Mitzvah at the mall: My politically correct left foot

I was having a bad foot day because I don’t fit the mold. I’m a 7 1/2 narrow. That wasn’t a problem, at least in the United States, until several years ago. For some reason, most shoe retailers and department stores gave up on me.

When a helpful shoe salesperson asks, “Are you finding what you’re looking for?” my reply is often, “If your store carried my size, I might.” Apologetically, the salesperson lets me know that since most customers wear medium widths, it hardly pays to stock narrows.

Frankly, I don’t get the logic.

Anyway, since I needed dressy black sandals for my son’s wedding in England, I went online and found something I liked. But when the shoes arrived 10 days later, they didn’t fit correctly. Since the manufacturer has a store at Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo, I exchanged them for a higher-heeled pair that fit better and looked fabulous.

When I got home, I showed my new shoes to my husband. “They’re nice,” he said. “But are you sure you can walk in them? You don’t look very steady.”

He had a point. I have a history of sprained ankles. Some 20 years ago, I tripped while descending the tower of St. Paul’s in London and spent the next few weeks in Europe hobbling with a cane. Given that, I wasn’t sure how well the shoes would fare in the Yorkshire countryside. Besides, they were made in China. How much are workers paid there?

I found out that night when I went to Beth Am for Shabbat services. “Forty cents an hour,” said Rachel Biale, Bay Area regional director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Speaking after the service, Biale focused on the plight of underpaid workers, not only in the Third World but here in the Bay Area. As Jews, she pointed out, we should be particularly sensitive to those issues since many of our immigrant ancestors worked in sweatshops.

I asked her what I should do about the Chinese-made shoes. “It’s all about choices,” Biale said, noting that she prefers to buy recycled clothing. But, she admitted, not everybody can afford to pay the extra money for clothing made by well-paid workers.

Biale’s words took me back 19 years to the time I spoke out about exploited garment workers as a fashion panelist on the “Oprah” show. After that, Oprah ignored me. “You were the Jane Fonda of fashion,” my mother said.

But words are easy. Although I don’t shop at Wal-Mart and wouldn’t buy fur or blood diamonds, I haven’t been especially socially conscious about my clothing choices. It would be nice to look for the union label, but try finding one these days.

Nonetheless, the following Monday I drove to Hillsdale, returned the sandals and ambled from store to store trying to find a suitable pair, with little luck.

Finally, I wound up at Nordstrom. None of the shoes I wanted came in narrow, so the salesman steered me to another pair. They were $135, nearly twice as much as the shoes I returned. But the salesman was convincing.

“You won’t regret it,” he said. “They’re very comfortable.”

I tried them. They fit, they were comfortable, and they cost almost as much as my dress. Futhermore, they were made in America by a company that prides itself on being socially conscious and good to its workers.

This wasn’t an extravagant purchase, I decided. It was a mitzvah. If I could send money to American Jewish World Service to support refugees from Darfur, shouldn’t I support a company that makes politically correct shoes?

OK, so I’d have to get a pedicure to wear them, something I’ve never done, mostly because I don’t have the kind of feet that should be exposed. But it’s not like I was buying Manolo Blahniks from “Sex and the City.”

With a clear conscience, I began to see the shoes as a contribution. I drove home with the feeling of elation I get after putting money in the tzedakah box.

When I walked into the house, I showed my husband the shoes. “They’re very nice, and they look comfortable,” he said. “But are you sure they’re dressy enough?”

Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at [email protected].

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].