Life lessons on Leather, and Love

It’s hard to ignore a determined woman in a $1000 black leather suit. 

Way back in the early 1990s, I was a struggling single mother, self-employed with three kids to feed, clothe, house and transport.
Every day was hard; there were no easy days. But I was absolutely determined to provide a safe, middle class lifestyle for my kids in an East York neighbourhood where they could walk to school. I was equally determined to do it running my own home-based communications business, where I could actually make more money in far less time than I could ever hope to earn in a paycheque position. Self-employment means risk, though, and my first few years were a terrifying emotional roller coaster.
One Godsend was the local business association, which hired me and paid me for 20 years. In addition to steady work and money on which I could rely, the Pape Village BIA connected me to a whole world of hard-working small business owners who shared with me endless advice and experience on life as an entrepreneur.
“Sometimes, I look at my fifty t’ousand dollars hanging on the wall, and I wonder if I made a mistake,” our local shoe repairman confessed to me once, as he had been persuaded to invest that much money in imported sweaters and leatherware during the depths of a terrible recession.
Another memorable day, I dashed into his store as I made the rounds soliciting gifts and prizes for East York’s Winter Carnival.
I began my pitch on why it would be good for his business to give the Winter Carnival something for free. Hilariously, he held up both hands and dropped his head in a position of absolute capitulation.
“Madam,” he sighed in resignation, “anything you want. Take anything you want, seriously, if you tell me it is important, I believe you!”
His words, “Anything you want,” actually became one of my life and business mantras as I realized the way to get ahead in business was not to quibble with clients over small details, but to willingly give all that is asked and more in every situation where it is possible for me to do so. I still live and work according to this principle.
One winter day I popped into his store to drop off a newsletter. I was wearing  a black leather skirt that I had purchased in a fit of professional optimism the summer before; I thought it made me look like a sharp, tough journalist. I eyed the “fifty t’ousand dollars” worth of leather hanging high up on the wall and spotted a beautiful black leather jacket.
“Just for fun, can I try that on?” I asked. The price tag said $269. I did not have $269 and had no hope of having $269 to spend on a jacket any time soon. It was just for fun.
The shoemaker reached the jacket down for me, and I slid it on and turned to look in the mirror. We both gasped in amazement at the sight of me – NO ONE in any business or media situation could ignore a women in that skirt and that jacket. It would be impossible. Putting on the jacket transformed me instantly from a rushed and harried single mom into a commanding social presence.
“Wow!” the shoemaker exclaimed excitedly. “Now, you have a t’ousand dollar suit!”
“I wish,” I sighed, shaking the jacket off. “Maybe one day soon when I get a cheque, I could come back and buy it. It is gorgeous.” Reluctantly, I held it out to him.
“Madam, please,” he laughed, pushing the jacket back toward me. “This is your jacket. Clearly it was meant for you. What would I do with it? Take it, and pay me someday when you can.”
“No, no, no, I couldn’t do that!” I insisted, blushing. What had started out “just for fun” was now turning into a sticky situation. I was embarrassed.
“Madam,” he insisted sternly, “take the jacket, and go make some cheques so you can pay me.”
“Well, when you put it that way,” I laughed, pulling the jacket back on. “OK. Deal!”
I’m happy to report, I wore that jacket to pieces. My “t’ousand dollar suit” was my go-to uniform for years’ worth of business and media events. I did a lot of challenging, nerve-wracking new things during those years, and that suit gave me instant confidence in every situation. It was like a soft, warm suit of armour I wore into business battle. I did immediately go “make some cheques” and paid for the jacket in only a few weeks.
Ali Metmhal-Ali, the shoemaker, will live in my heart and my mind forever as the kind of humble, generous, hard-working business owner I would strive to become.
After 9-11, I was having a heartfelt conversation with my brother Pete about Islam, Radical Islam, Islamophobia…
“I don’t understand it, at all,” I mused out loud. “In my real life, every single Muslim person I know is incredibly hard working, kind and generous, some of the best people I work with. Then I pick up a newspaper, and every Muslim in the news is a crazed violent killer. It’s as though there MUST be two completely different kinds of Islam – the religious kind of the people I know, and the political kind in the news. It’s like the people stealing the idea of Islam are political wolves in religious sheep’s clothing.”
“The guy who told you to take the black leather jacket years ago – he was Muslim!” Pete recalled suddenly.
“Yes, he was. He was the first Muslim I ever met, that I recall. So I spent all these years thinking, that’s what Muslims are. How can the man who trusted me to pay for the jacket and the terrorists flying planes into buildings be the same religion? How can people flying planes into buildings represent ANY religion, at all?”
I still don’t have the answers to these questions, but I am interested to see media making the distinction between “political Islam” with its goals of governance and territorial imperative, and “religious Islam” as a spiritual discipline. It will be up to someone above my pay grade to clarify things; for myself, I cling always to my memories of Ali Metmhal-Ali and the life example he set for me. I like THAT Islam; the world could use more of it, actually.
–Rita Smith

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