Trying to Shine

Business looks bleak for a bootblack bumped to the back of the new courthouse

Warren Smith used to hold court on his own, near the nucleus of the county's old criminal courthouse.

Lunchtime and trial recesses meant a steady stream of lawyers and laypeople flowing past his shoe-shine stand in the basement hallway just outside the cafeteria. In the rush hour of morning docket call, the bootblack snared customers from the crush of regulars waiting for the nearby elevators. Only feet away, more potential clients poured forth from the county's tunnel system entrance.

The heavily trafficked area hummed with the swirling sounds of shouted greetings, courthouse gossip and the routine of life flowing by. Even when he wasn't buffing, Warren was still busy, chatting with the regulars and adding new customers.

Warren went from the heart of the old courthouse to an isolated corner of the new one.
Deron Neblett
Warren went from the heart of the old courthouse to an isolated corner of the new one.

That was how it used to be. In January the county moved into the gleaming new 20-story Criminal Courts Building. There are still the lobby crowds and the crush of bystanders outside courtrooms at peak periods.

But Warren is nowhere among them. His world has collapsed. After the move, the most faithful of his clients had a challenge in locating him. On the nearly deserted second floor, by the elevators, there's a small handcrafted sign with an arrow pointing down a long hall to a blank wall. Reach that barrier and there's another sign pointing down a longer corridor. Hiding behind double doors leading to the back private elevator is the isolated shine stand. Warren used to support a family with his earnings. Now the proud old man looks and waits for remnants of the lost business, wondering if he'll make the $4 profit needed to cover his daily parking charge.

Lawyers, judges and the rest of the criminal courts crew have a proud legacy of accepting the colorful characters and entrepreneurs who gravitate to their corner of downtown in search of a living. In past years a homeless man donned a tophat and tails to become a doorman and sidewalk sweeper, with the blessing and tips of the courts crowd.

Trumpet player Phillip "Gabriel" Flakes has serenaded attorneys and judges from his corner stage of concrete. Sometimes they invite him in for special concerts as part of a clerk's birthday celebration. And cart vendor Mark Lynch (see "Pushed Around," by Kimberly Reeves, April 1, 1999) plies his trade in front of the new justice building every morning, as the only public dispenser of coffee anywhere near the massive structure.

Warren was a natural fit in these surroundings. He grew up in a beer joint operated by his mother off Navigation and Jensen. He worked construction and the docks and helped in the Reverend Ray Martin's youth program, the Progressive Amateur Boxing Association.

That led to Warren's foray into the pioneer era of pro wrestling, long before there was a World Wr estling Federation or the multimillion-dollar draws of stadia and television. "The premise was still the same -- we'd know the loser and winner before the bout ever took place," he says, a bemused smile creasing a face covered by a salt-and-pepper beard.

Warren and his friends would practice hip throws and takedowns with push brooms to hone their timing skills. Under the direction of early promoters, they'd set up the ring in the old City Auditorium or various theater venues, then wait for the crowds.

By showtime the audience would be entertained by the angular figure of Warren transformed into a robed "Spiderman Smith," or various other aliases. In off times in Houston, the crew hit the Piney Woods of East Texas for traveling wrestling exhibitions. He appeared on bout cards headed by former pro footballer Ernie Ladd, and even landed jobs in the hugely popular Mexican-style wrestling circuits.

"You didn't have to worry about your opponent," Warren explains. "That was always already worked out. Who you had to watch for was the fans -- they really got wild." In his time in the ring, he says, enraged audience members stabbed two wrestlers and shot a third.

The work took its toll, and Spiderman returned to Houston again as Warren Smith, father and soon-to-be grandfather. A bad back and knees left him delivering television sets for Love TV Rental.

He saw an ad on television where Elvin Hayes said you could make $300 or $400 a day driving a cab, so he did that for a while, although the money was never good. And at that time, about ten years ago, the rising crime rate made the taxi trade dangerous. "I ran cabs for a little while, but then about three drivers were killed, and I gave it up," Warren says.

He drifted through other jobs and suffered the misfortune of being burned out of his house by fire. Warren says he was sitting on the porch of his place one day, helping his son craft a birdhouse. "I said, 'You know, I used to shine shoes when I was a little boy. I'll make a shine box.' " He took what was left from his last unemployment check, he says, and bought the wood and materials to build his new portable business enterprise.

He remembers taking the bus, sometimes with his young son in tow, to find customers along the former car dealerships on Kirby. Then he would heft the shoe-shine box onto his shoulder and walk into downtown, scouting for more work. About four years ago Warren was searching for customers as he moved north through downtown. He found his prime location along the perimeter of 301 San Jacinto, the old criminal courts building.

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