U Need a Shine?

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In the 1940s, a wave of automation threatened an industry that employed large numbers of low-skilled workers. The rise of the electric shoe-shine machines turned the once ubiquitous street corner shoeshine boy and the higher-end hotel lobby shoe-shine stand into rarities.

At the bristly heart of the corporate takeover, the shinification of American footwear, was the Uneeda Shine Machine Company, of 552 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan.

The mechanics, of course, were simple: a few spinning brushes running off a motor. The genius was in the packaging. The standard Uneeda Shine Machine was the Shine-O-Mat, a sturdy gun-metal box that stood a little taller than a desk and offered amenities such a choice of black or brown brushes, a foot stand for applying polish, and handles in the event that the vroom of the brushes might send the patron careening across the room.

I speak from experience. About 15 years ago I salvaged a Shine-O-Mat from scrap metal oblivion. It is in perfect working order and has traveled with the various chapters of my curriculum vitae ever since. It travels with the same joy of movement that Mount Rushmore might have if it were forced to relocate to Hackensack. The thing was built to stay put—probably to deter thieves and former shoeshine-boys-turned-anarchist-luddites. Or perhaps to ensure that the momentum of the brushes didn’t drive it across the floor.

Silber Shines
I salvaged my Shine-O-Mat not out of an obsessive desire to see my reflection in a pair of Oxfords, nor out of nostalgia for a bygone era of auto-matting. Rather, I was seeking to preserve a relic of a great epoch in academic history. Herein hangs a tale.

In 1971, John Silber was appointed as president of Boston University. At the time, BU was mostly a commuter school with no claim to academic distinction, but with some notoriety as a hotbed of leftist activism. Among its tenured faculty was Howard Zinn, later to be celebrated as the author of that bible of anti-American propaganda, A People’s History of the United States. Silber, who received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale, had chaired the philosophy department at the University of Texas at Austin, and later served as dean of arts and sciences there too, had a reputation as a liberal firebrand. BU presumably thought he would fit right in with the activist campus.

Instead, Silber turned out to be a crazily ambitious advocate of academic and intellectual achievement. He wanted BU to be “great”—though perhaps not “great again.” There was no real basis for saying that the institution that had bumped along for more than a century as a Methodist seminary and then a conglomeration of schools of this-and-that, including a school of homeopathy, had had a golden age. Out of such unpromising stuff, leavened with anti-war protesters and Zinn-style Communists, Silber set out to build a major research university.

Silber was an irascible man given to intemperate outbursts in public, but he was also a tough-minded visionary who dragged Boston University out of pedestrian complacence and began to make something of it. I saw a good part of this firsthand. In 1984, I went to work there in the library, but a few years later I was hired as an assistant to the provost, and then worked my way up in the administration.

The story of Silber’s administration at BU has been told often, though I expect at this point memory is beginning to fade. His last administrative hurrah as chancellor ended in 2004, and he died in 2012. In the years after 2004, his successors pretty much dismantled most of what had made his leadership in American higher education distinctive. He had been a political liberal who vehemently opposed political correctness. He upheld academic standards against the myriad forms of leftist sentimentality that prevail in the academy at large. He was a universalist in the age of multiculturalism. When student protesters invaded his office, he immediately had the police arrest them and haul them off. Never did he make a concession to a faculty member howling for special privileges in the name of social justice. He ran a lean administration during the period in which the all-administrative university was on the rise.

There was much to admire in John Silber, though not all that much to like.

Things had begun to crumble before the BU board finally shuffled him off stage. Like a boxer who stays in the game past his prime, Silber kept going and his mistakes mounted. Near the end, he abandoned the elegant 19th-century Bay State Road townhouse that had served as his administration’s offices and built himself a Taj Mahal on top of the business school. We all knew the move was coming, but in typical Silberian fashion, he one day announced we were moving that very moment, and should leave everything behind. Everything.

That included, on the fourth floor, the Shine-O-Mat. Silber had a birth defect that left him with an arm that truncated at the elbow. He couldn’t whip-polish his shoes with one hand, but the Shine-O-Mat could. All he had to do was flip the switch. His long-time speechwriter and assistant Sam McCracken (father of the novelist Elizabeth McCracken) purchased the machine at an estate sale from a defunct Boston hotel. Sam was an eccentric with a long trail of collections, old encyclopedias and antique cameras among them. But the Shine-O-Mat was one of a kind.

When the dumpsters appeared and the crews started to haul away the 34 years of Silber’s rubble, I snatched the Shine-O-Mat. Not long after, I left BU to continue my academic journey elsewhere, but I couldn’t quite say goodbye to the contraption.

Made of Metal
Every machine is a metaphor in the making, at least if you listen carefully. I take the Shine-O-Mat, at least this particular Shine-O-Mat, as an emblem of American higher education. It turns what was once a personal relationship into a mass-produced commodity.

Uneeda Shine Machine Company produced several models that were coin-operated. The Shine-O-Mat whirls out a superficial polish on anything you shove before it, from full grain leather to the synthetic stuff. It will even polish do-not-polish hiking boots and thus ruin their waterproofing. It is the very image of contemporary mass higher education, promising a perfect finish to everyone, regardless of material or construction. It also has, in keeping with the spirit of our times, certain set-asides. The wheels on my machine are labeled “black only” and “brown only.”

I have decided the time has come for me to part with the Shine-O-Mat. I have enjoyed its company these years and taken pleasure in showing it to visitors to the National Association of Scholars. Among its other thematic echoes, it speaks to a sturdy do-it-yourself spirit. No one need be demeaned by the task of cleaning another’s shoes. The Shine-O-Mat is democracy in rotary motion. It is, in its way, a classic, if not a great book. If it were a great book, it would be the Odyssey, come home at last to midtown Manhattan where it was born 70 years ago. Or perhaps Remembrance of Things Past, evoking the age when it was still possible for a pugnacious college president to hold the line against the fatuities of his time.

But I don’t want to tumble the Shine-O-Mat to an ignominious end in a “Got Junk?” pick-up truck. It needs a new owner who understands it as an important historical artifact. Should such a person come forward, it is free for the taking or, if transport is an issue, free except for the cost of shipping.

Your shoes will gleam and you’ll stand a little bit taller.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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