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Tony Lugthart, who shined shoes at McCormick & Schmick’s, dies at 62

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Good shoe polish is only partly about the polish that comes out of the box. It is also the shoe polish that comes out of the shoe polisher. It’s about the breeze he shoots. It’s about the drama he creates when he whips the brushes against the tips of your wings and the sense of ceremony he brings when he slams the fabric onto your tip.

Fewer DC shoe shiners were as fun to watch as they were Tony “White Pony” Lugthartdied of liver cancer on June 11 at the age of 62.

I was a customer of White Pony Tony’s, regularly settling into the well-padded booth he had in the window of McCormick & Schmick’s on K Street NW. Over the years, Tony operated other stands around town – including on the Hill and at Reagan National Airport – but this two-seater was the foundation of his empire. Closed during the coronavirus pandemic, the stand was due to reopen soon. It won’t be the same without Tony.

I first met Tony in 2004 at a country-western bar on South Pickett Street in Alexandria called Nick’s. Tony loved country music. He loved all kinds of music. He used to shine shoes to the music of James Brown and had a note signed by the godfather of the soul: “I started where you are”, he said.

Tony was the fourth of six children, a born artist, his older sister said, Kim Lughart, who lives in Montana. Tony also lived in Montana for a time. He lived in many places. Her stepfather was in the military, so the family moved around a lot, including to Germany.

“Dad was the president of the European rodeo association,” Kim said. “Our house was full of cowboys all the time.”

Tony could be exuberant, and one of the punishments his father would inflict would be to make him sit on the couch and read a Louis L’Amour book and give a book report.

Said Kim: “Tony absolutely hated it. But guess who his favorite author is?

When Tony was around 12, he and his brother started shining shoes after school and during the summer to earn some money. He put that hobby aside when he grew up, working instead as a traveling advertising salesman.

In 1990, he decided to stay in the DC area after meeting a woman at a bakery: Candy Vasquez, who became his wife. They lived in Arlington with their son, Gerald. About ten years ago, Tony discovered that he also had a daughter living in Texas, Lorissa Davis. (The family is running a GoFundMe campaign to pay for funeral costs.)

Tony told me Candy wasn’t thrilled at first when he said he was going to shine shoes for a living. But, for him, he had two qualities that you would want in any job: he liked it and he was good at it.

Kim said her youngest son, Kevinonce came to Washington for a 10 month AmeriCorps program.

“I sent him to McCormick and Schmick for family contact,” she said. “He called me later and said, ‘Mom! Why didn’t you tell me?! Uncle Tony is the maneveryone knows him. He is famous ! ” (Among Tony’s clients: Tom Delay.)

Tony dressed neatly in a fedora and tie. He applied the polish not with a rag or a gloved hand, but with his bare fingers, skin to skin. He would rub the polish off, then use a small propane torch to heat the leather, opening up the pores.

Here’s what I wrote about Tony – “equal parts bootblack and Benihana chef” – back in 2004, as I watched him polish the boots of a client named Eric Mulmar at Nick:

“He wraps his arms around Eric’s feet, a brush in each hand. He clicks the wooden brushes together like claves, throws one in the air like a stick, and catches it behind his back.

“And then, after a snap of the polishing cloth, White Pony gives the universal sign that the polish is complete: a simultaneous tapping of the finger on the lower toe of each boot. Which he follows with his own special blessing: the sign of the cross made in the air above Eric’s feet.

“The boots shine like twin pieces of obsidian.

“‘If I made them any brighter than that, they might hurt somebody,’ White Pony Tony says.”

It wasn’t as theatrical in McCormick and Schmick, but the brilliance was just as profound. And Tony loved to talk. His $10 shoe shine was cheap therapy.

If you were in a hurry, his talkativeness could be awkward. But you shouldn’t wax when you’re in a hurry. White Pony Tony never was.

I take time. I will be back in this space on June 27th.