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.
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.
Establishing regular customers was crucial for Warren, but applying his trade from a shoe-shine box along the sidewalks was grueling. His knees began to give out. Then he discovered a godsend, a venerable man who went only by "Mr. Robert," the longtime bootblack working inside the building. He had the stand in the building basement, and he chose Warren as his assistant.
"I worked the stand with Mr. Robert in the building," says Warren. "When he got real sick, he took his stand out, and I went back to the county and submitted a proposal. I fought for the shoe stand."
Warren negotiated a simple contract with the county to provide shoe shines, supported by a petition signed by judges and attorneys. His stand's location in the new building, next to the cafeteria space, ought to be a lucrative place to do business. For now, it definitely is not.
The criminal courts cafeteria remains a dark, unfinished shell of concrete and wires. Interior construction has been delayed while the county negotiates a contract for a food vendor, says a county spokesman. Officials promise it will be only a matter of months before Warren sees traffic down this hallway.
Others are skeptical of that timeline. County negotiators are said to want a vendor to pay for the furnishings of the facility, yet they are reportedly offering only a one-year lease. Veterans in the food service industry say companies expect a longer contract if they are required to spend that much money up front on interior build-out.
In the meantime, Warren says, he has already tightened his belt a couple of notches. Each morning he stocks his chair with the day's newspapers. He arranges the polish and brushes, the tools of his trade, neatly by his side. He turns on his boom box to the light jazz he knows his customers like. And then he waits.
Six or eight customers, at $3 apiece ($4 for boots), is a good day for Warren. There have been other days when no one came by, and Warren didn't make enough to pay the $4 parking fee outside the courthouse. Those days he promised to pay the attendant the next day.
"I'm just glad to be here," says Warren, buffing defense lawyer George Young's burgundy pair of Allen Edmonds shoes. "This is all I really know how to do."
Stephen Cooney, the spokesman for County Judge Robert Eckels, says Warren would have to request a move for it to be considered by the county's property and facility management department. But Cooney also adds that "there's really no location in the building suited for his business."
Warren stays quiet in such debates, worrying that even a news article will upset his landlords. His customers aren't as silent.
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"The county has made it as hard as possible to find him," says attorney Young, who believes there is ample space in the lobby for Warren's business.
"I don't know what to do," says Warren. "I could take my stand back out on the streets. It's better out there, but I'm getting too old for that. I don't have the knees or the back to carry the stand anymore."
He shares some light banter with a customer, then pauses to reflect. He says he'll try to cope wherever they put him.
"I'm just the shine guy, trying to make ends meet," Warren says. "That's who I am."