With a quick snap of cloth on leather, Mr. Levert Johnson, has been accustomed to shining shoes for the past 30 years at St. Louis International Lambert Airport. Then, hunched over, he carefully touched the soles with a toothbrush and polish. He listened to politicians, ministers, educators, doctors, dignitaries, economists from all over the world… humans. What did they all have in common? What wisdom did Mr. Johnson extract from his daily interactions by inviting his clients on his chair?
Levert loved talking sports. Basketball is his favorite. If people chose to talk a little deeper, he was willing to lend a listening ear.
“People closest to the problem, are the closest to the solution,” says Mr. Johnson. We can apply this truth of wisdom to anything in life.
Today, the once-ubiquitous shoeshine professional has nearly vanished from the airport, hotel lobbeys, barbershops and American popular culture. The handful of men who continue shining shoes are finding ways to do so within their own homes as rent is high and business has gone down severely due to the economy and this year’s pandemic.
Levert was raised by a single mother of seven children who taught him to do his best each and every day regardless of how he would be treated. Levert’s best paying clients typically were ones who did not want to talk. He could read clients’ body language very well. Some came just to talk to him directly about work, life, politics, etc. One client even brought his son with him to get some additional life advice. Some just wanted protected time to read and sit in silence. The dynamics of each client brought a greater appreciation and understanding to human behavior in Levert’s eyes.
In terms of money, Levert says, “It all boils down to how bad you want it.” His mother taught him to be independent. He started working at the age of 13 and then enlisted in the Army. He never wanted to be dependent on anyone because he knows nothing is free in life. As a Veteran, loyalty, duty, respect, honor, personal courage and selfless service were always part of his core.
“Life is a great big playground. You have to stop and think. Think about the consequences versus the ’what if?’ The consequences are greater than being in the moment. Some people get to play the game; while others are quickly replaced. Stop and think. Stop and think. Find a playground that will help you grow and remember, life is not fair.”
“You have to show. Words no longer mean anything.” In Levert’s days, a handshake or a good word was a covenant. Nowadays, he sees things have changed drastically. Trust is difficult and the pace of life has gone into overdrive this has left many unaware of their surroundings and of the importance of creating deep relationships and building a strong community. He remembers growing up with little, but still, he had a community that somehow made each day meaningful.
In terms of work, “once you become good at what you do, you will love what you do,” Levert laments thinking back. He loved shining shoes. He loved interacting with people. He loved listening, pausing and appreciating the blessings in life he was able to recognize each and every day. Levert loves to learn from other people. Each person who comes into your life has a message that you can learn from if you stay alert. He had difficulty with negative self-talk growing up, but he realized, it’s all “mind over matter.”
Levert definitely has his opinions on shoes. Quality gives you confidence and this is a value Levert keeps dearly within him. Regardless of the situation, he still provides the best quality possible in whatever task he delivers. This keeps him confident, positive, and hopeful for better days ahead.
Levert considers himself a slow-learner. He did not know the alphabet until he was fifteen. He taught himself because he wanted to read. He loved art, but his natural talents were not utilized in school. Rather, he was discouraged; and so his artistic drawing talent was rediscovered further in life. He still remembers the names of his teacher, Ms. Davis, who told him he was foolish for wanting to draw.
“You have to have the desire and focus on yourself,” Levert shares. Levert wishes he focused on himself, but had many responsibilities and barriers that didn’t allow him to pursue the desires he had within him.
Levert worked with many people. He believes all people are good, but everyone has a story behind their face. He never tried to get too close to people. He set respectful boundaries because if he got too involved, people would take advantage of his kindness. He believes in the value of a human being and doing for others as he would like others to do for him.
“Do the best you can each day. Do people right. If you see someone in need of help, help them. Do it not to look good; do it because you were chosen to help that person. You never know when you may be in that position one day.” Growing up in a large household of seven children and being placed right in the middle, he did not grow up with the luxuries in life. He often remembers being hungry, but his mother did whatever possible to take care of all of them.
Levert keeps shining shoes from his home right now as he awaits and hopes for a turnaround when business and travel increase. In the meantime, he continues to do the best he can. Levert understands the importance of being part of a healthy community system. Levert looks forward to shining brightly in the future, but most importantly, taking the good with the bad.
“You have to look the part if you’re going to do the business,” Levert shares. Levert wakes up every morning; polishing his own skillsets and setting the standard of making the best of each and every day.