ST. PAUL — As Glen Brown’s brush and polish swish-swashed over St. Paul police officer’s boots on Monday, the professional shoe shiner chatted with each of them.
They talked about their children — they wondered would happen with school amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Brown shared stories about his own 14-year-old daughter.
They talked about sports and who they spotted in town when Minneapolis hosted the Super Bowl in 2018.
And, underlying the 12 minutes Brown spent with each, were the bigger messages he wanted to get across — sometimes discussed and sometimes unsaid about their shared humanity.
During this time of reckoning over policing and race, in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, Brown has gone twice to the St. Paul police department to give complimentary shoe shines to officers. It was the idea of Danny Givens, Sr., who owns DG Express Professional Shoe Shine, and he and Brown — an independent shoe shiner operator for the business — plan to keep it up.
Givens and Brown said they want to give back to law enforcement and also be a bridge to their Black community.
“It’s a gesture of gratitude for their service and an attempt to improve our community relations,” said Brown, 48. “I can’t watch something on the news and say, ‘I hate those people.’ And they can’t see me walking down the street and say, ‘Oh that’s my probable cause because of the way he looks.’ I’m hoping the conversations we have here impact the relationship between St. Paul police and the African-American community.”
Conversations to combat preconceived notions
Brown, who works at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport with Givens, said he’s found there’s no better place to have a good conversation than during shoe shining. If travelers or anyone in his chair isn’t relaxed, he can usually get them laughing with a joke.
Officers complimented Brown for his hard work on Monday and thanked him. They also left him tips in a box, which he and Givens hadn’t wanted to begin with, but two deputy police chiefs insisted.
As Brown polished Jeremy Ellison’s boots, the senior police commander told him, “We appreciate you coming out.”
“Relationships and conversations are more important than people let on,” Brown said.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Ellison replied.
“People are judging each other on stuff on the outside without ever talking to someone,” Brown continued.
“We see that time and time again where there’s those preconceived notions about somebody and then getting to know each other, even if it’s just a little bit, it makes a real difference,” Ellison said.
Finding a way through the pandemic
A common question for Brown has been: How’s business with so many less travelers during the pandemic?
DG Express Professional Shoe Shine closed in March and reopened last month.
“It’s kind of like a crawl, but at least there’s movement,” Brown said. “Slow business is better than no business. It sure beats sitting at home with the remote control.”
Givens’ business, which was previously in downtown St. Paul and now has locations at MSP Terminal 1 in the main mall and Concourse C, also does residential and commercial pick-up with a minimum of two shoes through their website at dgexpressshoeshine.com.
Brown and Givens both grew up in St. Paul, and learned the shoe shining business from family members. Givens has thought about the imagery of African-American men shining the shoes of mostly white men, and he says that’s a narrative he also wants to change. Both say they love their work and Brown describes it as an art — perfecting shoe care while making connections with people.
“The men and women of law enforcement, first and foremost, they are human beings,” Givens said. “First and foremost, as an African-American male, as a shoe shine owner/operator, I’m a human being.”