Recently, I was in New York City for the NYU Hospitality Conference. In between sessions, I had my shoes shined by Ben Brown, our long-time shoeshine man in the New York Marriott Marquis, who just turned 90 years old. I decided to interview him for my blog. I am sure you will find him as interesting as I did!
Me: How long have you worked at the Marriott Marquis?
BB: I’ve been at the Marquis for the past 12 years. I’m not a Marriott associate but I run my own shoe shine business on the hotel’s 8th floor in the atrium lobby area.
I was a shoeshine man at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue near the Port Authority. Marriott Marquis associates passed me on the way to work, and noticed how I interacted with customers. One associate, Paul, invited me to come to the Marquis for a one-time, special shoeshine treat for several associates who were recognized for their service. I’ve been here ever since.
Me: Where did you grow up?
BB: I was born in Virginia, in Powhattan County, but grew up in Richmond.
I came from a very poor family of 18 children. Yes, 18! When I was little, a loaf of bread cost two cents but my family did not have the two cents to buy bread for everyone. So at the age of 5, my uncle built me a shoeshine box and off I went to shine shoes in the street. For my first shine, I made five cents. That was enough to buy two loaves of bread. I’ll always remember that.
Me: Tell me about your early career?
BB:I was originally a machinist, working on aircraft parts. When I could not find more work as a machinist, I went back to shoeshine, a business I knew well.
Me: You like to help others. How was this cultivated in your personality?
BB: As a shoeshine man on 42nd Street, I saw many drug addicts. One is Henry, who stopped by to say hello this week. Henry lived on the streets as a drug addict for about 10 years. I kept telling him to get help. I even allowed Henry to sit in my car to warm up, from time to time. I also let Henry help with shoe shines and got him his own box. Henry is now clean and even said, “If it wasn’t for Ben, I’d be dead.”
Me: You call your business, “Shoeshine Therapy.” Tell me about how you serve your customers?
BB: Customers often tell me their stories and their woes. They speak about politics and current events, too. At 90 years old, they say I look much younger and I can speak about our country. This is still a beautiful country, but I think it’s not as beautiful as it used to be, even though, we had segregation and race issues in the past. Many people have become greedy and money is the most important thing to them. If you had a billion dollars and you tried to count it all by yourself, you would spend your whole life counting it.
People like Ben are why our properties are so great. “I get to meet people from all over the world,” he said, with a big smile. I hope you enjoyed the interview!
I’m Bill Marriott and thanks for helping me keep Marriott on the move.