Izzy Jaecks is a professional bootblack. She doesn't shine shoes at airports or in hotel lobbies, and she takes her career, one that she stumbled into by accident, seriously.
And, while today's interpretation of the modern bootblack means that Jaecks has found work in leather and gay bars, she still feels a historical connection with the centuries of artisans who've come before her and who who've made shoes shine since at least the 1600s.
Jaecks even competed in and won Miss International Bootblack 2004, taking an old beat-up pair of army boots to a full military spit shine.
Before competing, though, Jaecks learned how to polish boots out of necessity, working on her own shoes that she brought to study abroad in Europe.
"I walked everywhere, easily 10 miles a day," says Jaecks. "I had to do something with my boots, so I bought a can of polish and a toothbrush. Eventually, I bought supplies and started doing it for real."
Jaecks moved to Milwaukee in 1991 and took a job on the East Side shining shoes at the old University Footwear. She literally answered a sign that said "shoe shiner wanted." The owner sent her to the mall and told her to watch the old pros at work.
She did, and her boss sent her to work at the shoeshine stand at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, where she honed her craft.
Jaecks didn't even know about the connection between bootblacks and gay bar until a trip to Chicago in the mid '90s, where she saw an empty stand in a leather bar. In 2002, she helped out during International Mr. Leather Weekend in Chicago, and from there, she found work traveling to Milwaukee gay bars, shining shoes.
Locally, she worked at both the Harbor Room and Club Icon in Kenosha. Now, Jaecks is basically a freelance bootblack looking to expand her trade.
A quiet perfectionist, Jaecks says that her skill level isn't necessarily higher than the guy shining shoes at the airport – some of them take their craft quite seriously – but bootblacking is a part of the leather scene because she says motorcycle guys have roots in the military, and perfectly shined shoes are mandatory.
Look for Jaecks this fall as she expands her business beyond gay bars and into Milwaukee's nicer barber shops, like Stag, 3064 S. Delaware Ave., where she'll be shining shoes every Thursday.
And, if you don't the good fortune of using Jaecks' service (take it from this author, she's good at making a dress shoe sparkle), Miss Bootblack herself says the number-one best tip to taking care of your own kicks is to always clean your shoes thoroughly. "Even if you do nothing else, your shoes will last 10 times as long."
"Another tip," she says, "is don't wear your shoes two days in a row ... even though I do it."
Jaecks' is a unique job that hasn't changed a ton in the last 100 years. "Charles Dickens in 1826 worked in a factory that made a substance called 'boot blacking,' which was pig tallow and lamp black," says Jaecks. "That's a far cry from the waxes and polishes we use today, but there have been been street bootblacks in London since at least the 1600s.
"They would take in orphans and have them earn their keep as bootblack orphans. I absolutely feel a connection with them."
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.