Charlotte Douglas International is one of the busiest airports in the world. On average, over 100,000 passengers make their way through the concourses each day. And occasionally, a few of them stop for a shoe shine. At Concourse D, there's one shoeshiner with a thick African accent, a soul patch, and an interesting story to tell.
Getnet Marsha makes bold promises. "I guarantee I'll give you brand new shoes," he says. "When you step down from the chair, it gonna be brand new shoes."
He goes by the nickname Getu. He grew up in Ethiopia. And he's good at what he does. Good like craftsman good. He's immensely proud of his 20-step shining process. That includes massaging the shoes like knotted muscles with a special conditioner. "I'm conditioning the leather," he says. "The leather was so dry!"
And he's a talker. Tells these shine stories like he's a veteran slugger, recounting rookie year highlights. Like the time a customer came, and the man was holding a $100 dollar bill in his hand. He was all set to buy a new pair of shoes in the Johnston-Murphy store nearby. He stopped at Getu's chair for one last shine. And Getu did such an amazing job. It was like he resurrected the guy's shoes, and the man put the $100 dollar bill back in his pocket. And he tells Getu he changed his mind. That Getu had saved him.
Getu said, "I'm happy I saved you." He has a bucket of stories like these. Mostly about business travelers who slump down into his chair disgruntled and rise up relaxed and smiling. That's easy to imagine. Getu has a performer's charisma and laughs a lot.
His shine will set you back five bucks. Doesn't matter what you're wearing. Boots, shoes, whatever. And while a lot of people might consider this low pay for long hours, Getu is thrilled with the work. Especially when he thinks about where he came from. At 14, he fled Communist Ethiopia on foot.
"I walked, literally, two weeks on my feet," he says. He ended up in Sudan for a while. Then Kenya. In 1992, Getu came to the U.S. as a political refugee. Now he shakes his head at the contrast between his life now versus then.
"Here in America, my worst day, or like the ugly day I had, you know," says Getu. "When you take it to Africa, that's the best day. The very best one."
The difference was even more obvious to him when he took a vacation back to his hometown in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, the country's capital city. He met a 9-year-old girl named Aynalem who was an orphan, a street child. One British charity estimates there are about 12,000 of these kids living on the streets, or at least making money there. And this particular encounter with Aynalem really affected Getu.
"These kids, when they lose their parents, nobody's gonna take care of them," he says. And he decided he wanted to do something. So, he helped the only way he knew how: He bought her a shoe shine box. And then he began sending her money. And since then, he says he has recruited seven other adults in Addis Ababa to care for street children.
Getu says he tries to send 10 percent of what he earns at the airport each month to support all of them. He wishes he could send more, but he's got two kids of his own here in Charlotte. But the street children back in Ethiopia are always on his mind.
"It's just only one thing in my mind: How I'm going to make difference in these people's life," says Getu. "That's my wish, man."
Watch Getu shine for an hour, and you can see him making small differences, one shoe at a time. And when he's finished, every one of his customers gets the same friendly sendoff when he says, "Cheers now!"