July 1, 2014

Homeless Woman In My Ethical Clothing Store Teaches Valuable Lesson. ~ Alok Appadurai

Alok Appadurai bag photo do not use

The other day a homeless woman came into my shop, Fed By Threads, and plopped her bags down by the front door, bringing a slight odor in with her that I could faintly smell from where I stood behind the checkout counter.

Recently, a customer who works at a homeless shelter had mentioned that because we have shade and air-conditioning during the blistering Tucson summer months, we would probably see an influx of homeless people in the shop, and to call her if I needed any help.

As this woman began to peruse the store, I couldn’t help but have conflicted feelings, wondering if I needed to watch for shoplifting. While these may be excusable concerns, I still knew that I was profiling her, and so I did my best to continue my dialog with the customer who had been in the shop prior to her arrival.

I watched as she picked up one of our American-made organic cotton grocery bags, stretched it for durability, and continued walking around the shop. I won’t lie: I wondered if she might toss a couple pieces of clothing inside and cruise away.

About five minutes later, she approached the checkout counter, her face hardened from what I imagined were a lifetime of complex realities. I had no idea what was coming next: she placed the cloth bag on the counter and went and got one of her plastic bags, from which she took out a ziplock baggie with dollars inside.

I then realized she intended to buy the bag, at full price.

I overheard her mumbling and calculating what the tax would be, at which point I knocked off 20 percent and told her the new amount.

As she began to count out fives and singles, with dignity, she blew my mind by looking me dead in the eye and saying:

“I don’t buy Made In China,” and went on to explain that she thinks “all that cheap stuff made in China is built on suffering and abuse…and I myself have been abused in my life.”

Of course, I don’t know what specifically she was referencing from her own many years on this planet, but let’s just say, with whatever resources she has, she was going to support Made In America.

I should note that jobs have only flowed overseas to countries like China because America’s appetite for cheap clothing has incentivized American companies to seek out low-wage environments almost anywhere on the globe. So while I may not vocalize my positions in the same way she does, our end goal is the same: vote with our dollars for goods and services that benefit our local economy and reduce suffering.

Her name is Katrina, I learned.

She told me that she had read about our shop in the local urban magazine called Zocalo, and while Katrina did not smile much, I knew she and I shared many ideas and beliefs for doing our part to create the world we want to live in.

She also taught me not to make assumptions, not to profile, and while I did not follow her around the store and did my best to treat her like any other customer, I knew in my heart that a deep lesson had been learned. She rocked my world and I will never forget her. I told her to visit me anytime she was in the neighborhood as she left with my American Organic Seed-To-Sewn grocery bag, the most American-made item in my entire shop.

After the door closed, the other customer just looked at me in wonder, as we both knew we had witnessed something that we had assumed would go otherwise.

Goes to show, don’t make assumptions, treat everyone the same, and be kind. You never know someone’s story. Profiling is a dirty little secret in the retail industry, and mindfulness and respect are vital for being the change we want to see.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Author’s Own

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