There are two things Dwarn (Kirk) Kuykendall says he remembers about people: their faces and their shoes.
He has seen plenty of both in the 21 years since he started Kirk's Shines--his shoeshine business in Bellflower.
Around nine every morning, when the intersection of Artesia and Bellflower boulevards is rumbling with traffic, "The Mayor of Shines," as he calls himself, unlocks the door of his stand, arranges his containers of wax polish, tunes his radio to a jazz station and sits back to wait for his first customer.
Some might say his prices are steep--$4 a shine--and Kuykendall admits that shines are a luxury these days, but that does not deter a steady stream of loyal customers who stop by weekly to add a little luster to their shoes.
An Unofficial Landmark
Harvey Conn, a Bellflower planning commissioner, has been getting his shoes shined at Kirk's Shines for the past five years.
Like several city officials who are regular customers, Conn says Kuykendall's stand has become an unofficial city landmark.
"Everyone knows this place," Conn said, planting his black leather cowboy boot on a metal foot rest. "You run into people you know, you sit and talk a while. It's hard to find places like this anymore."
Kuykendall grabbed a round metal container from beneath the chair and rubbed black polish on one of Conn's boots with smooth, circular strokes and unbroken concentration, oblivious to the heat, the traffic and the gentleman patiently waiting his turn a few seats down.
A few minutes later Conn's boots were done and Kuykendall spun around to greet that next customer.
"Hello sir," he said, with a smile of glistening gold teeth.
"You know who this guy is?" he said to no one in particular. "Lamar Lundy. He used to play with the Los Angeles Rams."
The gentleman tipped his hat and smiled and offered a few insights on football as Kuykendall shined his shoes.
As the afternoon wore on and the thermostat neared 80 degrees, Kuykendall turned on a large fan that spread a cool breeze and the smell of fresh shoe polish through the air.
A tall man who had quietly wandered in for a shine examined a photograph on the wall of movie stars from the 1930s and '40s titled "Hollywood Elegance: Where Did It Go?"
Missed a Movie Career
"You like those old movies?" the gentleman asked.
"Yep. I could have been in the movies," Kuykendall replied. "Remember a movie called 'Carmen Jones' with Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge?"
The two talked about the Golden Age of film and argued over who starred in what film until Kuykendall finished the job.
A few more customers dropped by and Kuykendall switched conversations as quickly as the customers came and went.
There was a trucker wearing tan workman's shoes who stopped on his way north, a Cerritos businessman dressed in gray flannel slacks and black wing-tips on his lunch break, and a music professor from a local college in jeans and loafers.
"This guy is a rare and dying breed, " said Scott Henderson, chairman of the music department at Cerritos College. "This place really takes me back to another era. Besides, he plays great music here."
Polish may be Kuykendall's livelihood, but music is his passion and going to jazz clubs is one of his greatest pleasures.
"I've seen them all: Count Basie, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey," he commented as he turned up the radio to hear an Ellington version of "Ain't Misbehavin' "
He has never been to New York City--"What for? L.A. has great clubs"--he said, although he has flyers from the Blue Note, a famed jazz club in New York City, taped on his wall.
Style Missing Today
The Big Band Era is especially dear to Kuykendall, not only for the music but for its style--something he says is missing today.
"Look at those cats, look how sharp they look" he said pointing a polish-stained finger at a photograph of Clark Gable, Van Heflin and Gary Cooper dressed in tuxedos and wing-tipped collars. "They knew how to dress. In those days a man worried about the shine on his shoes. Now all you see is jeans and sneakers."
Kuykendall has seen a lot of changes in music and in the city.
Since he staked out his corner he has seen downtown Bellflower go from a bustling shopping center to a string of aging and often empty storefronts.
"He talks to everybody and he knows everything that goes on in the city," said Councilman Ken Cleveland, who has been a regular for 17 years. "He is definitely up on all the issues."
But Kuykendall says he minds his own business and sticks to what he does best.
"I'm an observer and I've seen a lot and I hope I continue to do that right here on this corner."