Paul Greenberg

The old man had long ago given up fixing shoes and tried other businesses, 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 a couple of nice new leather soles on a pair of old uppers. Or putting a pair of Cat's Paw heels on shoes that still had a lot of wear left in 'em, as he would assure the customer. He did it neatly, surely, carefully -- to last. And he guaranteed his work. He knew lots of these folks in from the country on a Saturday to buy provisions didn't have money to spare, and he hated waste. The same went for those from the Bottoms, the black neighborhood not far away.

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. Sometimes he could even name the local shoemaker who'd done the job. Each had his own, recognizable pattern -- a broken stitch, the way he cut the leather, even the telltale marks of the individual, well-worn shoe last or Landis stitcher.

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, and above all, intention. It showed. He was not a learned man, much as he would have loved to be, but in those two things -- work and prayer -- he came into his own.

He was not a learned man, never having got past the third grade. He'd arrived in America a stranger in a strange land, even if it was one he loved. He would occasionally describe someone he knew in a respectful, almost reverential, phrase -- "he's an educated man" or "she's an educated woman" -- that combined admiration and envy.

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!

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. He hated them. They were an insult to the whole trade.

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.

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.