Sometimes a short trip is a microcosm of life in general. You can plan, but sometimes things happen that are out of your control. And if you’re lucky, sometimes that leads to something that turns out to be wonderful.
One of the things I love best about being a reporter is meeting so many different people but with me, it’s a chicken and egg debate. I tend to talk to strangers even when I’m not reporting, so I’m never sure if it’s my personality that helps me with my work or if my work rubs off on my personality. I do know that two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to meet one of the coolest characters that I’ve ever come across in my life. I wasn’t working and thus, did not anticipate writing about him — but I am compelled to in order to try and convey a bit of what it was like being with him. If I succeed, I’ll have truly made your day.
Planning a day trip out of O’Hare in January can be a risk, especially in the middle of the government shutdown. Two weeks ago I flew to New York and got out of O’Hare on time. I got to go to lunch with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in two decades. After that, I saw To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway and an Andy Warhol retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. From there, I walked to Greenwich Village and found a nice restaurant and had a really nice dinner. A most perfect day by any measure, although little did I know that the most memorable part would still be to come.
It was after dinner and I was walking around for a bit before I knew I had to head back to the airport when I got the alert on my phone. My plane was delayed for two hours. Damn. I was already scheduled to land at 11:30 p.m. and a couple more hours would ensure I got home at a crazy hour and that the next day at work would not be fun. I called the airline and was lucky to be able to change flights — getting on one that was a half-hour earlier than my original flight. I jumped in a taxi and headed to LaGuardia.
I got there and went through security alone. The TSA agents, who were not being paid because of the shutdown, didn’t pay much attention to me and I got through fast. Once I got to the terminal I realized all the people that weren’t in line at security had already gone through and now were standing at a very crowded gate for a flight that was delayed again. So much for the half-hour I thought I would gain.
That’s when I noticed a shoe-shine stand on the other side of the hallway. I noticed the man who ran it was cleaning up and likely closing down for the night, but figured I’d see if he’d take one more customer.
I walked up and was greeted with a smile. I asked the man if he’d take one more and he said “Absolutely, sit down.”
I soon learned that his name was John DiCicco and that he was the owner of the shoe-shine business that had been started by his grandfather John Joseph DiCicco at LaGuardia in 1947. Before that, his grandfather shined shoes on the Staten Island Ferry for several years after coming to America in 1910.
In 1947 he moved his business to LaGuardia. Ultimately John’s father would take it over from his grandfather before he took it over from him. To go back to 1947, that was also the year John’s grandfather moved his own family from Mulberry Street in Little Italy to Flushing, Queens. By 1960, the eldest DiCicco and his wife had 32 grandchildren within 10 blocks of their house – 17 boys and 15 girls. None of his cousins wanted anything to do with the shoe shine business however, leaving John to carry the family tradition on by himself. He does own two other stands at the airport that are manned by his four employees, but John said none of them are characters like him, which was not hard for me to believe. The stands open at 5 a.m. and close about 8 p.m. John can be found at his stand in Terminal B, American Airlines concourse A, Monday through Friday, from about 11 a.m. until close.
The John DiCicco I met (yes he’s the third) has worked at LaGuardia since 1971. He’s a youthful 63 who still plays softball with guys he grew up with in Flushing, Queens. He now lives with his family in East Meadow on Long Island.
He told me keeping his family’s business going is “the greatest thing I’ve ever done” and at least three times while I was with him he looked out at the people waiting in the crowded terminal and said “This is paradise.”
He told me, “I go in with a smile and I come home with a smile. I’m exhausted, but I come home with a smile too. People are miserable when they go to work sometimes. There are so many people that don’t like their surroundings at work and don’t like what they do. I’ve been blessed.”
He shined my shoes in about 4 or 5 minutes and they looked great. He charges $5 and I tipped him $5 although a 100 percent tip seemed small because he really made me smile. As I got up from my chair, another man came and although John likely wanted to get home after a long day, he took him as well. That was good for me, as my plane wasn’t close to boarding yet and I wanted to keep talking with him.
It wasn’t long before we were drawing stares from the people waiting for their plane. Perhaps we disturbed them from surfing on their smart phones, or maybe they were just in a bad mood because their flight was delayed, but John and I were having a grand old time and laughing like old friends.
As we kept talking, the man whose shoes John was working on got in on the conversation as well. A friendly guy who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, John told him that “we are all cousins. I wish more people would realize that.”
I told John that he is the opposite of the the stereotype of a rude, crude New Yorker. To that, he said “I think it’s a defensive shield but I think all the diversity in the city makes it much easier now. I go into Manhattan and I feel like a tourist, it’s all European. I think people are finally realizing that everybody bleeds red.”
John told me that in the 47 years he’s been working at LaGuardia people have gotten more friendly. “I think the attitudes are a lot nicer now. People are open and a lot easier to talk to about anything. Years ago, nah, not even close. People are a lot friendlier today. I’ve met a million nice people here and only 50 morons.”
One of the people he’ met is his wife, who was on her way to a job interview more than two decades ago when he did her shoes. Six months later they started dating and are married with a 23-year-old daughter today. John also has a 33-year-old daughter from his first marriage (his first wife passed away) and a 6-year-old grandson who he is trying to turn into a Yankee fan.
“I’m trying to force him to be. I might get him to be a lefty-hitting, righty-throwing catcher yet,” John said, laughing.
Like a lot of native New Yorkers, the Yankees are his team, as evidenced by the navy blue shirt and Yankee medallion he wears under his work smock. I asked him who his favorite Yankee was and he said, “Always Mantle. But then Jeter, how could you not like him?”
He’s done Joe DiMaggio’s shoes and George Steinbrenner’s (John calls him Mr. Steinbrenner) and told me that he asked Steinbrenner why the Yanks pitched Jimmy Key when it was snowing out and informed him that he played in Yankee Stadium in 1971 as a senior in high school for the New York High School Championship game. (John said his highlight in that game was getting a base hit and scoring from first). John said Steinbrenner was a very nice guy who gave him tickets to opening day in 1995.
John DiCicco in 2015
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, John has an extremely positive outlook. He even told me something nice about O.J. Simpson.
“In 1973, O.J. Simpson gave my father two tickets to his record-breaking day when he played for the Bills [Simpson was the first RB to rush for 2,000 yards in a season] against the Jets]. That’s the O.J. Simpson I remember. He was so nice.”
Along with sport celebrities, John also shined the shoes of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama when he was a Senator. Years ago, when his father upped the price from .50 to $3.00 the first potential customer told his father it was too much money. That man turned out to be the guy who had just bought Eastern Airlines, Donald Trump. John saw Trump again years later at a movie theater, where he advised his date (Marla) to ask for easy ice in her coke in order to get more, the cheap ass. Also, John said his shoes were beat to hell.
John’s had several brushes with celebrities, but it’s the everyday person that John relates to most and keeps coming back. And if you come back within a week, he won’t charge you for getting your shoes none again. Nor will he ever charge LaGuardia employees (who he calls walking advertisements), women, clergy, or people over 80-years-old. Of course, his landlord — The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, isn’t too happy to have one of its clients not trying to maximize profits and a few years ago tried to kick him out and bring in a company that would charge $10 and pay higher rent. John refused to leave and thus far has successfully been able to stay.
“The Port Authority frowns on that because it’s not going into their pocket. But I’ve been doing it for so long and I depend on people. I tell them, if they come back within a week I’ll do their shoes again for free. They don’t like that I don’t have credit card swiping and they can’t take a percentage off of my gross. And then I’m grandfathered in with the rent. That’s why the price is so cheap. Not too many people are going to stop if I charged $10. I can’t justify more money because I can’t justify more time. It only takes me about 5 minutes to do a pair of shoes.”
John and his family have run the business for 72 years at LaGuardia, so perhaps the Port Authority should be asking advice from him on how to run a successful business. But that’s me talking. John is too modest and polite to say that. He did tell me that the Guinness Book of World’s Records approached him because he has the longest running family owned business in any airport in the world but he’s put them off because he doesn’t want the publicity.
He has been noticed by others however — in 2015 a Brazilian television station did a story on him and that same year Timothy Ryan, the U.S. Chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, wrote a post on his LinkedIn blog that’s followed by 20,000 people about his chance encounter with John at LaGuardia, writing that PwC should recruit him.
“My father told me to stay under the radar. He said when you get noticed that you’re gonna have trouble and sure enough, I’m starting to have trouble [referring to the Port Authority’s attempt to replace him with another vendor]. We’ll see. As long as the City owns the land and the airlines own the gates I should be okay, but you never know with the Port Authority. It’s tough. Years ago, the lease was a handshake. Now it’s the size of a Bible.”
The fact that the Port Authority could be so short-sighted makes me scratch my head in wonder. They couldn’t recruit a better New York City ambassador if they held a city-wide search. Why would you want to replace him? Just for a few bucks? That would be the definition of stupid and also huge travesty.
Luckily, John keeps rolling and smiling along.
As for how long he’ll continue, he said he’s hoping to keep working for another 10 years.
“In 2047 the business will be 100 years old but I won’t be working then,” he says with a smirk and a twinkle in his eye.
I do the math in my head and realize John will be 91-years-old in 2047.
I wouldn’t bet against him making it.