Entrepreneurs Make Your Kicks Or Your Ride Gleam
By Bill Beggs Jr.
If elbow grease made America strong, here’s the rub in St. Louis:
four of the strongest elbow joints anywhere belong to two guys
who sweat six days a week to make your getting around a beautiful
thing. In the Central West End or Clayton, Gonzo will work on
your feet; Downtown, Rocky will give your car the works.
The Shoeshine Man
If your footwear is looking a little dull, stroll over to the
Chase Park Plaza and settle into the vintage shoeshine stand
in the entryway of Cutter’s, the barbershop. If it’s between
noon and four, you just missed Gonzo; that’s when you’ll find
him working at his other stand in Clayton. But from 8 to noon
and again from 5 to 8, he’s on the lower level of the Chase
burning off about as many carbs as the folks just across the
lower lobby at St. Louis Workout.
Gonzo, 36, has been shining shoes for more than 25 years. He
started learning the trade at A-1, a shop on the north side
at Fair and Lee. A-1 is apt, because he doesn’t just polish,
he tenderizes. Yes, you can take him shoes to polish off the
foot, like the stockbroker who brings him a half-dozen every
Tuesday whether they need it or not.
But having your wingtips waxed or moccasins massaged is a respite
of not quite 15 minutes from the stress of the day.
For five bucks, you’ll feel like a million.
“Can you work a miracle?” Gonzo says customers will say as they
climb aboard. His response? “Blink your eyes and let me see
if I can find you another pair of shoes real quick.”
Gonzo says folks who try to shine their own shoes just don’t
have the right stuff—at least, not the expertise or right materials.
Trying to cover up scuffs with Magic Marker is no worse than
using the quick & easy “shoeshine” sponges available at the
“Those are dust collectors,” opines Gonzo. “I can always tell
when people use ’em because their shoes are just too greasy.”
A good shoeshine isn’t simply cosmetic, he emphasizes.
“You’re protecting the leather. Just like your skin, you need
to put conditioner on ’em to keep ’em from cracking.”
Plus, Gonzo needs to remove the old polish before buffing the
new stuff in.
Gonzo has plenty of stories for you during your allotted quarter-hour
or so. Ask about when he and his cousin started the neighborhood
kids shining—as young as age 7—to keep them off the street:
“It’s a legitimate hustle.”
And he smirks when asked how he was given the name from which
Gonzo is derived. An uncle was a traveling jazz musician who
met Mahatma Ghandi. Thus did Magondie Staples come into the
Gonzo has no worries about technology taking over his trade.
“It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to be out there doing
it, and computers aren’t gonna take over doing it, so I feel
The Carwash Man
Once upon a time, on level P-2 in the bowels of the Metropolitan
Square parking garage, a wiry man named Donald looked at a pickup.
Then he really looked it over—washing, rubbing, waxing, vacuuming,
shining up the tires and detailing that vehicle within an inch
of his life. That truck was a Dodge Dakota—in Cardinals red.
That very night, with the bases loaded and the count 0 and 2,
a New York Met named Carlos Beltran looked at a called third
strike from St. Louis Cardinals reliever Adam Wainwright, and
the fairytale Redbirds went on to trounce the Detroit Tigers
in a classic World Series.
Coincidence? Maybe. A fantasy? Probably.
What do baseball and car washing have in common? Superstition.
For not long after the proud owner of that gleaming red pickup
drove it out of the garage, it rained so hard and for so long
that one Series game at home was postponed, and the fifth and
final one looked for a long while like it wouldn’t get played.
On his website, Gerardo “Rocky” Owens touts Complete Auto Wash
& Wax as “More Than Just a Car Wash.” That doesn’t mean his
business is to also somehow change the course of major sporting
events. But as any marginally superstitious person will tell
you, if we really need rain, all anyone needs to do is get a
good car wash.
Probably for no other reasons than because he’s a pragmatic
man and a straight shooter, one of the buttons on his home page,
links visitors to the St. Louis weather forecast.
But he’s been flabbergasted by the business his operation has
done on days when it really shouldn’t have, like the day a few
years ago when his crew washed 66 cars. It had just snowed.
Apparently, however, lots of drivers (about 2,000 people park
in the Met Square garage every weekday) wanted to get the salt
and grime off their pretty babies. Right away.
“We were so busy that I called the Salvation Army and they sent
me a busload of guys,” Rocky recalls with a wry smile. They
didn’t “git ’er done” until 9:30 that evening, and Rocky had
come in an hour or so earlier than his 8 a.m. start time, just
A bit of irony regarding his location: Rocky was on the crew
that waterproofed the building. “I remember when this building
was just a little baby,” he says, thanking the worker from Bryan
Cave who has just left a handful of bills on the table after
having inspected the black BMW Rocky’s crew just finished.
While waxing reminiscent, if you will, Rocky gestures fondly
toward the ancient piece of equipment rattling and sloshing
against a wall. It’s “his baby,” Lucille, the wringer-washer
he grew up with, the very one he got his little arm caught in
right after his mother warned him not to. Lucille’s on her third
agitator, maybe the last if his supplier can’t locate another.
But the little unit that sort of resembles R2D2 from “Star Wars”
is perfect for the task at hand, Lucille squeezes just the right
amount of water out of the chamois cloths Rocky’s crew uses.
An entrepreneur with a background in business administration
from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Rocky says he
now represents almost every business he’s tried in his 53 years.
For instance, he sells jewelry on the website; he used to sell
it at retail. He’ll get your watch repaired, or send you salmon
on ice to Chicago.
“Anything my customers want,” he says, “I’ll hook them up.”
Within reason, of course.
Fact is, many of his clients don’t have time to get their cars
washed on the weekend. Neither does Rocky, and his brainstorm
came while fussing and fuming during his hour-long wait in line
for a lousy wash one Saturday.
His better way, the “complete” wash, makes for happy motorists
whose cars are, as his website promises, “dressed for success
from wheel to wheel.”