When you leave the shoe-rehabilitation establishment run by one Robert Napoleon Steele the Third, you will walk a bit taller, stride a bit quicker. You’re guaranteed to be well-shod and shiny, for you’ve just visited the Lazarus of Leather. The man who can bring the most battered, hopeless, despairing shoe back to its showroom state.
You might say he did the same for himself. Ask Napoleon about his life story and he might ask which part you want — the stand-up comedian days, or the 19 years on the street, homeless?
“I remember when I was homeless, sleeping in an alley on a stinking mattress, didn’t matter, when you’re homeless, you don’t care how it is,” he said.
“I saw this family coming back from church. I was praying — God, get me off crack. Get me off drugs. And I did! And now I got kids, and it’s ‘Sit down! Boy, leave your brother alone! Don’t set the cat on fire!’ And I think, ‘God, get me back on crack.’ ”
He grins. Got you. Of course, he wouldn’t trade fatherhood for anything. He has one son entering the military this year, and three young sons with his wife, who’s a teacher. For seven months, he’s been running Napoleon’s Shoe Shine at 88 S. 6th Street, on the skyway level in downtown Minneapolis near a Starbucks. It’s more than a place to buff your brogans — he’ll fix anything leather, and restore jackets, coats, bags to spiffy new condition.
You get your shoes back and think: how did he do that?
“I used to buy lots of shoes at the Goodwill and work on them, and if you mess up it’s OK, because no one’s going to say, ‘Hey, those were my shoes I gave away.’ ”
When he was onstage, he worked shoe-shining into his comedy, and now he works comedy into his shoe-shining.
“Were you in the military?” Napoleon asks a client seated on the high throne. “You’ve heard of a spit shine?” He holds up a flash of fluid, sprays some liquid on a cloth. “Took me six months to fill this bottle.”
The patter’s natural, but there’s schooling behind it.
“I was taking acting lessons in San Diego. There was a gentleman named Duke in the class who said I should try comedy, so I got on stage at the Comedy Store in La Jolla. I was nervous. Went up there and I killed. It was insane.” He beams.
“And the next time, nothing.”
But he kept at it — coffee shops, small clubs, all the while going to school to learn to be a sign-language interpreter. He picked up the shoe-shining trade to make some money, and discovered he loved it — “a lost art,” he calls it.
Then the derailment. “I was on drugs and alcohol for 19 years, eating out of dumpsters.” A blur. Lost years. A brush with the law provided the tools for redemption, and he entered treatment. It worked, and he’s been clean for 13 years, married for 10.
The shop is his second home, and it’s more than a workplace.
“It’s like being a bartender or a therapist — they like someone listening to them. And they leave with a quality shine. What I love about this, I know how people’s shoes look when they come in. They know. And when they see what I can give them, they’re blown away, and I’m blown away! And it makes me feel good to know I’ve provided a good service.”
When you think about it, someone in the shining trade has to like themselves, because they’re seeing their literal reflection in their work.
“Being on drugs and alcohol for many years, there were many times I thought there was no hope,” he said. “But through trial and error and dedicating myself to becoming a better person, a productive member of society, I came out at the end of the tunnel clean.
“Clean,” he adds with a smile, “and shiny.”