Paul Greenberg

The old man had long ago given up fixing shoes and tried other occupations, but always at the same location, and usually with the same customers. But he never found any other work that gave him as much satisfaction as putting new soles on a pair of old uppers. Or a pair of Cat's Paw heels on shoes that still had a lot of good wear left in them. You could be sure he'd do the job neatly, surely, carefully -- to last.

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He loved the feel and aroma of new leather, the grain in the old. He was seldom as happy as when he could hold a pair of weathered shoes in his hands, turn them over and over, feel the tread, admire the workmanship ... and judge whether they were worth saving.

Labor omnia vincit.

Labor conquers all. The old man had no Latin, but he did have some Hebrew, and would have known that the Hebrew word for labor and worship are the same: avodah. He worked the same way he prayed: with dedication, concentration, intention. It showed. In those two things, work and prayer, he came into his own.

His boys could remember those rare occasions when the old man lost his temper. Once he threw a poorly repaired pair of shoes against a wall in his fury. What a sloppy waste of good leather! What a waste of time and the customer's money! What a pity -- and shame.

In his old age, he was unable to contain his contempt when he would drive past one of those glitzy new shoe stores that sold cheap, shiny imports -- the cardboard kind sure to come apart in the first rain.

The old man took poor workmanship as a personal affront. Labor wasn't a factor of production to him, it was a calling -- and a refuge.

The old man wasn't much on theory, but he understood value received, good will, repeat business and, above all, the importance of trust -- between customer and merchant, worker and boss, lender and borrower. To him, commerce was friendship.

All the talk the old man had heard about labor and capital, first from agitators in the old country, and then as the standard fare of politics in this one, seemed only slogans to him -- not really useful. Not like a good, solid pair of work shoes that would get a sharecropper through a hard winter and the spring plowing.

He had a more personal concept of how economics worked. He thought of the economy as a web of personal relationships: with his customers; with the workers he hired and trained and sometimes had to let go; with the banker he depended on to get him started in his various new businesses; with the landlord who collected the rent from him; and with his own tenants after he began buying a piece of property here and there, and building some rent houses.

He liked his houses kept up, the lawns mowed, so they would look like something. Spic-and-span. Like a good pair of shoes freshly shined.

Like most Americans, the old man was too deeply involved with labor and capital to think in those terms. Instead he thought in terms of people and whether their work -- and their word -- was good.

When the old man died, people whom the family couldn't remember, maybe had never even seen, kept showing up at the house to pay their respects. They'd all tell much the same story -- how he'd given them credit when they needed it, or a little help when they were trying to get started.

He liked giving people a start. There was Henry Johnson, for example, whom he'd hired as a boy -- and taught how to fix shoes. Henry would stay with him for the next 50 years through the old man's various ventures, mastering one skill after another, and in the end teaching the old man as much as he'd learned from him.

The shoemaker's apprentice would grow old with him, and die two weeks before the old man did. The family smiled knowingly. They knew Henry had just gone on ahead, as usual, to scout out the territory.

On this Labor Day, a great deal will be said in the usual press releases, but none of it will be more eloquent than work done well. To me, two new soles on a pair of well shined shoes still say more than all the Labor Day speeches ever written.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.