Giovanni Nicola Meola was born in Teora, Italy in 1890 and arrived at Ellis Island March 14th 1904 with his parents. He was only 14 years old, and his occupation was listed as “Boot Black” – a person who shines and polishes shoes. Nine years later he married Filomena Melillo and proceeded to have ten kids – the ninth was my dad, Thomas John Meola.
My dad used to tell me stories of how he spent time as a kid during the depression at my grandfather’s store, a combination shoe shine shop and candy store in Newark, NJ… where my dad enjoyed giving free candy to poor kids and drinking wine with his dad in the back room next to the pot belly stove. Maybe for this reason, I’ve always loved shoe shine guys – or any skilled laborer really. I enjoy watching a person work in their surroundings, the tools they use, how they’ve perfected a technique… just as I like to watch artists sketch a drawing.
I’ve been planning on shooting a series of shoe shine shops and the men that run the joints… I’d like to think I’ll publish a book someday, titled “Boot Black” of course. I’m experimenting with sepia for this project to lend it an old school warm and worn look. First up is Minas, the shoemaker next door to my photo studio.
Minas is such a character… he’s Armenian and arrived in the states 13 years ago via Moscow. Minas watches my back and my shop, takes Fed Ex deliveries when I’m not there, makes sure that my shop is locked up at the end of the day, and helps me move heavy furniture. Most importantly, he tells me jokes every time I see him.
A few tools of the trade…
“Christina, what are you still taking pictures for?”
And then he sends me on my way with a joke…
Minas has such a thick accent, I only catch about 25% of what he’s saying. Every time he tells me a joke, I laugh my butt off the whole time because I can’t even understand a word, but his delivery is priceless.