Longtime shoeshine man Eugene "Pete" Pavao has been plying his trade out of the men's shoes department of Macy's at Ala Moana Center since just a few months after the store opened as Liberty House almost 40 years ago. And he was shining shoes for many years before that.

Shining Star

"Pete" Pavao has been shining shoes
almost his whole life, and he isn’t
ready to stop yet

Eugene "Pete" Pavao

Title: Shoeshine man

Job: Shines shoes out of a workspace at Macy's in Ala Moana Center

Eugene "Pete" Pavao calls himself "the Portagee shoeshine man," though he adds that on his birthday, March 17, "my name is O'Pavao; I'm Irish for one day." The 75-year-old Pavao has been working out of Macy's (formerly Liberty House) at Ala Moana Center for almost 40 years, but has been shining shoes for almost his whole life, since he was a youngster on the Big Island and a shoeshine cost about 10 cents, versus about $5 now. His formal education ended after the fourth grade, but that, he explains, is because, "We all went to work. We were brought up a different way." He said he moved to Oahu in search of a better life when he was about 17. His wife is the former Kathy Rodrigues, with whom he has three grown sons. The couple live in a house in Liliha that they bought almost 30 years ago. "It's a shack," he joked, "but it's my own."

Question: How long have you been working at Macy's?

Answer: I don't know exactly the date, but I'm not going to lie to you: about 38 years, ever since about two or three months after the store opened. It was Liberty House back then, but now it's Macy's (since 2001). Before that I was working downtown for 17 years. I'm 75 years old. I've been shining shoes for close for 60 years. I shined shoes during the war with a box, 10 cents a shoeshine. And I love my work. I'm the second best in the world.

Q: And who's the best?

A: I'm sorry, I never met that guy.

Q: (Laughter) Where did you work downtown?

A: By the old King Theatre. That was before your time. For Herby Wong. It was a shoeshine stand. We had about seven, eight seats. Charged about 35 cents a shine. Every gambler, every underworld guy, they all came to us.

Q: Can you remember the names of any famous people who used to visit you?

A: Dan Inouye, Bill Quinn, Frank Fasi, Governor Burns. They all used to go down that alley. That alley was well known for the shoeshine stand. I was always meeting important people. So I met all the cops, the attorneys. That was when everybody shined shoes. There's not too many people around doing it now.

Q: How did you become a shoeshiner? Is that the proper term -- shoeshiner?

A: Yeah, shoeshine man. In Hilo during the war days, back in '41, all the kids wen shine shoes for 10 cents, 15 cents. Me and my friends used to shine shoes on Mamo Street, all us Portagee boys. If you make 25 cents, you could get a big hamburger and a pile of white rice.

Q: What brought you to Oahu?

A: I just had to find something to do. I was told I could shine shoes in Honolulu, so I went over there. I had $4 in my pocket. Found a job right away. Second day, I think. Was cheap to live in those days. But didn't make much money. I was like a hippie. Then I met this woman and things changed. I got a house. Been married for almost 50 years.

Shoeshine man Eugene "Pete" Pavao worked his magic on a pair of shoes Wednesday in Macy's while their owner, Macy's employee Jarrett Char, waited in the foreground.

Q: Where did you learn how to shine shoes?

A: I really believe I did it on my own. Then I worked for Herb and I started learning a few tricks. Then I became real good at it, after every day, doing it every day.

Q: How many pairs of shoes do you shine each day?

A: Well, gee, right now is real bad. Used to be people bring them by the bag. But business is slow right now. Yesterday I had 12 to 15 customers. Today was five customers. But in old days was real busy. And for 40 years, all the downtown people followed me (to Ala Moana Center). The patrol police officers had me shine their shoes. But then about four years, business from those guys fell off. Must've got one different desk sergeant or something. So things have changed. Also they get all these different kind shoes. Everybody wears slippers these days.

Q: How did you get hooked up with Macy's?

A: Mr. (Edmund) Attebury, who was general manager of Liberty House, he came over for shoeshine, and Herby used to shine his shoes. But one day Herby wasn't there, so he started coming to me. And up on the mainland, Nordstrom's was well known for having shoeshine stands, so they came over and was leasing space in Liberty House, and asked me if I wanted to shine shoes, so I said yes. My kids was growing up and I needed the extra money.

Q: How many kids you got?

A: Oh, not much. Just three kids.

Q: Are you an employee or a vendor?

A: Now I am an employee. I have to check in and check out. When I was with Liberty House and Nordstrom's, I worked strictly for myself. But now I am an employee.

Q: So you have benefits?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: Are there any secrets about shining shoes that you would be willing to share?

A: They have to come visit me. (Laughter) But really, shining shoes is mostly knowing what you're doing. Lot of elbow grease. Put lot of coats, brush 'em real well. And take a rag and spit shine 'em.

Q: How long does it take you to shine a shoe?

A: About seven, eight minutes. Maybe 10 minutes.

I don't shine on the stand like I used to. They made me a desk, and I can do way better work, real professional work, the way I do it now. You can understand: You have to bend down, and it's hard to see behind the shoes. And at my age, I no like bend down.

Q: Do you plan to retire any time soon?

A: As long as the store keep me, and as long as I can keep driving, I will keep working.

Q: Do you have an apprentice to whom you're passing along all your secrets?

A: No, to be honest. Nowadays, nobody want to do it. This is different now. I say no, but if somebody like me to tell them, I'd be glad to talk to them.

"Hawaii at Work" features people telling us what they do for a living. Send suggestions to mcoleman@starbulletin.com

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