“How’s the spirit of youth today?” Jake tipped his cap to Delia like she was a lady. She blushed with embarrassement and pleasure. “Here I am selling the paper to Miss Brenner and she’s in it.” He handed her the daily with more than his usual flourish. “The famous authoress.”
“My mama uses my words to light the fire.” Delia sighed.
“Keep it.” He pushed her penny back at her. “You’re good for business. Ben bought fifteen copies yesterday. Cleaned me out. Must have wanted them for his friends.”
“Ben? He doesn’t even speak to me.” She held out the coin again. “You sure?”
“Keep writing letters and I’ll be rolling in it like Vanderbuilt. Getcher Forward! Forward here.” He went on to his next customer.
Delia dropped the penny in her envelope. It gave the envelope a little weight. At least it was a start.
“For Lucy.” Delia held the envelope out. If a girl were out sick for more than a week, someone would start a collection for her, to help until she got back on her feet. No one had done this for Lucy yet. Not until now.
Theresa kept her eyes on her machine and wouldn’t touch the envelop. “Her brother, Carlo, that anarchist, will have us all in trouble with the police.”
“I’m not afraid,” Delia said. “I’ll take it to her myself. I’ll put the money in Lucy’s hands. It will be all right. Tell Estelle.”
Theresa bit her lip and thought a second. “Si.” Glancing around to make sure the foreman wasn’t looking, she took the envelope from Delia.
It passed among the Italian girls and when it got back to Delia it was heavy with coins. She’d get Jake to help her change them for bills. Five, six, seven. Seven dollars and fifty cents. Someone, maybe one of the Marias, had taken off the little gold cross she wore around her neck and dropped it in too. Lucy would like that.
The other side of the room would be harder to convince.
“Why?” Rachel’s friend Berthe asked. “They’ve given enough and she’s not one of ours. The Italians pass envelopes around for the Italians and the Jews for the Jews. Besides she’s been gone a long time.”
“We have families of our own to take care of.” Naomi added. “With money so tight, why should we care for Lucy?”
“Because...” Delia waited for an answer to come to her tongue. “Because she wasn’t afraid.” It was so plain she wondered why she had to say it. “She wasn’t afraid. And you know it.”
If Lucy were still working with them things would be different. They’d never be charged for using the cloak hooks, because Lucy could take off her jacket--her fitted red one with braid at the waist--and hang it up in a way that would make Mr. Meir himself pay a penny just to see her put it back on and take it off again. And if they were fined for turning off the lights, Lucy would just laugh and say, “Afraid you won’t see me if I’m sitting in the dark?” And Mr. Meir would feel like the biggest fool in New York City because everyone knew that he only came into their workroom so he could stand wherever Lucy was sitting. And Pete would come three times a week to sell his bottles of soda pop, even if it meant losing money on the street.
“She wasn’t afraid,” Delia repeated. “And I don’t want to be either.”
“Here.” Lilly thrust a quarter at her. “Because she is your friend, “ she said loudly and looked at the other Jewish girls, challenging them to do likewise.
When the envelope came back the second time, Delia counted five more dollars. Twelve-fifty total. With that much it really didn’t matter if Lucy never got her back pay. Not much anyway. Delia started sewing. She hadn’t been given any extra work this morning. That only made her suspicious. The boss hadn’t forgotten. She was sure of that. He was just springing another trap. The wheel of her machine rattled round and round. Twelve-fifty, twelve-fifty, it seemed to say. Then a moment later, eighteen. Eighteen, faster and faster as if an invisible hand had oiled the gears. Eighteen, eighteen. The boss owed Lucy about five-fifty. Delia totaled all the money up in her mind. Eighteen. Imagine being able to bring eighteen dollars all at once. Delia stopped sewing. If she had already gotten into trouble with the boss for nothing, she might as well jump in for real...
She got up quietly, as if she were sneaking out to the washroom. Alone in the corridor, she stood still for a moment. She could hear the machines, feel them too, as the floorboards trembled under her feet, and beneath the rumble, the murmur of girls, constant as the dust that whirled around them. She listened without moving. The building was a hive of work. Everyone was bent over a machine or busy with a needle. Everyone except her.
Delia turned and started to climb the stairs.
She knew Mr. Meir had an office on the second floor, though she had never been there. It wasn’t hard to find and she was surprised to see that it wasn’t very big. The door hung open on a broken hinge. Peering inside, she saw a table covered with account books. She was wondering if she should knock when she realized Mr. Meir wasn’t alone. Another girl was already there. Probably a second floor girl. Delia didn’t know her.
Mr. Meir leaned back in his chair. The girl stood next to him, her hands clasped. She took a step backwards shaking her head.
Delia cleared her throat. They both looked up and saw her.
“Oh.” The girl shot out the door, right past her, like a mouse with a cat on its tail. She was small and delicate looking, with chestnut hair and pink cheeks. “Oh,” she gasped softly.
“Well, well.” Mr. Meir put his feet up on the table. “If it isn’t Dora...Dolly...”
“Delia. Delia Brenner,” she said. He knew her name.
“Ah, yes. Miss Delia Brenner. The spirit of youth.”
Delia looked around. There was no place for her to sit.
“And what have you come for? To discuss the conditions of the working classes? “ He smiled in a way that showed all his teeth. “What was it you said you liked so much? Music? Yes. I should hire a piano player to entertain the girls in my shop.”
Eighteen dollars. She held her tongue. Let him have his fun. She’d get it. She had to.
“And what else?” he went on. “Trees? Oh yes. We need trees. Wages you get. Lights you get. Improvement of all kinds I provide. Now you say you want trees. So tell me about the spirit of youth, about--”
“It’s not about the spirit of anything. It’s about money.”
“So?” At the mention of money his smile disappeared.
“Lucy Giacomo’s been out sick. Her brother came to get her pay.”
“I gave it to him.”
“No you didn’t. He punched you in the face.”
“So he did.” Mr. Meir rubbed his nose. “Thank-you for reminding me. Well then, I didn’t. What of it? Why should I hand my money over to a criminal?”
“It’s not her fault.”
“What difference does it make? He’s her family isn’t he? ”
“You owe her.”
“Are you telling me how to balance my books, now? This is my shop, Miss Brenner. I am here late at night still working when you are not. And if you don’t get the spirit of work right now you will find yourself locked out for good.” He sliced the air with the flat of his hand. “For good.” His words came at her like a streetcar, clanging and banging away everything in its path. “Rouse mit. Get out.”
She opened her mouth and shut it again. She didn’t know what to say.
“Out with you. Unless you prefer to be on the street.”
Angry and ashamed, she left, giving the door a good slam behind her. The glass pane cracked. Now he had another reason to make her life worse.
Delia saw the frightened-mouse girl standing halfway up the stairs.
“Hsst!” The girl motioned Delia closer. “Did he?”
“Did he what?”
“Give you what you came for.”
“No. Of course not.”
“Then you didn’t?”
“You know.” The girl looked down at her foot and drew little patterns on the step with her toe. “Kiss him.”
“Kiss him!” Delia shouted so loud she thought all the girls would come running out into the hall. “Kiss--”
“Oh you big baby. Don’t you know nothin’?” The girl burst into tears.
Delia left her standing there weeping. So she knew nothing, did she? So she was a baby?
She went back to the workroom. Everyone fell silent. She had been gone a long time but no one asked her where she’d been. As she sat down, her foot slid automatically for the treadle. She pulled it back and clenched her fists in her lap. She sat there for a long time not working, Then, with a sharp scrape, she pushed herself and the crate she sat upon out into the middle of the aisle. If Mr. Meir walked in he would see her sitting out there not doing a thing. Let him. Let him sack her in front of everybody. There are children playing in Central Park this very minute. What was holding her back? She knew the door wasn’t locked today. She could run right out and not stop until she got to the park. The birds, the grass, the trees. Only she couldn’t. She couldn’t work and she couldn’t leave. She could only sit there in the middle of the aisle.
Every one of the girls found a reason to glance her way and everyone kept right on working.
Maybe she was only making a big fool of herself. Yesterday, they had all been looking to her for advice. Yesterday she had been a person. Today they would all be whispering behind her back. Talking about her the way they used to talk about Pickles. A girl who couldn’t do anything without making trouble. Someone crazy, born with a demon up her nose. For a minute she thought she was about to cry. She hadn’t felt so alone since the first day of work. And she was sure she would have died that day if it hadn’t been for Lucy. Lucy bought her a bottle of pop. Lucy finished her work. Lucy didn’t have to do those things. There was never any reason for it. She just did.
Delia heard a scrape. Much to her surprise, Estelle had pushed her chair back. She sat there, dignified and solemn, her hands folded resolutely in her lap as if she had all the time in the world, all the leisure, Delia thought, to sit there doing nothing.
Another scrape. Rachel pushed her chair back, looking around and saying “Nu?” Lilly pushed hers back so fast she nearly toppled over. Bertha, Miriam, Hannah, Esther, Shosanna and Naomi followed. Then Rosita, the four Marias, Emilia, and Annabella.
Soon they were all sitting in the middle of the aisles. Every machine had stopped.
They weren’t sure what to do next. They expected Mr. Meir, Gregor, and his Ukrainian sidekick to burst in any moment. Nobody came so they stood up.
It all seemed to happen at once. Delia couldn’t say she was the first to her feet. Maybe she was. But she didn’t remember it that way. It was as if a secret signal had passed among them, a single current. Like when you think of a song and instantly everyone is singing it. You can’t say who started. Everybody did.
“Walkout! Walkout!” They knocked over crates and piles of cloth, kicked away oil cans as they pushed and shoved through the door. “Walkout!” Someone ran up to tell the second floor girls. “Walkout!” The stairwell echoed with voices and feet. “Walkout!”
Outside, they clustered on the steps and the pavement in front of the shop. “Walk out!” Some of the girls waved and called to people on the street. A few young men waved back. Most people just ignored them. It was only another walk out.
“Together,” Delia pulled back two girls who were already headed towards the delicatessen. “We’ve got to stay together.”
“Well, well.” Mr. Meir stood in the doorway, his arms folded.
Gregor’s sidekick appeared in the doorway too, but Gregor wasn’t with him.
“Go find him.” Mr. Meir pointed to the tavern across the street. The man jogged off and disappeared behind the tavern door.
“That’s the end of him.” A couple of the older girls snickered. “Won’t see him no more.”
“Girls,” Mr. Meir began, as if completely amazed. “What’s this all about?”
“Lucy--” But Delia’s voice was lost in the general clamor. They all started talking at once. The lights, the coat-hooks, the dirty tap water, broken machines, broken windows, long days with short breaks, long days with no breaks.
“You make us pay. We pay and pay.”
“You pay? You?” Mr. Meir shouted back at them. “I pay. Me. I pay for the cloth you sew, for the building you sit in. For the water from my tap you drink.”
“Well, well.” Bessie and a bunch of women from the third floor pushed Mr. Meir aside.
“Well, well.” They stepped out, stretching their arms and brushing off their skirts.
“Well, well, Heshel, what’s all this about?” Heshel! Bessie had called Mr. Meir ‘Heshel’ in front of everyone.
“Ladies.” He tried to block their way. “This is nothing to do with you. These girls just want trouble.”
“Trouble?” Bessie adjusted her hat. “I don’t want trouble. I just want a breath of air. Those new lights give me a headache. Right Lotte?”
“Maybe I’ll go home to check on my baby,” Lotte replied.
“You mean your husband.” Laughter.
“No. She means her bubeleh, her lover.” More laughter.
“Hush.” Another woman pointed to the girls. “Can’t you see there are babies here?”
“Babies!” Everyone hooted with laughter, even the little girls who barely knew what was going on.
“Heshel, I hear they’re hiring over at Weisman’s. Isn’t that so Lotte?”
“Yes. And Clark’s got a new pattern. A secret method for extra fit on the waist.”
“It’s selling like roasted nuts rolled in sugar. The big department stores can’t get enough.”
Everyone started in again. The hooks, lights, water, windows. We pay and pay.
“All right. The hooks. You can hang your hats for free.” Mr. Meir came down onto the pavement, took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves. He sweated and argued with the grown women like an ordinary salesman trying to convince a stubborn housewife. “But the lights? Electricity. Everyone charges for electricity. I’ll be busted if you make me swallow the electricity.”
“Then only every other week. And only two cents.”
“Three cents charge for electricity every other week?” The girls and women whispered among themselves.
“And a half-day on Sunday,” someone piped up. “The day of rest.”
“Sunday is your sabbath not ours.”
“This is America.”
“If you get Sunday then we get Saturday.”
“And what about my competition?” Mr. Meir begged. “You think they get a day of rest at Leo Weisman’s? At Clarks? You go and ask them.”
A hush fell on the group. Heads tilted back and forth, weighing this against that. No charge for the hooks, three cents for the electricity. They could rent the shop’s sewing machines for only ten cents a week instead of fifteen. “An unheard of concession,” Mr. Meir reminded them. And they could have the occasional Sunday off. "But only when work is slack." Nothing doing about the dirty water or broken windows, though. Hands moved up and down. This against that. A day off every now and then might be good, though it meant less pay.
“Ladies! Please! Make up your minds.”
“Lucy!” Delia shouted. Everyone had forgotten about Lucy. “What about Lucy?”
“Who?” Bessie asked.
“A girl who’s out sick and didn’t get her pay.”
“Hear what she said Heshel?”
Mr. Meir was putting on his jacket. He stopped and glanced over at Delia. “That so? Well come up to my office and we’ll straighten it out.”
“No.” Delia wouldn’t budge. “I’m no baby.”
“Hear that Heshel?” The women thumped him on the back and poked him with their elbows. They roared with laughter. “She’s no baby. Not that one.”
He scowled, his face turning deep red. “All right then. I’ll get my book.”
“Will he really?” Delia asked Bessie as he went inside.
“Don’t worry.” Bessie ruffled Delia’s curls the way she used to when the three of them--Bessie, Delia and her mama--walked to work together. “He can’t sack anyone now. His competition is at his neck. Those girls over at Clark’s are working day and night like their machines are on fire. If we don’t keep up Meir’s will be busted for good. Such a walk out this is.” Bessie couldn’t stop chuckling. “You tell your mama.”
“Mama doesn’t think--”
“Your mama used to scold Heshel Meir till his ears turned red. I can just hear her. Whenever we had a walk out she was always the first to her feet. ‘Stand up” she would tell us. ‘Don’t let the boss beat you to your knees.’ Such a walk out you girls made for us, Little Twig,” Bessie repeated with admiration. “Your mama will be sorry she missed it.”
“All right ladies.” Mr. Meir came out with his account book and an envelope.
“Now who was it?”
Bessie gave Delia a nudge. She stepped forward and he handed her the envelope. She looked inside and counted. Five bills. No coins. He held the book out so she could sign for Lucy’s pay. She hesitated, then took the pen. No use arguing anymore. She’d have to make up the remaining fifty cents herself. She signed her name, carefully shaping all the big round letters. She liked the way it looked. It reminded her of how she had signed her letter to the Forward. He stooped down next to her to check her signature.
Suddenly his voice was in her ear, so close she felt the wetness of his breath. “You know, little lady, if you don’t give the money to your friend, if you just take it and buy yourself something nice. A new dress, maybe.” He touched her arm. “Well, it’ll be our secret, won’t it?” His fingers brushed her temple, right above her ear, just like Henry Mendelsohn’s had. But he wasn’t Henry Mendelsohn.
“No.” She jumped away.
The women smiled at him mockingly. He shrugged as if he hadn’t done anything unusual. “Well then ladies. Back to work.”
The girls looked at Delia. Was that all there was to it? A few of them gazed wistfully at the pastry shop. The others began to move docilely towards the stairs.
“Wait!” Bessie pushed her way to the front. “Wait.” She put one foot on the bottom step and stopped, her head bent forward as if she were fighting a great wind, her arms spread wide, holding the others back. She stood there absolutely still. Then slowly, slowly she raised her other foot and rested it on the next step. Slowly, slowly. A knowing murmur passed among the girls. Slowly, slowly, very slowly. They brought one foot up and let it hang in the air before taking a step. Slowly, slowly. Step. Their feet landed on the flagstones like a shower of hail. Slowly, slowly. Step.
Mr. Meir stood at the door, shaking his head. “Take your time. I can keep the place open till midnight if I have to.” They paid no attention. He went back in.
Slowly, slowly. Now their feet came down like one, strong enough to make heads on the street turn their way. Slowly, slowly. No one needed to count out beats or call out when. They knew. The ground was their anvil. Stomp!
As they passed through the door, the wooden floor shuddered. Slowly, slowly. Stomp!
Mr. Meir popped out of his office. “Stop!”
“You’re all sacked!”
They paid him no heed. The women with Bessie, women who had been raised in Russia, Poland, Sicily, and the mountains of Tuscany, brought their knees up high and their feet down hard. Arm in arm they mounted the staircase. Stomp!
“That gate will be locked tomorrow!”
On the first floor, the girls stayed out in the hall, marching in place, keeping time with those who climbed upward. Stomp! The staircase swayed. The windows rattled.
“For good!” He ran back into his office.
Every knee came up. Every foot came down. Stomp! The building shook from bottom to top. They kept it up until the last of the third floor operators gone into the upstairs room. Then a wild cheering broke loose. And Delia was certain her voice was the loudest of all, because she knew, she just knew, that deep in his office, behind his busted door and pile of account books, Mr. Meir’s ears were turning bright red.
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.
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