Market Street.
Slick's wife was a housekeeper for an elderly couple who lived in
Cedar Lawn. Slick and his wife's apartment was so small that three
of their children slept on pallets on the living room floor.
As Slick was crossing the alley just south of his shine parlor that
Christmas Eve, he realized that he had forgotten to turn off old
Gene Autry. That cowboy was still warbling about Rudolph even though
there was no one on the sidewalk to hear him.
Slick went back, opened his door, and turned off the RCA radio-phonograph
combination. Just as he stepped back out of the door and turned
to put the padlock through the hasp, his head was struck hard with
a gun wrapped in a handkerchief. Slick went to the ground. The guy
grabbed Slick's paper bag that had all of his shine and record sales
money for the day, and ran to the alleyway, turned east and disappeared
among the shadows.
Slick and his
wife were planning to take their children for Christmas Day dinner
at their church, and then to a movie. A movie was all that the children
ever got for Christmas.
And without the paper bag of money, that year there'd be no movie.
Before he began the walk home, for some reason Slick walked up 21st
Street to St. Mary's where he heard the bells sounding to let everyone
know that Mass was beginning. When he got to the church, he sat
on the steps by the north door. What was he going to do? he wondered.
The midnight Christmas Eve service at the cathedral never began
until Evelyn Malloy and Sam and Sedgie Maceo and the kids got there,
and they were always at least fifteen minutes late. They were big
supporters of the cathedral.