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The Art of the Shoeshine 

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OffBeat has had a number of memorable shoeshines over the years, including an encounter with a deranged shoe-polishing machine at the Café La Coupole in Paris that damn near took our foot off. Since then, we have made it a policy to have our shoes shined only by humans.

It is a guilty pleasure. Getting a shoeshine is, unavoidably, an aristocratic business. The platform chair one sits in is a kind of throne, and the man crouching at one’s feet something like a supplicant. Once, at a shoe-repair place in New York, OffBeat’s shoes were shined by a man so wizened and frail we were afraid we’d be hearing ambulance sirens before the procedure was over. A happier memory is of a wildly grinning shoeshine boy in El-Jadida, Morocco, who kept shoe polish and brushes on one side of his shoeshine box and contraband cigarettes on the other. His own shoes were falling apart, but he laughed and told jokes as he polished ours.

Here in Los Angeles, we take our beat-up foot leather to Mr. Adrian Serrano. As with so many local landmarks, his stand at La Brea Avenue and Ninth Street is an offshoot of car culture, in this case, the Expert Car Wash. Mr. Serrano, 32, a friendly, well-dressed man with black hair and a mustache, worked as a shoemaker in his native Mexico, but learned the art of polishing shoes in L.A. He learned it well. These days, OffBeat’s black leather lace-ups glitter like freshly drilled oil. We have never had a better shoeshine.

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So how does Mr. Serrano do it? During a recent visit, OffBeat took notes.

First, Mr. Serrano rolled up the cuffs of OffBeat’s trousers. Then, wrapping a white rag around the middle fingers of his right hand, he lightly rubbed our shoes with a transparent cleaning fluid that he said was "something like gasoline" and which he invited us to smell. (We couldn’t smell anything.) Taking up an implement with a small, cone-shaped sponge at the end of a long wire handle, he next applied a dye to the sides of the soles and heels, an action that produced a mild tickling sensation in OffBeat’s feet.

Just as Mr. Serrano was bringing out a bottle of Propert’s "Crème des Bottes" (black boot cream), two pretty Latinas arrived on the scene, wanting to know if Mr. Serrano also repaired shoes. (He does, along with belts and other leather items.) Then it was back to the shoes. The Crème des Bottes, which Mr. Serrano applied liberally with a small sponge, paying particular attention to the scuffed toes and nicks in the leather, was followed by a coat of regular polish from a tub large enough to last the average person a lifetime. OffBeat’s shoes were now thickly covered in wax, but dull, dull, dull. Allowing the polish to settle for a moment, Mr. Serrano took up a tiny brush and lavished more attention on the edges of OffBeat’s soles and heels. OffBeat wasn’t sure what this accomplished exactly, but it’s the small gestures that feel most gratifying. This done, Mr. Serrano produced a big wooden shoe brush and proceeded, with a few dexterous strokes, to produce a rich, lustrous shine.

Most people would have stopped there, but Mr. Serrano was not yet finished. A third layer of polish was applied, this time mixed with water from a spray bottle, producing a luster of a different magnitude altogether. OffBeat’s shoes were now agleam. Mr. Serrano then proceeded to polish, with the outer edges of a brush, the "creases" in the shoes.

Finally, lightly spraying a clean white rag with water, he gave the shoes a last, dazzling polish. The job, which took about 10 minutes, was done. (Price: $4, plus tip.) Looking down at one of our shoes, OffBeat decided it no longer looked like a shoe so much as a kind of shimmering, shoe-shaped liquid.

By comparison, however, the rest of OffBeat looked pretty shabby. Better visit a tailor, we thought, as Mr. Serrano gently rolled down our trouser cuffs.

—Brendan Bernhard

OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY PARK

 

Memo to self: Have garage sale, invite L.A. City Council. Members of that august body clearly are willing to pony up plenty for white elephants, as they demonstrated last week with their 11-4 vote pledging $3 million for a park in Mandeville Canyon.

The council’s stated purpose was to save 239 acres of open space in the aeries of the Santa Monica Mountains — and who could argue? The purchase is also a windfall for Bert Boeckmann — San Fernando Valley millionaire (Galpin Motors), police commissioner, Mayor Rior dan compadre and one of L.A.’s top 20 political contributors. Boeckman, his company and employees donated more than $40,000 in the last two city elections.

Boeckmann bought the hillside land in 1978 for $300,000, intending to build 30 mansions. But potential mudslide problems surfaced. And they haven’t gone away. In April, a legal liaison from the city Engineering Department cited geologic problems in opposing purchase of Boeckmann’s property. The city has never issued Boeckmann a subdivision tract map, also because of geologic complications — and building officials say that the cost of excavating and shoring up the land would be prohibitive.

"That land’s junk land," declares Nita Rosenfeld, a 40-plus-year canyon resident who says that the hillside collapses with every heavy rain. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg joined Laura Chick, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Richard Alatorre in opposing the purchase.

"It’s our belief that he could develop the land," counters a spokeswoman for Cindy Miscikowski, the Mandeville Canyon council rep who championed the purchase. Reached by phone, Boeckman insisted that he was "well down the road" towards building when the mayor and other officials approached him about the park sale. But Miscikowski’s office concedes that Boeckman would have had to spend more money before breaking ground.

Why use public money at all, you might ask, to buy property in a council district with 313 acres of parkland, or 1.3 acres per 1,000 residents — as opposed to less than one-third acre per 1,000 in Echo Park/Atwater/Central L.A.? Echo Park rep Goldberg’s working-poor district, with a measly 79 acres of parkland, lacks the backyard lawns, pools and tennis courts of Mandeville Canyon. The Boeckmann purchase draws on Proposition K funds, which voters approved in 1996 for inner-city and other parks. Three million dollars is the current price tag for a new park in Hollywood’s impoverished Yucca corridor. But that’s with soccer field, basketball court, boxing gym and computer lab for the kids. Mandeville Canyon, by contrast, will exist primarily for adult joggers and mountain bikers. Miscikowski’s office says the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy will organize Mandeville field trips for inner-city children. OffBeat fears, however, that with the nearest bus stop two miles away, most city youth will continue playing in abandoned lots and alleys until the council decides to build in their neighborhoods. And that won’t be any fresh-air adventure.

—Bobbi Murray

McLOVE GLOVE

 

You’ve come to the end of a fine meal at a West Hollywood eatery, be it Spago or McDonald’s, and you’re in the mood for a little treat. Will it be the pot de crème, a soft-serve cone or, perhaps, a latex love glove?

The head of the nation’s largest HIV/AIDS medical provider is taking his group’s safer-sex crusade to the table in this gay-friendly burg, pressing the city to require free condoms at every restaurant and gin joint in town. Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, says he launched a petition drive to qualify a sweeping condom-distribution measure for an upcoming city ballot, because West Hollywood’s current free-condom program is a "joke" — one bar was spotted using its city-furnished condom dispenser for lime wedges. In a city with double the infection rate of L.A. County at large, West Hollywood’s "laissez-faire attitude about the spread of HIV and AIDS" is alarming, Weinstein says.

But the plan has met with resistance from both city leaders, who say it’s too broad (they don’t want condoms at family restaurants), and community members (one letter to a local publication called Weinstein a "condom Nazi").

Though Weinstein acknowledges that free condoms won’t wipe out unprotected sex, he says that they would make a statement. After the City Council agreed last week to take up the issue, Weinstein put his petition drive on hold. Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Prang credits Weinstein’s group with bringing attention to an important issue and says the city is considering a scaled-back plan to give out condoms at, say, gay bars and some other establishments that serve alcohol.

Weinstein is conciliatory, conceding that initiatives are "a blunt instrument" and adding that any increase in city focus on AIDS prevention, and social services in general, would be an improvement.

He’s also hoping to get the city to waive its parking requirements for all social-service agencies (his group is already exempt) and to spend more money on groups located within the city’s 1.9-square-mile boundaries. Officials are balking at both proposals, but Weinstein is unfazed. "We have a 12-year history of being obnoxious to city government," he says. "Sometimes that’s how you get things done."

—Sara Catania

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