The smell of turpentine hovers in the air. A young man sits patiently and watches scuff marks disappear from his black dress shoes, which are nestled in Jimmy Van Blaricom’s lap.
“I asked him to take his shoes off because he’s wearing white socks,” says Van Blaricom as he buffs away the wear and tear. “I prefer they leave their shoes on but I’m in the business of shining shoes, not ruining socks.” He then adds with a gurgled smoker’s chuckle, “I wasn’t going to take any chances.”
Known to most in the civic center area of Santa Ana as “the shoe shine guy,” Van Blaricom has been giving new life to tired out shoes since 1974. “I used to be a truck driver until I severed part of my finger,” he says. “While on disability I got the news that there wasn’t enough work and I wouldn’t be needed anymore. My friend Freddy Flynn, who used to own this stand, asked me to help shine shoes — so I did.”
Van Blaricom wears the past 36 years of working seven days a week around his eyes, evidence of his lengthy shoe shining commitment. “Freddy moved on to bigger and better things some time in 1977 and I took over the stand,” he says through his bushy gray beard. “It has been my responsibility and my only source of income ever since. That is why I open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day of the week.”
He hands over the freshly polished shoes for an exchange of $7. “Thank you, have a good afternoon.” The third and last customer of the day leaves pleased with his shiny shoes.
The shoe shine stand sits directly across the street from the Orange County Central Justice Center. Most of his customers during the week are from the courthouse. “Many of the judges and attorneys stop by Monday through Friday. On Saturdays and Sundays it gets really slow and the days get really long.”
However, the shoe shine guy has no plan to change his occupation any time soon. “If you create something, it’s hard to give it up. This is my baby,” he says as he pans the inside of the stand with approval. “For some reason this is what I’m meant to do; it’s a life of servitude, shining people’s shoes.” A sign on the wall sums up his sentiments: I live to shine, I shine to live.
“It hasn’t always looked like this,” he says proudly, pointing to a sun-worn picture of a makeshift stand made of lattice nailed together for walls. “After taking over for Freddy, I redid the whole thing.”
The stand of today resembles a mini Roman amphitheater that faces the corner of Civic Center Drive West and North Parton Street. A few steps lead to the seating benches. “I also built a sleeping area right around the back. After losing my job I could no longer afford to pay rent.”
Once he closes his shoe shine stand at the end of the day he retires to his small half-closet, half-sleeping quarters.
“I call it my coffin because most people don’t know I’m back there,” he says while lighting a cigarette. “If I die, it might be several days before I’m found. I’m 51 years old and one day I may not wake up.”
Van Blaricom refers to himself as one of the “working homeless,” the label he says society has assigned to people who work to make money for day-to-day survival yet do not have a home. He pays $300 a year to the property management company, and his shoe shining supplies add up to approximately $100 a month. He doesn’t collect any state assistance and makes extra money by renting the outer wall space of his stand to attorneys and bail bondsmen who want to advertise their firms.
“I’m here to make just enough money to keep the stand going, buy cigarettes and eat if I’m hungry. I am content but not satisfied.” Being satisfied, he says, means having enough income to rent an apartment or pay for a motel.
The shoe shine guy’s unbroken spirit shines through his eyes.
“For now, I will continue to make a living shining shoes until I’m either taken out by an 18-wheeler or I fall over dead from a heart attack.” The corners of his eyes wrinkle while he conceals a smile underneath his unruly, overgrown beard.