47-year-old Olajuwan Mitchell lights two large sticks of incense and sticks them into the dirt surrounding the base of a small tree. He then starts to unpack his portable shoe shining kit, consisting of a tattered shoe shine box filled with various brushes, polishes and rags, two metal folding chairs, a 49ers seat cushion for his customers and a soiled, dark blue doormat.
"C'mon, let's go!" he says to the passerby as he sets up shop. "Shine 'em up fresh out the box!"
Once a Phlebotomy Assistant, Mitchell said he left the medical field five years ago to launch his own shoe shining business, "Fresh out the Box," although some swear he's been in the business much longer.
"I just got tired of working for other people, you know," says Mitchell, smiling wide as he nods his head at a passing 30-something businesswomen dressed in an expensive, tailor-made black suit, white blouse and heels. "I mean, look around," he says gesturing with both hands, "I have the best job in the world."
Hailing from New Iberia, Louisiana, a small town in the heart of the Cajun country, population approximately 30,000, home to Tabasco Sauce and best selling author James Lee Burke, Mitchell moved to San Francisco 30 years ago to help take care of his daughter, who just last week graduated from college with a degree in nursing.
"I'm guessing I shined over 10,000 pairs of shoes to help pay her tuition," Mitchell jokes, juggling two horsehair shoe shining brushes in his hands.
In addition to working the Embarcadero cable car turnaround in the morning, during business hours, Mitchell leases a small professional shoe shining spot in the lobby of Embarcadero Center West on Battery St., complete with plush leather seats and plenty of reading material.
When asked what's the craziest or most bizarre thing he'd witnessed while shining shoes, Mitchell replied, "I had this attractive lady in a miniskirt tell me once she'd give me $100 to shine her boots," he says. "When I went to start shining, I noticed she wasn't wearing any drawls underneath her skirt. I 'bout damn near had a heart attack, man!"
Mitchell says his customers are about 70% male and 30% female.
32-year-old Private Banker Jayvee Gulmatico walks four blocks out of his way to get his shoes shined by Mitchell, passing at least four different shoe shiners along the way. "It's one of the best shines in town," says Gulmatico about Mitchell's services, "and the price is definitely right, too. Not only that, but he (Mitchell) is always very jovial and welcoming, like an old friend you haven't seen in a while."
Mitchell can be found at the Embarcadero cable car turnaround Mon.-Fri., Market and Drumm streets, 7:30a.m.-9:90:30a.m., as well as inside the lobby of Embarcadero Center West, 275 Battery St. (at Sacramento St.), 9:30a.m.-4:30p.m. Prices range from $8-$20 depending on shine. All types of shoes are welcome, sneakers, nubuck and suede included. Drop-offs also welcome.
Shine 'em up!
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