Ego just wanted to make an honest living. He thought of a new, bold approach to his business, a way to revolutionize his field. But soon an obstacle appeared in his path: government. At first, government told Ego to pay a great deal of money for permission to operate his business. Later, he discovered that government wouldn't let him operate at all.
This scenario may read like an Ayn Rand parable, but in fact it's a true story—being enacted right now on the streets of our nation's capital. Ego Brown is a bootblack, until recently making his living by shining shoes in a stylish Washington hotel.
A 35-year-old father of six, he supported his family by selling "Ego Shoeshines," displaying a sign penned by his young daughter: "If your shoes aren't becoming to you, you should be coming to us." He dressed the part: white shirt with a high formal collar, narrow black bow tie, black suspenders, and satin-striped pants—with the large white letters EGO printed on a black band around his straw hat.
In 1984, Brown quit his job as a voucher examiner for the Department of the Navy, giving up a regular salary of about $18,000 a year, to go into business for himself. "My wife thought I was crazy," he says. "A lot of my friends thought I was crazy. But I wasn't making enough where I could make big decisions in my life—like I couldn't buy a house or a car or even take the family out to a movie." Brown began shining shoes, first operating out of two barbershops near Howard University, then working out of a shoe store and a beauty shop.
Then he had an idea. What if he moved his shoe-shine operation out of buildings—where a stand attracts only a constricted flow of potential customers—and onto the city streets, where overhead is nil and potential customers abound? Further, what if he expanded his operation by hiring relatively cheap labor to increase his volume—for instance, homeless individuals seeking a way to improve their fortunes?
"My endeavor is to cover the whole town with Ego Shoeshine booths," an exuberant Brown told the Washington Post in September 1985. "I want to grip this city by its foot."
He set up two stands in Northwest Washington and soon found himself with a flurry of customers. Back then, he says, he took home an average profit of $400 a week. And in addition to the new income, Brown was finally in charge of his own life and livelihood. One reason he left his government job, he says, is that he "was tired of the favoritism, bureaucracy, and all it had to offer."
But he was not to escape bureaucracy that easily. One day in 1985, a police officer approached Brown at his stand and discovered he didn't have a vending license. Suddenly his overhead shot up from zero to $500.
Brown couldn't afford a license right off, but friends and customers, hearing about his predicament, held a benefit at a downtown bar to raise money for the license. Kevin Wine, general manager of the bar, explained that "as people in a service business ourselves, we're impressed with his work ethic."
In fact, Wine says, "he wouldn't even let us give him the money. He insisted on giving free shoeshines to people who donated." The benefit raised about $100, and Ego Brown was well on his way to getting back into business on the sidewalks of Washington.
But when he called the District's business license division for information, Brown got some bad news: the District wouldn't allow his business at any price.
A 1904 D.C. law decrees that "no permit shall be issued for a bootblack stand on public space." The origin of the law remains somewhat of a mystery, but Clint Bolick, Brown's lawyer and a former Justice Department official, speculates that it has racist origins. It bears a suspicious resemblance, he says, to Jim Crow laws passed to "keep blacks in their place" by limiting entrepreneurial freedom. (See "From Dependency to Dignity," REASON, Nov. 1987.)
Indeed, the law seems to have no other possible basis, since there is no reason to distinguish shoeshine stands from the wide variety of street enterprises allowed by the District. In fact, a shoeshine stand takes up far less sidewalk space than the common D.C. hot dog vendor and is less likely to contribute debris and other nuisances.
By shutting down Ego Brown's business, the District of Columbia—a predominantly black city with a black mayor and a strong civil rights tradition—is enforcing what amounts to a Jim Crow law against this black entrepreneur. At first he moved his operation into the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel—but high rents pushed him out this spring. Now this ambitious businessman has joined the ranks of the unemployed.
On March 3 of this year, Ego Brown filed a lawsuit against the District and Mayor Marion Barry, charging that the shoeshine law violates his constitutional rights. Giving the charge added irony is the fact that the other plaintiffs in the case are two homeless blacks who want to work street stands for Brown. (While operating out of the Sheraton-Carlton, he hired three homeless men, giving each a shower, a haircut, an Ego outfit like his own, and a stand to operate.)
Barry and other prominent leaders of the civil rights community routinely decry the plight of the homeless and demand programs to help them. But Brown thinks that the best way to attack the problem is through opportunity.
"I'm reaching out to help myself," he says, "and trying to help some other people pull themselves up by their bootstraps." Brown says he'd like to be able to hire hundreds of homeless people some day.
"The District's prohibition against shoeshine stands is ridiculous," says Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and a leading advocate of black self-help. "In a predominantly black city with a mayor and city council committed to housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and promoting self-sufficiency, it is inconsistent to stand by regulations to stifle independence and self-esteem."
Attorney Bolick thinks the District may be softening a bit, since officials have suggested that "discussions" might help resolve the issue. But Brown and Bolick will settle for nothing less than a lifting of the rule.
As he waits for a court date to be set, Brown continues to dream about the possibilities before him. "I've been talking with some of the old guys who tell me about when in the '30s and late '20s the shoeshine was hotter than hot cake," he says. "So I'm thinking what goes around is going to come around."
Which also describes, quite graphically, what may happen to the District of Columbia and the civil rights establishment if they continue to ignore the most fundamental civil right of all—the freedom to make a living.
REASON intern John Hood is a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The District: Battered Ego Brown".