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Minority Workers Start in Same Business, Find Gift of Friendship

The English have a saying, "The best mirror is an old friend." Here is the story of two lifelong friends who drifted apart, but who complement each other so well, they re-united and to this day continue in the same line of work that they both started in decades ago. VOA's Ernest Leong reports.

Finding a really good, comfortable pair of shoes can be difficult. That is why, when most people find that special pair, they tend to hang onto them for as long as possible.

And that is good news for those in the shoe repair business, like Jorge Pena. "Sometimes, people spend $80 for the shoes. And you spend $20, $30 [for repairs], the shoes look very new again."

Pena owns two shoe repair stores in Washington, D.C. He is originally from Salvador, where he worked in a shoe factory as a teenager. When he came to the U.S., he worked at a shoe repair shop in a Washington suburb.

That is where he met Willie Posey. Posey first started shining shoes when he was nine years old, in the southern state of South Carolina.

Posey says he and his entire family always worked with their hands. "We used to pick cotton, plough [soil with the] mules, did all this kind of stuff, you know. Everything used to be done by hand. We used to make our own toys with wood, paper and wire."

Posey developed a hard work ethic at an early age. It is a philosophy he has in common with Pena. "Working hard. No matter what you seek, you come in to work, you start [a business], you pray..."

"We was all hard workers,” says Posey. “That was mainly what -- you know, if you do something, and see somebody, and you want to get in that group. And he [Pena] was outstanding, and quick and everything."

Despite a hard life, Posey has always been cheerful and outgoing. They are qualities that Pena noticed when they first worked together more than 30 years ago. "The guy's happy all the time," Pena says.

Pena found that hard work and good humor made for a good combination in business. In 1985, Pena opened his first shop, where he still works. Soon after, he opened a second shop a few blocks away. He adopted the more American-sounding name "George" on both his stores.

While Pena was setting up his stores, Posey remained at the same shop where they met until he retired in 1995. He re-united with Pena at that time, and returned to his roots, shining shoes in Pena's second store.

A student of human nature, Posey can tell a lot about a customer through his or her shoes. "These shoes here. You can see they're badly worn. The front, the heels, all worn down. This is from a lady that's busy. She don't have time to check her shoes."

A good pair of shoes may still be hard to find...

... but as the 17th century French writer, Francois La Rochefoucauld once said: "A true friend is the most precious of all possessions."