It's a cold, foggy, Southern California morning. Hundreds of faceless, groggy commuters hurry through the little train station in Fullerton. With their designer coffee in one hand and briefcase in the other, they rush to catch the first train that will take them to their distant big city jobs.
As these people rush off to their increasingly impersonal and isolated worlds one man is left behind. He is a lost icon of the American spirit, one who is trying to make an honest living for his family with a trade passed down from a generation before him.
Alford Nichols, better known as “Big Smokey,” is a man whom you will never forget once you have seen him. He finds a place in the corner of your soul. He is one of those few faces that stands out among the anonymous masses.
At the age of seven, most children are only involved in silly little play games, but Smokey was hard at work bailing hay and picking cotton for his family.
“Cotton picking and bailing hay was the hardest work I've ever done,” he said. Smokey described picking cotton as rough. His hands get torn from the prickly plant and dragging an ever increasingly heavy sack while moving as fast as possible to keep up with the wagon always too far in front of him.
Although those times were tough, Smokey recalls them being simpler. His family was always poor, but they could get by with having far less than is required today.
“Today it is hard for a poor man to even survive,” Smokey said. “When I first came to California It was the land of opportunity, now there is little, if any, opportunity.”
Smokey learned about survival at an early age. When he was only 13, he followed his dreams and moved out of his overcrowded house in Oklahoma. He traveled to California to live with his aunt and uncle. His uncle taught him how to shine shoes, a trade that has brought him back to the little train station five days a week.
As the early morning fog begins to give way to the coming sun, a train roars by the little train station, with the distinctive sound of somebody yelling, “Hey Smokey.” An older gentleman walks by the little shoe stand and asks Smokey, “How are you feeling today?” Smokey has only been at the little train station four years, but he has made enough friends to last several lifetimes. Few people walk buy him without calling his name.
As Smokey stands near his shoeshine stand a woman is having trouble with a phone. “Ma'am do you need some change?” he asks.“They change these phones so often, I never know how much change they need,” the lady replies. “Yes ma'am, that's why I carry a phone card.” Smokey gives her some change. “Thank you sir.” “Yes ma'am.”
This is the type of respect and kindness Smokey treats people with as they pass through the train station.
Although Smokey is always there helping people with train schedules, directions, and change, he gets no compensation from the city or the station. Here is a man who does a tremendous service for everyone at the train station, and receives nothing for it, not even free rent for his little shoe shine stand.
The man that is at the train station so often helping so many people has only ridden the train once.
“I've been on one vacation in my life,” he said. “I went on a church trip with my son to Sea World,” said. Smokey does not have enough to spend on train trips, vacations, or even a car of his own.
Smokey does not seem to mind that much. He is not one to look out for a hand out. This is a hard working man just looking for an honest opportunity. Smokey has hopes of expanding his business someday, but the banks will not listen to him.
“All I need is $20,000 to expand my business,” Smokey said. “They spent $40 million investigating the president, and can't even loan a hard-working man $20,000 to get ahead.” Smokey hopes to offer 24-hour shoe service some day, and where he could pick up shoes and bring them back in the same day.
When Smokey came to California he had a dream. He hasn't been back home in 25 years because he hasn't fulfilled his dream yet. At the age of 58 the only thing that keeps Smokey going is his faith in God, his son, and that dream that drew him here in the first place: “I always had a dream I would be somebody on top of a mountain.” And what a tall mountain that has become.