By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
From his elevated perch on the shoeshine stand near Concourse C of Louis Armstrong International Airport – a nondescript wooden platform with two blue-padded chairs and four metal footrests – Wayne Kendrick, 60, notices everything and everyone.
He is Catholic, and some have described the chair from which he waves and smiles to his fellow airport employees and to the thousands of travelers who daily roll their luggage past him as a sacred post.
“I’ve had a couple of pastors come and say, ‘You know, Wayne, this is your pulpit,’” said Kendrick, who recently was honored by the New Orleans Aviation Board for his 35 years of service as “the mayor of the airport.”
That unofficial title was right there in the resolution the board bestowed on him in July. It was affixed with a gold stamp and accompanied by a lot of pomp and circumstance – and jockeying for position.
“The board members are all my friends,” Kendrick said, smiling about the resolution signed by board chairman Michael Bagneris and now framed in his house. “Mr. Bagneris said, ‘We were fussing over who was going to deliver this to you, so we did paper, scissors, rock.’ That made me feel kind of good. When they stood up – the whole room – I really got weak-kneed, but I didn’t show it. The last time I had people stand up and clap for me, I was playing basketball at McDonogh 35 High School.”
Intuition and a listening ear
Since accepting his father Richard’s invitation on April 12, 1984, to join him at his original airport shoeshine stand, Kendrick has done what has come naturally. He has developed a sixth sense in knowing what a traveler might be going through. Sometimes, passengers tell Kendrick they are flying out of town to “bury their mother.”
“In that situation, I do not take their money, and I’ve had them come back to the airport with their kids and they say, ‘This is the guy who when I was coming to bury your mom, he shined my shoes and wouldn’t take any money,’” Kendrick said. “I got my mom’s values and my daddy’s talent. The first questions I normally ask when I get someone in the chair is, ‘How are you doing? How’s your family?’ I’m interested in them. I have customers whose shoes I don’t even shine, and we’ve gotten to be friends, and they’ll stop by and we’ll talk.”
Kendrick’s body clock gets him up every morning between 4:30 and 5 a.m., in time to get to the airport by 6:30.
“I love this – I don’t need an alarm clock,” he said. “I get up and it’s like three steps to my bathroom. I say, ‘Lord, thanks for waking me up.’ I brush my teeth and my wife asks me what I’m smiling about, and I say I’m happy. She makes me smile.”
Sometimes, people, especially his airport coworkers, stop by just to sit and chat. On a recent morning, Kendrick either greeted by first name or fist-bumped every coworker who passed by.
“I’m going to tell you, they got a lot of young kids around here, and they look up to me and respect me,” Kendrick said. “I know when something is wrong with them. I look in their face every morning. A couple of mornings, I’ve seen them pass me by and I’ll say, ‘What’s wrong?’ And they’ll say, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong.’ And I’ll say, ‘You can tell me when you come back.’ They’ll ask how I know. And I say, ‘Because I look at you every morning, and I know when something’s wrong.’ Some of them don’t have anybody to talk to. Some of them don’t have father figures. So, this is what I do.”
Kendrick’s father will turn 84 in October – he lost his wife of 62 years in 2015 – and with his waning health, he’s had to decline his son’s invitation to join him at the airport for half-days.
“He told me, ‘Wayne, you know, I used to work for your Maw. Your Maw wanted things. Maw doesn’t want anything no more because she’s gone,’” Kendrick said. “All I could do was hug him.”