“I’m so tired of people always talking about black and white in this city. I am almost 90 and grew up during segregation. In those days, a black man couldn’t be buried next to a white man, as if the ground could tell the difference. Now, we should be better than that. Thing is that people still talk about race in Washington, as if it is the only thing that matters in this city. The truth is that only color that really matters is green. Once they throw dirt in your face when you’re dead, the grass is gonna come up green over your grave no matter if you’re black, white, Muslim, or Chinese.
“Green is also the color of money, which is the real name of the game in this town. As they say, ‘Money talks and bullshit walks.’ These days, you pay to go to heaven. You pay to go to hell. You pay for everything in life and that’s why we have the haves and have nots. I have been on both sides of that, but I like to think that I am always on the rise.
“When I was a boy, I started shining shoes for a nickel over by Union Station. I had me a little can of polish and something to sit on. After spending some time with the military overseas, I came back to Washington to open a shoe shine stand on 13th and U St. NW. When Marion Barry was mayor, he used to come by to get his shoes shined. One day, he looked at me and said, ‘Duke, I have a better space for you. Why don’t you come and move to the Frank D. Reeves Center on 14th St?’ So, I did and was the first tenant in the building. I have been here ever since, and Marion Barry still comes around to get his shoes shined by me.
“People can say a lot of things about Marion Barry, but he helped a lot of people during his day. He may have done a lot of wrong, but he mostly wronged himself. Many of us will always remember the good that he did us when we needed the help. As they say, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ He was a good man to know.
“Now, I have been in this space since the 80’s and have been working on shoes for over 75 years. I have seen life change through the windows of my store. Actually, let me say it this way; life don’t change, it just gets modified. They modify the buildings in this neighborhood to make them look nicer. They modify cars to make them easier to use and fix. And, they modify shoes, too. Sometimes they make ‘em more simple and sometimes they throw on all of these bells and whistles.
“I find each shoe to be a challenge. That’s what I love about shoes. Someone will bring me a difficult pair of shoes, and I love to sit and think about what I need to do to get them just right. Life ain’t nothing but a challenge anyway, so shoes are like life, I guess.
“When I ask myself why I’ve been alive so long, I think it is because I have kept working all of these years. Working helps your mind. Some people decide to stop working and then their mind gets destroyed. Shoes keep me young. I feel like I can live another 90 years.”
Duke’s Shoe Repair is located at 2000 14th St NW.
“Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. Every Thursday he’ll share a favorite story with us”