"Hold out your arm," Delia’s mother commanded. Obediently, Delia stretched her arm out long. She watched as her mother threaded two silver sewing needles through the sleeve of her flannel dress, right above her elbow.
"Now you have an extra one if the first one breaks.” Her mother gave her a long look that meant 'needles cost so be careful.' Delia nodded as if she had heard the words. The needles sparkled in the flicker of the gas jet. She admired them for a few moments, twisting her arm this way and that.
Her mother wore needles in her sleeve too. Sometimes only one or two, other times six or even eight if she was going to be working late. Delia had seen needles shining on her mother's arm like the badge a soldier might wear. Her mother rarely broke one, though. She was the best operator in the shop. All the ladies said so.
"You have your scissors?" Her mother turned down the flame on the lamp. Delia nodded again and they finished gathering up their things in the shadowy half-light of dawn.
Yesterday they'd paid Mr. Yakowsky, the hardware peddler, a nickel to sharpen her shears. She had watched sparks dance while he ground the blades against his screeching stone wheel. "Now they'll cut through anything,” he had chuckled as he handed them back to her. "Wool, felt, cardboard, bricks, even chains."
"Nu? She just needs them for cotton shirtwaists," her mother had explained.
Afterwards, Delia had tied her red ribbon through the handles so she could find them first thing in the morning. She had worn the ribbon for Rosh Hoshanna--New Year’s. But today was special too.
Now she looped the ribbon around her belt and gave it an extra knot to make sure it was tight.
"Hurry, Delia." Her mother wrapped a sourdough roll with cheese for each of them in old newsprint. "If we don't get there by seven, we'll be locked out a half-day."
Delia crammed her roll into her coat pocket. It was bigger than her fist. She knew her mother had slipped in an extra slice of cheese.
Out on the street Delia kept close to her mother as the crowd jostled them along. Peddlers’ carts rumbled across their path constantly. You had to be quick not to get your toes nipped by a passing wheel. The carts were laden with just about everything she could name in English. “Ladies gloves, boys' caps, knit socks, bowler hats,” she chanted quietly, trying to make little rhymes, so she could remember the words better. “Tin pots, copper pans, scented soap and petticoats.” The teacher had told her that soon she would be able to speak as well as an American. “Ink wells, pen nibs, lead pencils.” What rhymed with pencils? The bookseller trundled by. She stared, transfixed with wonder and longing. His cart was piled high with every story you might ever want to read...
“Delia! Don’t stop.” Her mother tugged her arm.
Delia looked around and saw her mother's best friend Bessie toddling after them as fast as she could. "Wait, biteh, please." Bessie caught up, huffing and panting.
Bessie was a big lady but she always wore the smallest boots. "You got fancy shoes in two colors.” Delia pointed at Bessie’s feet, which were squeezed into a pair of shiny new lace-ups, yellow on the top and brown on the bottom.
"The new style." Bessie mopped her face with her handkerchief. "Walk slower, Frieda, so my toes can stretch them out before we get there."
"It's Delia’s first day. We don't want to be late."
"First day is it, pitseleh, little one?" Bessie pulled a toffee from her pocket and pressed it into Delia's palm. "A sweet for you. Like they give the boys on their first day at chedar, so they'll like school."
"She's not going to school." Delia's mother sighed. "Jacob begged me to keep her in school. But how can I?”
Delia squeezed the toffee till she felt it ooze through the paper a little. She should save it for lunch, but since it was already broken... She let it melt on her tongue and licked the paper when the taste was almost gone.
"Who should blame you?" Bessie linked arms with Delia's mother. "You have to pay the rent.”
"It’s a crime that they should charge so much.”
Delia could hear mother’s voice quaver. "It's a crime," she repeated, nodding gravely like grown lady.
"You still got Deelie with you." Bessie gave her handkerchief to Delia's mother. It was grimy, but edged with lace. “That’s a blessing. Soon she’ll be a shayna maydele, a real young lady.”
"She’s all I have left." Delia’s mother cried softly into the handkerchief and started walking faster.
First, the fever had taken the baby, Moshe, then her older sister Clara. Delia had been sick herself when her father died, too sick to even see him. And for nearly a month after that she had still been too weak to go back to school. She had just stayed alone all day trying to read her two English books over and over while she waited for her mother to come home. Now she was strong again. But McNally's World Geography and Our National History had been left at home with their spines cracked beneath her bed.
"Delia will do fine." Bessie ruffled Delia's curls. “My Sophie's been working almost six years now. A sleeve-maker over at Weisberg’s. A real American girl now. Fourteen and already a fella’s taking her out to Coney Island every week."
"I've heard about those fellas on Coney Island." Delia's mother smoothed her hair back down. "Maybe that's why I wanted to keep her in school."
"Forward! Forward! Getcha Daily Forward here!" A boy hollered out. "Forward!"
"Jake?" Delia let go of her mother's sleeve and approached the boy shyly. Jake’s family lived on their block. Last year he had followed behind every time she and Clara walked to school, teasing Clara all the way. Delia hadn't seen him much, however, since he had started selling papers full time.
"Deelie?" He glanced in her direction. "Forward! Forward here! Thought you were goin' to school."
"I'm working now." Her father had always brought a copy of the Forward home.
"Yeah? Thought you were smart."
Delia watched the way he flipped a paper out of his sack, folded it in half and pocketed his money all in one move. "Guess smart people can work too." She dug into her pocket and fished out two pennies. Her mother had given her the money so she could buy herself a nosh, a snack on break. "Gimme a copy."
"Delia!" Her mother called impatiently.
She trotted to catch up, gripping the Forward tight in her hand.
"Look at her, Bess, just like her father, buying something to read before she buys something to eat. " Mama shook her head at Delia. "Where are you going to put a newspaper? You can't hang it on a hook like your coat."
"I'll sit on it," Delia replied. "And read it during break."
When they reached the factory there was such a crush of women and girls on the front steps, Delia was almost wrenched from her mother's side.
"Gates closing. Com'on girls." A tall man shouted. "What do you think this is, Der Leydikgeyer? The slowpoke express?”
"Rachel! Anna! Rosa! Irene!" A chorus of voices called out the names of those still coming. "Run! Run!"
"You go in the first floor." Delia's mother gave her a little push. "Go on. I already put your name in the book. The other girls will show you what to do. I'll be standing right there," she pointed to the pavement at the corner of the outside stairs, when you get out at six."
Delia nodded. A quick kiss, then her mother was lost the pack of operators tramping up the stairs to the third floor.
"Far from your homeland, where will you be, little twig torn from your mother's tree..." A sweet, high voice echoed over the din in the hall. Delia couldn't see the singer, but she knew the song. It was one of her mama’s Russian songs. She tried to remember the last time she had heard her mother sing it.
Suddenly three or four bolder voices drowned out the first. "The streets are paved with gold they say, but no, not here on East Broadway." She knew that song too and joined in softly. "Cause wherever I look down, there's nothing but cobblestones on the ground."
The Italian ice-man always played it over and over on his hurdy-gurdy. As soon as they heard him, she and Clara would beg their mother for a penny for a lemon or cherry ice. Clara loved lemon ice. All the time she was sick she would cry for just a mouthful of lemon ice...
"Move your stumps." Somebody gave Delia a shove, sending her stumbling through the doorway. “Get outta the way.”
Delia blinked, trying to get her bearings. Outside the sun was up, but here everything was still in twilight and the gas lamps only made the shadows seem deeper. She could just make out rows and rows of sewing machines, jammed one against the other, down the length of an enormous dark room. Girls squeezed by her to get to the coat hooks in the back. Barrels, bins, crates and tin cans crusted over with black oil filled the aisles. She squinted trying see where she should step.
A bell clamored. Once, twice, three long echoing rings. The noise seized her like a bully on the street. She began to tremble. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Pisher, pisher." A tall, skinny girl bobbed back and forth in front of Delia. Her thick red braids jounced with every hop. "Cry baby. Cry baby. New girl’s a cry baby."
Delia caught a whiff of pickles and sauerkraut.
"Fershtinkiner!" A stocky girl in a middy blouse reached out and yanked one of the red pigtails. "Pickles the fershtinkiner. You stink like you sleep in a sauerkraut barrel.”
"Says who?" Pickles whirled, her elbows cocked.
“Me, Lilly!” The middy-blouse girl stuck out her tongue. Pickles swung. The next instant they were on top of each other, rolling across the floor. Delia gawked, unable to budge.
"Veni. Come." Someone took her hand and led her away. She swallowed back her tears and wiped her nose on her sleeve.
"You're a new learner, right?"
Delia nodded, still clutching her newspaper and not looking up. She knew the younger girls were all called 'learners.' After a few months she might become a 'helper.' Helpers were promoted to 'sewers', if they were good enough. And after a while the sewers could go upstairs to work with the grown-up ladies. But that might take years. Already, she was hungry. When would lunch come?
"Go hang up your coat. Ain't nobody gonna bite you here, though lots of girls fight. It don’t mean nothing. Most of the time."
Delia raised her eyes timidly and looked at her protector. A young lady. No, not a real young lady, just another girl not much older than Clara. But this girl looked like the lady on a box of Ivory Soap, with a big pouf of soft black hair piled atop her head, and eyes so big and dark you couldn’t see the whites. Delia could have gazed at her all day.
"Lucy!" Someone called. The girl turned.
"You better get yourself over here and sit down before the boss comes round."
The bell blared again. Every girl who wasn’t already sitting at a sewing machine found a place quick. Delia dashed to the last unclaimed machine. There was no chair so she seized a wooden crate to sit on.
"Hey, get yourself another crate." A girl pushed her away. "That one's mine."
She was stuck wandering up and down the rows looking for something to sit one. Every wooden box seemed occupied by a busy girl. Finally she found an old one that wasn't split too bad. She hauled it over to the machine, put her newspaper on it and sat down. She'd already lost a lot of time. Two men with loads of cloth on their shoulders passed among the girls laying a heavy bundle by each machine.
"Here's your stint,” one of them grunted as he dumped a stack of blue serge at her feet. If he noticed she was new, he didn't show it. Delia peeked at the girl next to her. She watched a minute then picked up two lengths of cloth and began to sew a seam. The machine's wheel hardly moved. She pumped and pumped the treadle with her foot. Slowly, the needle trekked along. Plunk-clack-plunk-clack.
At last one seam was done. She picked up another length of cloth. When she glanced up she could see the girls talking. Their lips moved but she couldn’t hear a word. Clatter-clack, clatter-clack. Her head rang with the scolding tongues of the other machines. They clatter-clacked ten times faster than hers. She speeded up, got stuck, tried again. She felt like she was in a dream, running to catch a trolley car and always falling off the back.
"There's a new play up at the Palladium.”
She heard it as she picked up her fifth piece of cloth.
“The Orphan Girl.”
It was like growing two sets of ears. One to hear the machines and the other to hear the girls.
“My aunt went to see it,” someone replied. “She says it's so sad.”
“I saw it too. There's this poor girl and she's adopted by a rich man--"
"What's so sad about that?"
"It's sad at first. You cry and cry."
"Nobody's crying over me, and no rich man comin’ to get me either."
Delia had never been to the Palladium. She strained to catch every word they said.
"Well I'm going."
"Where you getting money for a show?"
"Sunday matinee's only a nickel to stand up on the balcony."
"Matinee?? Young ladies, did I hear matinee?"
Silence. Delia peeked around and saw the tall man who had been closing the gate, standing at the back of the room.
“Matinee?” He looked straight at her and she whipped back to her machine. He must have ears like a wolf, she thought. He can hear every word. Suddenly the image of him with pointed, hairy ears and a bushy tail dangling from the back pleat of his coat made her laugh. Not loud. Just a little hiccup-snuffle.
“Zol zein shah!” the girl next to her hissed “Shut your mouth. You want to get us all sacked?”
He strolled up and down the rows, pausing to bend over a girl a here and there. "What does the sign say?" He pointed to a piece of paper tacked on the front wall. The words were in English.
“Can’t anyone read?”
In school she had loved being the first with every answer. Without thinking she opened her mouth, “If you don’t--”
“Yes?” He was behind her in an instant.
She felt a swift kick to her ankle.
“You can read, young lady?”
Delia stayed still as a mouse in a hole.
“And what is your name, miss?”
“Delia,” she whispered.
“You can read, Delia?”
Another kick. No one made a sound. “No.” She shifted on her crate, hoping he couldn’t see the copy of the Forward beneath her. “I mean, no sir, I...I can’t read.”
“Then will someone tell Miss Delia here what the sign says so I don’t have to stay here all day.”
"If you don't come in on Sunday, don't come in on Monday,” a chorus of sullen voices murmured. Even the ones who couldn’t read knew what it said. They had learned it long ago.
"And who’s going to the Palladium on Sunday?" He strode out without waiting for his answer.
Pandemonium broke loose. "Who's on look-out?"
"How'd he sneak up on us again?"
"It's Pickles. Told you she was good for nothing."
"It's not my fault I couldn’t hear him." Pickles bawled. She hopped up and down, yanking her braids with her own hands. "He's wearing rubber heels on his shoes."
"Well since you're always poking around, you could poke your head out the door once in a while and see who’s coming. It’s not locked today."
"Some of the men’s shops don’t got locked doors. And they get Sundays off, too. My brother has a whole day to do whatever he pleases."
Delia stood up to get a look at the speaker.
"Don't you listen to that Lucy." The girl next to her grabbed Delia's skirt and yanked her back down. "Thinks she's knows it all cause her brother's an...an anarchist." She spoke loud enough for everyone to hear.
"Not an anarchist," Lucy replied. "More like...like a socialist. It's different, I think."
"Anarchist." "Socialist." Delia's father had used those words. He never went inside the synagogue, but he'd be standing out front arguing with his friends when Delia came to get him for supper. "Capitalist." "Communist." Men's words. A woman might say them, but they didn't really belong to her. Just like a woman could sew a pair of men's trousers but she'd never put them on.
The break-time bell rang out. Lunch! Delia sprang up. Her mouth watered when she remembered the extra slice of cheese.
"Hey you!" One of the men who had been giving out the bundles of cloth clapped his hand on her shoulder. "You gotta finish your morning stint first."
"But it's break.”
He folded his arms and rocked back on his heels. "Yeah? Well I guess you can go get your lunch and go home, little girl. A hundred girls out there right now ready to come in and take your place."
Delia crept back to her machine. Her face burned. What would her mother say if she didn't see Delia coming down the stairs at six? She started another seam. Her needle snapped. Carefully she removed the second one from her sleeve and threaded it into the machine. She could hardly see. She snatched her thumb away and sucked hard where the blood welled up from another prick. Wearily, she pushed the cloth through. Plunk-clack. One seam done, then another and another. Plunk-clack. The pile wasn't gone, but it looked a bit smaller.
She ran to her coat. When she thrust her hand in her pocket she found nothing. No roll with cheese. Panic stricken, she scoured the floor. Nothing. The bell clanged again. Break was over. Her sandwich was gone and her coat stank of sauerkraut.
When she returned to her machine, the pile of cloth loomed higher than ever. The men had passed down the line giving each girl her afternoon stint. Cotton dust rose around them thick as steam, making girls cough until you could see little splotches of blood where they wiped their mouths on their sleeves.
Delia's fingers became so numb with cold she barely felt the pricks any more. The stove at the far end of the room kept sputtering out. When the look-out gave the all clear, someone got up to sneak an extra shovel of coal into the hatch.
“It ain't real coal, just stones."
“If we want decent coal, we gotta a buy it ourselves.”
“Nu? Why should we pay and pay?”
“Give me the poker and I’ll get it going.” That was Lucy.
Delia had gotten better at sorting the voices out. Some of the girls spoke only Yiddish, others just Italian. Some, like herself, could speak both Yiddish and English. A few of the Italian girls like Lucy knew English too. And a handful could talk a little of all three, plus a dab of Russian, Greek or maybe Latvian mixed in, a language Delia could only call New York City.
"Getcher Pop! Soda Pop here.”
A scattering of cheers greeted a boy who stood in the doorway. A wooden box filled with soda bottles hung from a strap around his neck. “Getcher pop.” Anyone could understand that.
Delia knew that street peddlers street peddlers earned money by going from floor to floor of the factories in the afternoon. That’s why her mother had given her two cents for a snack.
Even on a cold day, soda pop tasted good. Girls ran to buy a bottle and gulped it so fast it was empty by the time they sat back down again. Delia got up too. Then she saw the newspaper she had been sitting on--the paper that had cost her two cents. What was it good for? She would have given all the words in the world just for a sip of soda. She hadn’t had a bite to eat or a drop to drink all day. Her belly felt like empty iron pot, her throat was paved with cobble stones, her legs wobbled as hunger sucked all the strength from her limbs and the entire room turned topsy-turvy around her.
"Eh! Siete ammalati?” Lucy shook her. “You all right?"
Delia lay crumpled on the floor. "I--" Her throat was so dry she could hardly speak.
"Poor bambina. Hey Pete!" Lucy called to the boy just as he was packing up to leave "Give this girl a pop. She'll bring her money tomorrow."
"I don't give nothin’ for free."
"Not even for me?" Lucy straightened up and squared her shoulders back. Then she smiled. Delia was sure the young lady on the box of Ivory Soap would always look homely by comparison now.
Pete must have thought so too. He scowled and scuffed his feet. "Okay. But she don't pay up, you owe me Luce."
"Well ain't you lucky, big shot." Lucy laughed. "Go on," she nudged Delia. Delia staggered to her feet. Lucy looked at the pile of unfinished work. "You'll never get done like that."
It was nearly quarter past six. Most of the girls were gone, except for a few stragglers like Delia. Lucy sat at the machine beside her, running seam after seam beneath the churning needle. The blue serge became supple and swift as water. "See, you've got to hold the material tight between your fingers, like this," Lucy explained.
"You're a sewer?"
"Sewer, learner. Doesn't matter. We all work at the machines. The boss will try to keep you a learner as long as he can so he don't have to raise your pay.” Lucy could talk, turn her head to look at Delia and keep the machine going all at the same time. When Delia tried it, the fabric got all rucked up again.
"Keep a steady rhythm with the treadle. Like you're dancing. Like a ragtime two-step. Get the music going in your head."
Delia knew nothing about the ragtime two-step. "My mama's waiting for me. She'll know how bad I did today."
"You did all right." The pile was almost gone. "When I first came here I thought the machines would eat me alive I was so terrified. I had grown up in Sicily with my grandmother, my nonna. She was a lace maker. She would weave the most beautiful lace by hand, che bello merletto, while I looked after the goats and picked oranges from the trees. She wanted to teach me lace making too.”
Lace and Oranges? Sicily sound like a fairy story to Delia. “Why did you leave?” she asked.
Lucy stopped sewing. “I wanted to be free.”
How could you be free sitting at a sewing machine all day, Delia wondered, but she didn’t say anything.
"Anyway, I'm in no hurry to get home.” Lucy pumped away at the treadle again. "I live with my brother and his wife. They've got five kids. Two of them just babies. My sister-in-law makes paper flowers at home to sell to the hat makers. The older kids help. Eight of us living in three rooms with a million fake roses. All those flowers and not one of them alive. The whole place stinks of hot glue."
Delia nodded. She knew plenty of people who worked at home, sewing or making little things—flowers, pin-cushions, fancy boxes, or wooden toys. Her mama wouldn’t do that kind of work, though. She was an operator, she always reminded Delia. The best in the shop.
Finally, Delia’s stint was done. She and Lucy loaded their arms with the finished pieces to bring them the foreman's station. When Delia stood up, Lucy stared at the Forward on her crate. "You can read!"
Delia swallowed guiltily. Now Lucy knew she had lied to the boss.
Lucy understood and laughed. “Everyone lies to the boss. If he knew the truth of half of what we do when he’s not around we’d all be sacked.
“I like reading,” Delia said. “It’s easy.” Not like sewing, she meant. If she worked in the shop for a hundred years, she would never get it right.
"Is it easy as dancing?”
“I don’t know any dancing.”
“No?” Lucy looked surprised. She thought a moment. “Dancing is like flying. Once you start you never want to stop.”
“Then reading is like dancing and flying too.”
Delia's legs shook a little as she made her way down the steps. "Mama?" The woman in the dark coat standing next to the stairs looked up. In the lamplight Delia could see wisps of grizzled hair poking out from beneath this woman's kerchief. Her cheek was hollow where a tooth had been lost. Her back curved over in a slight stoop.
"Deelie!" The woman straightened up and smiled. Of course it was Mama. Who else would be standing out so long in the cold? "Already you're working late? You'll be a sewer by Hanukkah."
Her mother picked up the load of piecework she was going to finish at home and they started down the street.
The remaining girls came rushing down the steps behind them singing now that they were free, at least for the evening.
She turned and waved to Lucy.
"From now on, you bring something to read.”
Like many Americans I am the descendant of immigrants. I have always been fascinated by their stories. I hope you enjoy reading about Delia and her adventures growing up on the Lower East Side. If you want to learn more about the historical background, please take a look at the About and Resources sections. If you want to learn more about my other books for children and young adults visit my website.
TABLE OF CONTENTS