One day last month, John Sams noticed that his boss’ shoes looked bit worn.
“Let us shine ’em up for you,” the 63-year-old told John Black, executive director of the Peer Recovery Art Project downtown. Black declined at first, figuring there wasn’t much anyone could do for his comfortable footwear.
But after just a few minutes’ work by Sams, Black said, “They looked like new.”
And thus the idea was born: Build and open a shoeshine stand in front of the Peer Recovery gallery at 13th and J streets downtown. Sams and Terry Bankston, men rebounding from troubled pasts, are experienced shoeshiners. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. each weekday, they shine shoes. They ask only for a donation – whatever you want to give – with the proceeds going to the nonprofit.
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Downtown Modesto, Black said, likely hasn’t had a shoeshine stand since the days of old Hotel Covell, which was demolished in the late 1990s to make way for the city-county building at 10th and J streets. There’s one in McHenry Village, one at a car wash on Orangeburg Avenue and one in Ceres that he knows of. Such stands are numerous in big cities such as San Francisco, not so much in Valley cities. America has gone casual, even in the workplace.
But Sams, who worked at a shoeshine stand in Los Angeles between state prison terms, felt it would be a great outreach for the nonprofit and pushed the idea to Black.
“Then John Black took it and ran with it,” Sams said. Indeed, Black drew up the design for it and asked Carlos’ Woodworking on Woodland Avenue to build it for him.
“If we’d have made it two inches wider, we wouldn’t be able to get it through the door,” Black said.
Mobility is important. Having it on the sidewalk gives the stand great visibility, and Peer Recovery plans to offer the service at big events and conventions.
The stand represents far more than shiny wing tips, though.
“We want to improve our image,” Black said. “We want to improve the atmosphere in the downtown and we know you’ll have conversations when you’re sitting in that chair. Conversations build healthy relationships.”
And help break down the stigma involving those who have dealt with mental health, chemical dependency or prison histories as they try to work their way back.
“I only hire people who can’t be hired anywhere else,” Black said. “John had worked in (shoeshining), but he also is a high-end artist. Terry is studying to be a drugs and alcohol counselor. I’m really proud of their work.”
Sams, in fact, made his first art sale during a recent Third Thursday Art Walk show. He sold a painting of a P-38 Lightning fighter plane for $250, and now his art is found throughout the gallery.
The shoeshine stand falls under Peer Recovery’s Good Neighbor Squad, an outreach that provides services in the community. The well-muscled Sams also teaches fitness classes to youths. He did 20 years in state prisons before being released from San Quentin a year ago. During that time, he lost those relatives who had meant the most, and paroling home to Los Angeles meant a return to the environment where he had so many problems in the first place, he said.
“So I picked a place where I didn’t know a soul,” Sams said. Modesto is that place. He stayed several months at the Modesto Gospel Mission before working as drug counselor at Nirvana. Now, he works for Black at Peer Recovery. He spent hours one recent day taking fliers to every law office in the downtown area. Lawyers, after all, don’t wear Nikes into court. They wear traditional shoes.
“People can bring in several pair and a time and leave ’em with us and we’ll deliver them when we’re done,” Sams said.
Bankston, 51, did mostly county jail time stemming from a series of arrests in Oakland, the most serious being for selling drugs.
“Fifteen years in and out of incarceration,” he said. “I came to Modesto and I was homeless. I ended up at Wellness Care on Ninth Street and I’m going to school to become a drug and alcohol counselor.”
He greets passers-by with a friendly hello and quickly explains the deal: We’ll shine your shoes. Donate if you wish.
“It’s amazing we’re out here,” he said.
By that, he means the shoeshine stand, but also that he and Sams are peers recovering, using art and shoe polish to rebuild their lives.