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Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories

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Columns | Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories


by Bill Cherry
Bill Cherry
Normally 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 became friends.

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 and sidewalk.

A spit shine—Slick's specialty—was 15 cents plus a dime tip.

It 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 Eve 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.
Sam Maceo
Sam Maceo
Photo courtesy Bill Cherry

The front pew on the left side were always reserved for the Maceos. I don't think I ever heard where Mrs. Malloy sat.

This night Mrs. Malloy was already there. Everyone was waiting for the Maceos.

About then, Mr. Sam, Miss Sedgie and the kids drove up, got out of the car, and started toward the cathedral. Mr. Sam spotted Slick sitting on the steps with his head in his hand.

He walked over to him. Miss Sedgie and the children followed a few steps behind.

"Slick, is that you?" Mr. Sam asked, bending down.

"Yes sir, Mr. Sam."

"I was hoping I'd find you tonight. I have something for you," Mr. Sam told him.

And with that, he gave him the paper sack with all of the money from the shoe shines and records Slick had sold that day. The bag that had been stolen from Slick by the bandit with the handkerchief covered pistol.

"And here're two ten-spots for your trouble. Merry Christmas, Slick. You're a treasured friend. You and the wife stop by and see Mr. Books at my office after Christmas. He'll have good jobs for both of you."

As he started to walk into the church with Miss Sergie and the boys, as an afterthought, Mr. Sam said to Slick, "Ducky Wucky wants you to know he's sorry he got stupid tonight from those hand-rolled cigarettes he bought from Pee-Wee the newsboy."

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Sam, and may God always be with you," said Slick with a big smile.

Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories
December 21, 2007 column
© William S. Cherry
All rights reserved

Bill Cherry, a Dallas Realtor and free lance writer was a longtime columnist for "The Galveston County Daily News." His book, Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories, has sold thousands, and is still available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com and other bookstores.

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