He prays with spit and fire. It can seem like simple shoe cleaning but every Saturday night at the Eagle, the famous Chelsea leather bar, Bootblack Dave is blessing boots with the rag in his hands. “I light the polish on fire and pass the flame under the boot. It’s a cleaning ritual,” he says. “I practice urban shamanism and try and leave customers in a state of being grounded. Some people get the magic, some don’t. But if nothing else they leave with a clean pair of boots.”
Interview and photo by Nicholas Powers
Bootblack Dave is many things: an actor, a musician in the band Monster Rally, a Tae Kwon Do student, an openly gay man, a Mexican-American and a fetishist. Every identity is a force that pulls and pushes and at the center he exists by holding them together. What grounds him is his spirituality, channeled through his careful craft. He is well known in the New York artist circles for being a work of art, for being dedicated to the beauty of the boot.
What’s the difference between fetish and fashion?
When it’s real, instead of cruising porn sites, you are on-line bidding for boots. I search for jackboots worn in World War II or boots worn by Vietnam soldiers, pairs that are charged with history, that have life in them.
Boots equal power. They have an iconic status and a defined cultural history. When you see steelworkers, cowboys, hard hats at a construction site, they have boots on and so boots come to mean masculinity, authority and power.
Is there a deeper reason?
I grew up in Texas and we all wore them. Every Sunday I shined everyone’s boots. It allowed me to indulge in the sensuality of the shining: the smell of the leather and polish; the sound of the horsehair brush against the boot; the touching and holding the boot and brush; and the sight of the transformation of the boot from dull and scuffed to clean and brilliant. My reward was 50 cents which I used to buy comic books. I wanted to be a superhero and ran around wearing a cap and boots like Batman and Superman.
Like the superheroes you read about, do you change when you put your gear on?
Immediately the first change is that I get taller. My footfall is heavier; it affects my stride and bearing. Then there is the mental change, like when I’m wearing my pole-climbers, which can put a dent in the side of a car. I have the confidence of walking on weapons.
Is the boot fetish and its masculine vibe a signal that you’ll fight back violently against gay bashing?
It’s more about not being seen as an easy target. If I walk with confidence it says “I won’t let anyone hurt me.”
Is there a prejudice against fetishists in the gay community?
Being a gay fetishist is like coming out twice. The first is that I was gay, the second that I was a fetishist. I wear boots all the time because I feel powerful, which is exactly why there is resistance. Gay people are tolerated as long as they blend in – funny, benign, wear Gap or Prada, cut hair and redecorate homes – but mainstream America is not ready to see us express power.
What do you say to the monopoly on the gay image by the “Will and Grace” crowd?
I tried all of your stuff, I’ve been to musicals and it’s not as fun as going to a shooting range. The unsaid agreement is that if you’re gay you must like Liza Minnelli and drink cocktails. A lot of men and women who come out of the closet embrace that image whether it’s them or not because they want to be unambiguously gay. I believe there’s room for all types of gay identity.
Where do you want to as the goal for gay politics?
We are making strides with money. In this nation you have to buy your way in. As an actor, I believe we’ve got to take control of the images projected of us, so it isn’t just “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” but more aggressive images. We need to stop asking and start demanding.