Longtime shoeshine master reflects on his path to Grand Junction
Sammy Hudson works the rag vigorously to get a polished shine.
Working the wax into the leather with his hands, he rubs and massages the shoes to get that perfect shimmer.
The man in the chair is relaxed, eyes closed, enjoying some down time, letting Sammy do his thing.
Watching Hudson’s lean forearms tighten as he manipulates the leather and buffs the shoes is like watching a craftsman carve wood or a sculptor chisel into marble.
Hudson’s craft is shining shoes and he’s a master, having worked his trade for the better part of seven decades.
He smiles, laughs, listens and talks to the man as he works the pricey brown leather shoes.
For the past 30 years, the Chicago native has been shining shoes in Grand Junction. He learned the trade from his grandfather, Bill Hudson, on the streets of downtown Chicago. The Windy City — the stock market mecca of the Midwest — was packed with businessmen on their commute to and from work in the 1940s and ‘50s, and Bill Hudson welcomed them with a smile, a shine and an ear for them to bend if they climbed into his chair.
“He was the best in the city of Chicago,” Sammy Hudson says of his grandfather.
Hudson’s story library rivals Barnes and Noble. He laughs as he recalls one after the other. Then he turns serious when he recalls one story.
When he was living in Denver, a dashing man in a shirt and tie, nice suit and expensive shoes plopped into his chair. It was a Friday but not like any other Friday.
“Pretty soon there’s a bunch of cops in the hallway, then they leave,” Hudson says without any trace of a smile. “After a while, the door flies open and this sergeant steps through with a shotgun. Turns out this guy in my chair just robbed the bank next door.”
Of course, Hudson’s smile quickly returns. “The first thing I thought when I saw that shotgun was, ‘What did I do?’” He laughs.
Hudson, 79, admits seeing that shotgun was scary and it nearly led to a mandatory change of trousers, but it was the growing gang problem in Denver that prompted a change in hometowns.
Hudson laughs often as he talks about his profession, his travels, his stories from 70 years in the shoeshine business. It doesn’t take long for him to conjure up the story about the day that put Grand Junction on his radar.
“There was this guy who would bring me a bag of shoes every time he came to Denver on business,” Hudson says.
Don Stout was that Grand Junction businessman, who would stay in a hotel where Hudson had a shoeshine stand.
Hudson has a way of making people happy and leaving a distinct impression.
Stout chuckles at the memory.
“I saw this guy, happy as a lark, and he was bee-bopping around and doing a swell job,” Stout says.
When he heard Hudson was looking to move out of Denver, Stout made a logical suggestion.
“I asked him if he knew where Grand Junction was,” Stout says, recalling the days when he and Hudson were both pushing 50 instead of pushing 80 like they are today. “I said he should come over to Grand Junction and he could make a good living.”
Stout obviously took a shine to Hudson and that set the wheels in motion of one final move for the Chicago native.
But it wasn’t until he took a trip west that he knew Grand Junction was a perfect fit.
He was standing on a corner, when a church was just letting out.
“People passed me on the sidewalk and they were saying good morning and hi,” Hudson says, his face contorting with a surprised look, mimicking what he’d done 30 years ago.
“You know, in the city, the only people you say hi to is the people you know,” he says. “Not strangers. You don’t speak to people you don’t know.”
As a black man in a small Colorado town, Hudson says that day left a powerful impression on him.
“Coming to a strange town, and being a minority like me, back then, I just wasn’t expecting it,” he says smiling and shaking his head. “To have all these people say, ‘Hi, good morning, how are you?’ It just blew my mind.”
He was immediately enchanted by Grand Junction.
He located a pay phone at Sixth and Main and called his wife. “I said, ‘Start packing.’”
Stout couldn’t wait to talk about Hudson when asked. Obviously, Hudson was quite a shoeshine master, but why else would Stout want to lure him to Grand Junction? For Stout, Hudson is a special man.
“He was just a super guy. I thought, Grand Junction needs a guy like Sammy Hudson,” Stout says.
Long since retired, Stout hasn’t bumped into his friend for a number of years, but he says there’s one trait that always set Hudson apart.
“He’s a class guy, as honest as the day is long,” Stout says.
SO MANY STORIES
Like a brilliantly crafted quilt, Hudson weaves tales from his past with vivid details.
Hudson will listen, talk or keep quiet depending on the customer.
“I’ve had guys get up in my chair and I’ll ask how they are, and I can tell by their answer if they want me to be quiet or not,” he says leaning on his elbow in his shoeshine chair in the basement of the downtown Alpine Bank Building.
But many don’t want to be quiet. It’s the same as the bartender who lends an ear to a thirsty patron looking to unwind at the end of a busy day.
“Most guys are stressed out but when I start playing with their feet, their whole attitude changes,” he say. I’ve had people say, ‘I’m here for that foot massage.’”
Hudson explains that he uses his hands to get that perfect shine.
“A lot of shoeshine guys don’t like to get their hands dirty but I put (the wax) on with my hands because the warmth of my hands mixes with the wax going into the leather.”
So he works the feet along with the shoes.
He laughs about conversations he’s had with customers over 70 years.
“You’d be surprised what people tell Sammy,” he says with a laugh. “Being in this business, I learn a lot about people.”
But there’s a confidentiality of the shoeshine chair that Sammy never violated.
It’s like Vegas. What is said in the shoeshine chair, stays in the shoeshine chair.
As a youngster growing up in Chicago, Sammy was naturally a Cubs fan — even though he was born on the South Side.
“The White Sox weren’t very good back then,” he says.
There’s one day from his youth that is so ingrained into his memory it brings an immediate humble smile.
His father took him to Wrigley Field, but they weren’t there to cheer on the lovable Cubs on this day.
“I was at the first game Jackie Robinson ever played at Wrigley Field,” Sammy says, proudly replaying the day in his mind, remembering how No. 42 of the Brooklyn Dodgers tore up the Cubs on that day.
“He got a lot of boos, but by the end of the game everybody was cheering him because he ran the Cubs ragged,” he says laughing.
It was an unforgettable day.
“Man, that was unreal. That’s something you never forget.”
Hudson started shining shoes when he was about 10, alongside granddad Bill in downtown Chicago.
“Remember those two-toned shoes back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, you know, the kind the gangsters wore?” Hudson asks, sharing another story. “My granddad was one of the very few people in Chicago who knew how to shine ‘em and make ‘em look nice.”
Hudson learned from his granddad and that’s why around Grand Junction, Sammy is the man to see if you need your golf shoes shined.
Way back in the 1950s, Bill Hudson gave Sammy a prophetic message.
“He’s the wisest man I ever knew. He told me one time that there will come a time when you will make a lot of money in this business.”
Sammy Hudson discovered how true that was when he had a stand at the Aspen airport from 1996 until late 2001 on weekends during ski season.
He names off celebrities who sat in his chair, like Gary Busey, Richard Dreyfuss and his “favorite customer,” Michelle Pfeiffer.
Then there was the “trust-funder” who drove a midnight blue $750,000 Lamborghini. He brought his golf shoes to Sammy.
These were the type of clients he had in Aspen.
After nearly 70 years working shoes in various stands, Hudson doesn’t regret his career choice one bit. He says he’s only had two other jobs — working at a liquor store and as a home floor salesman.
“I will tell you what, I’ve never had a dissatisfied customer. A lot of people can’t say what I’m about to say,” Hudson says again with a nod. “I have never woke up and didn’t want to go to work. You know why?”
He pauses. “Out of all the years I’ve done this, I’ve never had two days that are the same.”
Don Stout is happy Hudson took his advice and moved to Grand Junction.
“He’s the best. I think Grand Junction has benefited greatly by having Sammy Hudson here.”
For a man who focuses on shoes, Sammy Hudson has seen a lot.
A life laced with memories and stories. After 30 years, Sammy Hudson is still shining shoes, smiling and laughing.