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Peruvian shoe-shiner plies trade in shadow of Occupy DC

WASHINGTON -- On a sidewalk across from Washington's main encampment of Occupy Wall Street protesters, who rail ever day against the evils of corporate greed, Peruvian immigrant Gustavo Carpio ekes out a living.

Carpio is a shoe-shiner, whose regular clients are the very people the protesters despise the most — the lawyers and lobbyists of K Street, one of Washington's most influential corridors of power.

While he says he appreciates the enthusiasm of the demonstrators, who have lived in Washington's McPherson Square since October, Carpio says there is another path to making the system work for the 99 percent.

“I grew up in Peru, a world they've never seen. The USA will be always better than Peru,” Carpio told AFP.

Every morning, the 50-something Carpio sets up his stall underneath a large green parasol in front of a Starbucks cafe, with his back to the dozens of tents dotting the square, just a few blocks from the White House.

“It's growing very fast,” Carpio says proudly of his business.

In the summer, the long-time U.S. resident can make US$150 a day. That number dwindles to US$100 during the long winter months.

Carpio says that in just two years, his clientele has doubled. And with 20 years of experience under his belt, Carpio knows how to drum up new business. He has slowly made a name for himself, in a profession once stereotypically associated with African Americans.

“I arrived in the States in 1973. I had to find a way to make a living,” said Carpio, who is twice divorced and a father of four.

Carpio first learned the shoeshine trade at Washington's Dulles International Airport about 20 years ago. He says the clientele has not changed much.

Bruce Neal is a banker in the K Street corridor who regularly sits in Carpio's chair, raised up on a platform so the shoe-shiner can work his magic — at a rate of US$7 for a pair of shoes, and US$10 for boots.

“For a while, a guy was coming right into my office. But I'd rather come down here and freeze. Gus is the best,” Neal told AFP.

The process is something of a ritual: Carpio cleans the leather, removes the leftover polish and applies a moisturizing cream to the shoes before re-polishing them and dyeing the edges of the soles to match.

Even though many have looked down in the past on the profession, sometimes seen as a symbol of the oppression of African Americans, Carpio says the situation today is far different.

“There are Hispanics, African Americans, Whites. This starts as a trade and then it's a passion,” he said.

On a national scale, the profession exists in the shadows. An official at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics told AFP there are no figures on the number of shoe-shiners plying their trade across the country.

For Carpio, there is no other job, and no other place to do it, even if the protesters across the road regularly denounce income inequality in the United States.

“I don't want to ever go back to Peru. I would feel like a foreigner there. I have lived here for 38 years — this is my country now,” he said, as he packed up his tools of the trade for the night.

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