Sitting at my desk on Friday, a short grey-haired old man popped his head around the door. Now, I work in a relatively young office, and grey-haired old men are about as regular a sighting as Lindsay Lohan at a MENSA meeting. Needless to say, seeing the man’s shadowy figure at the door of my office made me pinch myself just to make sure that I hadn’t died suddenly and was being confronted by the ghost of long-dead neighbours whose flowers I’d accidentally kicked my football into when I was a kid.
Fortunately, living as I do in America, Mr and Mrs Lester haven’t yet been able to find me in order to haunt me, and my metaphorical petunias remain firmly intact. As it turned out, it was just Harry the shoe shine man asking me I wanted my footwear buffed up.
Having your shoes polished by a third party is still relatively uncommon in the UK, and I have to confess that the whole process slightly scares me. Although not because I don’t like having nice shiny shoes that you can see your face in. Let’s face it, I’m never going to have the ability (or indeed the inclination) to create the kind of shine that you get after fifteen years of service in the Royal Brigadiers.
It would seem that I have an emotional problem with paying to have relatively menial tasks done. It’s not that I’m cheap – it’s just that I always feel guilty whenever I outsource things that deep down I know I should probably take a few minutes to do myself. Every time I get my laundry done, have groceries delivered, or even (on very rare occasions) ask an assistant to get me a cup of coffee, I feel like a 19th century slavemaster asking one of his cruelly-treated subordinates to clip his toenails for him.
Perhaps my neurosis is caused by having lived all my life in Britain, where the opportunity to pay for menial tasks is much more limited than it is here. Sure, you can have your clothes cleaned, but nobody’s going to come to your house and pick them up for you. And if you want your shoes shined, it’s probably time that you dig out that seventeen year old dried-up tin of shoe polish and an old duster.
At the same time, I know that there’s a time-cost equation, and if having some of my little jobs done for me at low cost gives me more time to do the things that I really want to do, then I’ll reluctantly put aside my fears of being accused of encouraging servitude, and put my hands in my pockets to pay up.
Thankfully, I’ve managed to find two ways of assuaging my middle-class guilt. Firstly, I always tip well over the odds, in an attempt to prove to myself and my
slaveservice provider that the job is central to the running of civili szed society. Secondly, I attempt to frame my facial features in such a way as to convey a message that says “Normally I would do this for myself, but today I’m extremely busy because I’m restoring sight to dozens of third world children. I know I don’t look like a doctor and there are no kids around, but nevertheless by agreeing to clean my shoes, you have helped provide the gift of sight to a new generation.”
It may be hypocrisy, but at least it’s hypocrisy with shiny shoes.