Before finding fame as a comedian, actor, author and artist, Bill Cosby learned valuable lessons shining shoes in Philadelphia
Bill Cosby’s many successful roles include standup comic, actor, jazz musician, producer, author.
But before his comedy albums sold millions of copies and won Grammy awards; before he broke racial barriers as Robert Culp’s African-American co-star in the 1960s TV drama, I Spy; before he created the Emmy-winning cartoon series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids; before his ground-breaking family comedy, The Cosby Show, became TV’s most-watched program; before he published the best selling-books Fatherhood, I Am What I Ate … and I’m frightened!!! and I Didn’t Ask to Be Born, But I’m Glad I Was; and before he received the Kennedy Center Honors Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the Marian Anderson Award …
young William H. Cosby Jr. lived in Philadelphia’s Richard Allen housing projects. He earned money shining shoes downtown. He stationed himself outside of the Troc Theatre, a venue that featured an act named Peaches.
“Business was always good!” Cosby remembered. “Men coming and going. Ten cents.”
Cosby’s friends — Fat Albert, Old Weird Harold, Dumb Donald, Rudy, Nolan and Weasel — shined shoes, too.
“Luckily, we came into a time of building shoeshine boxes,” the 75-year-old comedy genius said from Philadelphia. “We built shoeshine boxes for ourselves. Everybody’s doing it, all the guys I’m playing with.”
The men who went to see Peaches perform at the Troc could be generous, giving Cosby a whole quarter for a shoeshine. Being 8 years old, Cosby had no idea why Peaches appealed to the men, but he did understand the importance of earning money.
“I always gave my mother all of the money because, in my mind, if I made $12, I made more than she did,” he said.
A child in a family struggling to pay the rent, Cosby got a dramatic lesson in poverty when he witnessed a friend’s family being evicted from a neighboring apartment.
“That’s when I heard the word ‘constable,’ ” he remembered. “The constable put their furniture on the sidewalk. I remember feeling very, very sorry for the kid that I played with.
“But I also remember hearing people making fun about it. And I don’t remember them saying, ‘Well, they drank too much.’ I never saw it. It’s just that the people were on hard times and they couldn’t pay the rent.”
As sad as Cosby felt about his homeless friend, he couldn’t help but think that such a fate could strike his family, too.
“Man, I really don’t want that happen to me or to us,” he thought. “Because this is embarrassing!”
Sure enough, the Cosby family fell on hard times. His mother, Anna, told him how worried she was.
“My old man — gone,” he remembered. “Mom working as a domestic, earning maybe a dollar an hour. She didn’t know where the money for the rent was going to come from. I became very sad. I really didn’t want to see our furniture out on the sidewalk. I don’t know how, but my mother escaped that.”
Although Cosby usually gave all of the money he made shining shoes to his mother, he decided to keep some of his earnings so he could buy a Mother’s Day present.
The 9- or 10-year Cosby went downtown to the Lit Brothers department store, a grand Philadelphia retail establishment that billed itself as “A Great Store in a Great City.” Shoeshine box in hand, he walked in and told a man he was looking for coffeepots.
“OK, young man, you just follow me,” the man said. “And don’t ask anybody if they need a shoeshine.”
“No, sir,” the boy said. “I didn’t come in here to shine the shoes.”
A saleswoman showed her young customer the store’s selection of shiny stainless steal electric coffeepots. He picked one that cost $14.95.
Going upstairs in the elevator to the Lit Brothers’ credit office, he put $6 down. The finance man wondered if this young person drank coffee.
“No, I don’t drink coffee,” Cosby said. “This is for my mother for Mother’s Day. Because she has the coffeepot that, you put the fire on it, and it perks and boils over and runs over on the stove, a lot.”
Three more visits to the Troc during the month of April yielded enough shoeshine money to pay off his Lit Brothers’ balance.
“OK, William,” the finance man said. “Your mother’s gonna think you’re a wonderful son. Now, because you’re such a great customer, and your mother also is a customer here, we’re gonna take you over to Miss Pilar.” Whispering, the man added, “She’s gonna wrap it for you.”
Come the big day, Cosby’s mother was overwhelmed by her son’s gift
“She’s sitting there crying away,” Cosby remembered. “I was just so happy. And she kissed me.”
The next morning Cosby awoke to find that his mother was still using the old coffeepot. Instead of making the new coffeepot a helpful part of her daily routine, she put it on display in the living room, as if it were on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“And she never used it,” Cosby said from the domestics-tended house in Philadelphia that he bought for his late mother. “But that’s a mother. And that’s the difference between a wife and a mother. Wives will throw your stuff out!”
Anna Cosby fussed, too, over the house that her famous son bought for her. But Cosby and his wife, Camille, tricked his mother into moving there. They sent her on a world-circling vacation, prepared the house while she was away and, upon her return, drove her straight from the airport to her new home.
“All of her stuff was there,” he recalled. “She just got weak in the legs and stayed in bed the whole day, talking about I did something to her, she’s never gonna forgive me — and loved all of it.”