Damon Fleming: Shoeshine Master, "Honest Hustler"
Basketball runs through Damon Fleming’s body up into his fingertips. As a kid he wanted to play in the NBA. He discovered he had natural basketball talent. He once scored sixty-two points in a dustbowl tournament on the south side of town. The year was 1984. He was fifteen years old. Jump ahead six years to a carwash in Salt Lake City, Utah. Damon found himself shining shoes. Not just any shoes – really, really large shoes. Damon’s first paid customer was “The Mailman” – Karl Malone, a power forward who played basketball for the Utah Jazz. “Here comes this big, huge, massive man, 6’10”, 300 pounds,” Damon explains. “I tell you, his feet were so long I think I used a can of polish on each shoe. It was a workout trying to get all that leather covered.” The next day, point guard John Stockton and several other Jazz players paid Damon a visit. They brought him their oversized golf shoes covered with grass stains. He performed his magic and made those shoes perfectly white and clean.
Then Jazz point guard Eric Murdock arrived with a pair of sized 16-1/2 autographed playing shoes. “I’m excited, but I’m like, What am I going to do with 16-1/2 shoes? I only wear a 10-1/2. But, of course, I kept them.” A short time later Larry Miller, the owner of the Utah Jazz, handed Damon five more pairs of golf shoes. At the time Damon charged five bucks a shine.
“As God would have it,” Damon says, “my supply store was located across the street from the carwash." Above it, a large digital sign announced the daily specials. “I’m coming to work one day, and lo and behold, my name flashes across this big ol’ sign. It says: ‘Damon’s Shoeshine.’ Man, I just started bawling. I just stared crying because, in my heart, I had arrived! I’d never had my name in lights like that. I didn’t see that coming.”
The owner of the carwash looked him in the eyes and said, “Damon, you are the reason this carwash is really taking off. People ask about you daily.” Today, twenty-eight years later, the forty-nine-year-old believes the marble lobby of downtown Indy’s Capitol Center is his court. A much smaller sign at his elevated shoeshine station announces: “We restore all leather – shoes, purses, bags, jackets.” Damon finds it rewarding to restore new luster in time- and weather-warn shoes and accessories.
“If anything is faded or looks outdated, don’t throw it away. Bring it to me and we can make it look brand-spanking-new. That’s what I do.” Being in the shoeshine business requires a certain amount of initiative and the ability to talk to anyone. “You’d be amazed to see how you can get to know someone through the course of a shoeshine,” he says. "A good shoeshine only takes eight to ten minutes. You can get to know somebody in that small amount of time.” Damon takes immense pride in each shine: “If something happens with your shoe, if you don’t like it, bring it back, free of charge, and we’ll take care of it. It’s all about the you, the customer, making sure you are satisfied.” A lot can be said about a person by the condition of his or her shoe. “I’ve got one particular client – he’s a big-time lawyer – and every time he goes to court, the judge always says, ‘How do you keep your shoes so shiny?’ It’s a blessing for him to say, ‘My buddy Damon takes care of me.’”
Damon says there’s only one real way to learn the art of shoe shining, and it’s not found in a classroom. “It’s really an honest hustle, that’s all it is. But you’ve got to know your shoes, you’ve got to know the chemicals or you’ll tear people’s stuff up.” He says he looks forward to the moment when his customers get up out of the chair and they look at their shoes like a little kid unwrapping a gift. He remembers one woman who brought her purse back and said, “Damon, that’s not my purse.” Damon said, “Yes, ma’m, that’s your purse.” “Damon, that’s not my purse,” the woman said. “That purse looks brand new.”
To which he replied, “That’s the whole point! “If you take your time and put your heart and soul into something, you can’t go wrong. You just can’t go wrong.” Damon says you’ll be able to find him in the lobby of the Capital Center at Illinois and Market streets for years to come. “I’ll probably be doing this for the rest of my life. I’m just here to serve you.”