I watch the light rail come to a stop on Pacific Avenue, and notice a break in the steady flow of disembarking passengers. It takes a few moments to realize the cause of the holdup: a man dressed as a building struggles to angle himself out the door, aided by fellow passengers who attempt to push down the foam of the unwieldy costume. Carrying a handmade sign and a crate of shoe-shining paraphernalia, he lifts the sign and offers a cheery wave as he spots me across the street. This must be Gabriel Brown.
I sat down on the makeshift seat of stacked crates for a quick shoe shine and to hear his story.
Brown is a native of Spokane and a Washington State University graduate who discovered he loved working with his hands during the time he spent at his first job in a shoe-repair shop. A visit to the Washington State History Museum’s latest exhibit, “Hope in Hard Times: Washington During the Great Depression,” and his own work in shoe repair inspired Brown to create a living image of the city and begin shining shoes during these rough economic times.
An intrepid artist, activist and shoe cobbler, Brown is familiar with being down on luck, having been laid off from four jobs in the past few years. He decided to dress like City Hall because “It is the most beautiful historic building in town, and it’s empty,” he says. “It needed a job.”
He sets up shop for the “Hard Times Shoe Shines” project for hour-long morning shifts, often shining shoes for the homeless who frequent the downtown area.
Brown has gathered some neat stories. Like the time a man looked at him, straight-faced, and said, “Well, at least you have a roof over your head.” Brown wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
Brown fiercely opposes the mass production of “disposable” shoes from mega corporations such as Nike, and is eager to increase public awareness of the social and environmental ramifications of such products. He suggests seeking out the small shoe companies left in the U.S. While the cost may be high, the shoe will be an investment that will last you for decades, he says. His own shoes are from Goodwill.
While money may be tight, Brown is “as happy as he could possibly be.” He lives at a local gallery and does graphic design for the Museum of Glass, serves on the PTA at his 9-year-old daughter’s school and also teaches art after school. His goal for his City Hall-wearing shoe-shining project is to bring a smile to faces at a time when many people don’t feel like they have much to smile about. “I’ve even made the light rail driver laugh, which isn’t easy to do,” he says.
Brown doesn’t have a specific ending date for the project. If you don’t catch him outside the museum, you can find him at gabrielbrown.net.