Deep downtown Sn Diego, in a bootblack booth so tiny it disappears after closing, thrives the wit, wisdom, and wistfulness of Walter H. Clark. That's "Clark" spelled "Klark" on the blackboard. "I do it just for devilment."
He's got more jokes tucked up his beard — all true stories, too — than would last a month of shoeshines. For 19 years working that shoeshine stand on Third, south of Broadway, and for 17 or so years before that, he's watched San Diego move north and south from downtown. They city renews his license every six months in exchange for $2.50, and the owners of the adjacent parking lot rent him the land. It used to be such a good spot for collecting friends, stories, years, that he had assistants Wednesday through Saturday. From his Third Avenue experiences, Clark has evolved a certain harmony of life, though not an acceptance of the status quo. And he'll be glad to offer his point of view, providing he takes a shine to you.
Downtown is neglected nowadays. Only the downtown workers shop the downtown stores. "Loss of loyalty to the community," he calls it — the way "the white man destroys cities by taking money out and bringing it to the suburbs or sending it to New York or San Francisco." Suburbia and the conglomerates ruin the country by destroying neighborhoods. He reminisces about Montague and Cumming, the neighborhood grocery of his Charleston boyhood, where they gave away liver and pig feet since "no one had the money to buy it." And Clark isn't just crying "shame." The style of living he prefers blooms on his block because of his efforts to cultivate it.
"I'm a fighter for this neighborhood." And he means it in a peaceful way; he believes in the power of the written word. His chief weapon is that blackboard. When the stand is closed, passersby check the board for his work schedule and his cheery greeting, "If those that know good service will come with open arms and dirty shoes — I'm here to greet you..."; when he's on duty, they'll read his latest encouraging word on current politics, and stop to swap opinions. Clark's words and word about Clark have spread beyond the dimensions of his tiny stand.
"I'm a fighter!" And he means it in an ecological way; he believes in living harmoniously with his environment. Symbol of this harmony in his tree. Because of the cement stand high around the base, the city tree before Clark's shoeshine booth is different from the others on the block. He uses it as a planter for flowers and corn; passersby use it as a spittoon. The sign he tacked up, "Please do not litter my tree" aided him in clearing it of litter and spit, but the city made him remove the nailed-on sign. His story about the tobacco-chawing Texan is one episode in his long history of service toward that tree.
First thing of a morning, the scuffy-toed Texan insisted on a shine. Clark finally obliged him, though not ready to open. Hearing himself called "boy" in a very nasty tone of voice, Clark put up with Nicotine-mouth until he spite into the tree via Clark's head. W.H.C., in turn, let go of his temper. "This is California, and we don't have spittoon here. Now you get down from there and shine my shoes!" The Texan was eventually persuaded to step down, and Clark remembers, "I felt very, very good about that."
He talks to the tree, sings to it, and believes in his green finger which made his aunt's sickly pants thrive. "I'm a Baptist, and I know I shouldn't say it, but I can't help wondering if I was ever a vegetable or a plant." He could just as soon have been a white salesman or a black doctor or a Mexican businessman; he communicates so easily with all the life downtown.
The corn he planted in a kind of contest with the man around the corner was getting so high it almost reached his taste buds. But one night, darkly behind his back, the city did away with the corn. Clark was later informed that they were afraid that someone might get sick from eating corn grown near a sprayed tree. His competitor's corn was broken by some anonymous citizens. "People tear up flowers and throw them in the street just out of meanness." Clark tends his tree out of love.
In 1937, the Navy brought Walter H. Clark from Charleston to San Diego. It was so pretty here he stayed. So many lakes, dried up now; Christmases downtown, faded now. San Diego was a small town, mostly Navy, and segregated. He knew nearly all of the coloured people in town. Signs "NO NEGROES ALLOWED," dancing halls where he and his wife were ostracized, hard times for his children in prejudiced schools were everyday weather for Clark. But like the tree, "I bend with the wind."
Back then Clark hadn't yet experienced the satisfaction of self-employment. He left his job at Convair because he hates "clockwatches" and hates doing a job where something carelessly done can result in injury to a stranger. He has seen men leave a detail on an airplane job half done at the L-u-u-u-n-c-h- call, and , once back on the job, forget the other half. "I know I can't hurt anyone by giving a half shine."
Chances are you wont' get a half shine from Walter H. Clark. He'll either do his best or give you the brush-off. Customer appreciation gives him deep satisfaction. "The best things that ever happened to me are small things like someone telling me, 'That was the best shine I ever had!'" Toward his steady clientele, "I'm that close with them that my customers are more like relatives." There are those, however, who never do come back for a second shine.
Take the Saturday night when the action still focused on downtown and the Cadillac pulled up outside Clark's stand. The driver wanted a was shine, the 50-cent shine, not the plain shine for 35 cents. Clark let the man know the going rate, but after the shine, Mr. Caddy paid him only 35 cents. Said that all he pays for a shine is 35 cents. And he walked off. Clark got mad enough to pick up the old quarter and dime and throw them after Mr. Caddy, who retrieved them, pocketed them, and kept on walking. (Maybe that's how he got his caddy.)
Although his fondest memories were born at the Third Avenue stand, Clark spends only Friday evenings and weekend afternoons there now. Three years ago the downtown Florsheim asked him to work for them. He's there 9 to 4:30 during the business week with his TV tuned to Watergate. And he performs Saturday mornings at Courtesy Chevrolet in Mission Valley. For awhile Clark had two Third Avenue addresses, this one, and the other one north of Broadway in the old California Building. Pin-ups and plain talk make it a gentleman's place, although women, too, would pass and laugh at the pictures, taking no offense until... The one of the fat lady spilling over into her gooey birthday cake captioned by Clark, "be careful ladies or this could be you" offended two sensitive matrons. He told them that they just didn't get the joke and that he wouldn't take it down. "And they honked me to death" and came back with a priest. The proper priest, stripped of sense of humor, kept insisting that the picture was evil. Clark lost his respect for priests. "Your damn white collar gets just as dirty as mint." When the priest brought along the police, the picture was still there. A young policeman, who understood Clark's feelings, suggested that he lease the evil thing up all that day and then take it down for good. "So I compromised. It would have taken too much out of me to take it down right then."
He hasn't much respect for healers, either, although he claims travel with the Navy drove all the prejudice out of him. In particular, the day he had a toothache and the toothless holiness lady came along to heal him ... let Clark tell you the rest of that one, in person.
Despite his firmly held opinions, Walter H. Clark is loose enough to live through any downtown happening with twinkle-eyed tolerance. Father of five, including two stepchildren, he's an extremely young and vigorous 55. People even criticize his dressing "too young" and give him grief about his beard. Clark gets along better with young folks than with people his own age and dresses the way he feels. When his customers watch others passing and cat about their clothes, he protests that people should try to get close to one another, not stand apart over trivialities. Blacks, black men, anyway, set fashion because they have the nerve not to care what people say and thus, dress to please themselves.
Clark's present Third Avenue address is 837, next to the Off-Broadway Theatre stage door. He knew it when it was a burlesque house. Clark's stand is tiny but its aura colours half the block. Whether you stop by for a shoe-job or a chat, you always step away with a shine in your soul.