“Scusi, mi scusi.” Delia edged her way up the high front stoop. A group of children swung on the iron railing, laughing and dangling upside down by their knees. Old men smoking pipes ignored the kids and concentrated on a domino game. One of them squinted curiously at Delia but said nothing. Three or four listless young women nursed babies who didn’t even whimper in the sweltering summer heat.
Two of the smaller kids plucked at Delia’s skirt. “Per piarcere, signorina, per piacere.” Please, please, they begged. “Denaro? Caramello?” Money? Candy? She felt a little hand creep into her pocket.
“Go...go away...vada!” She shook them off so roughly one of them stumbled and began to wail. For an instant every eye was upon her. Sullenly, the boy sucked back his tears and returned to playing with his friends. Everybody went back to their business.
“Per favore?” The other kid wouldn’t give up.
“No.” Delia lifted her hands, fingers spread wide to show she had nothing for him. “Nien...nien...nothing.” She tried to remember the right word. “Niente.” Is that how Lucy said it?
She looked around. There was no number on the building. “The Giacomos? They live here? Yes? Si?” Nobody replied. She tried one of the women. “Giacomos?”
The woman shifted the infant in her arms. Her blouse fell open clear down to her waist. She had no corset on. Delia stared. The woman stared back, her eyes enormous and unblinking. “Si Giacomos,” she echoed tonelessly.
Delia flushed and turned away. The men playing dominoes wouldn’t move to let her pass so she stepped right over their game. One of them reached out and brushed his finger down the back of her calf—a long, deliberate stroke.
“We would never,” she muttered as she darted through front doorway. “Never!” She smoothed her skirt, pressing it protectively to her hips and thighs. “We don’t let our children beg. Or steal. We’d rather starve.” She glanced back at the women sitting on the front stoop. “And no Jewish woman would sit out there letting the entire street see her... her...skin.”
Suddenly she remembered Aunt Helga and the baby. The baby who had died because her aunt had no milk to nurse it. One day Helga had run right out into the street screaming, weeping, tearing open the front of her dress. “Why am I dry as a nut?” she had cried, grabbing at the younger women who walked by. “See? See? Dry as a stick.” Delia, coming home from work, had crossed over to the other corner, pretending not to notice.
She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands as if that might erase the shameful memory. Instead she saw herself sitting on the edge of the bed, slipping out of her skirt while Ben stood preening on the other side of the room. And there she was running down to the outhouse in the middle of the night with nothing but an old man’s shirt wrapped over her petticoat. Or the mornings when they were all getting dressed and her uncle Avram would came stumbling in.
“Well I can’t help it.” She kept checking her clothes, tucking her blouse, tugging at her stockings. There was no room at home. No place to be a decent person. “We know how to be decent people. We just--”
She drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders back. Like Lucy.
The stairwell reeked of frying garlic, eggs, tobacco, rotting fruit, and hot wax and glue from those who made artificial flowers at home. She caught of whiff of something sweet, the kind of cologne that came in a little blue bottle with a sprig of lilacs printed on the front. All the Italian girls wore it. Like Lucy...
The door to the third floor flat was propped half-way open. Inside, a man sat pounding his fist on the table, repeating something in Italian, steadily, wearily. A woman stood stirring a pot on the stove, a baby on her hip. She argued with the man, her voice shrill and rapid. The baby howled. A little boy, barely big enough to walk clung to her skirt, his thumb in his mouth. The man saw Delia standing in the doorway and stopped, his hand in mid-air.
“Lucia?” Delia stepped in, smiling tentatively. “I’ve come to see Lucia.”
He leaned back in the chair, resting his palms flat on the table. Delia studied his face. So this was Carlo. He was young himself, not much older than Lucy. And there was something of Lucy about him, in his shoulders, his eyes.
“You?” He appraised her suspiciously. “Her friend?”
“Putta!” The woman thrust herself between the two of them, as if ready to attack, baby and all. “Putta!” She spat. The name for girls who walked the street. Carlo rose and steered her away from Delia.
“You see Lucia." He patted Delia on the arm and pointed towards the hall behind him.
He smiled at her. Had someone told him about the money, Delia wondered. She grasped the crumpled envelope in her pocket. Was that why he was being kind?
The room she entered was small, narrow and dark, hardly more than a slot off the end of the hall. A sick room. She knew it by the smell. Fever had its own smell, a mixture of sweat, lukewarm soup and the yellow lye soap women used to scrub everything down. The stench here was so strong she drew in her breath and took a step back. In the shadows, she saw a young man or boy lying on the bed. Was someone else here was sick too? But where was Lucy? All Delia could make out was a cap of short black hair and a hand upon the coverlet.
The odor, the darkness, the pale face upon the bed--something in that room terrified her. She wanted to leave, to run right back out onto the street and not stop until she was safe in her own neighborhood. Oh you big baby, her own voice scolded inside her head. She had come to see Lucy. She took a step closer. This was Lucy.
“Lucy,” she whispered. The body--Lucy--didn’t move.
The room’s only window was covered by a black cloth, no doubt to keep out the evil eye. Maria must be like Helga, Delia thought, always closing windows, lighting candles or scattering salt on the doorstep to chase away the eyen-orae, the evil eye. But in Helga’s case it hadn’t worked. The baby had died.
She undid the curtain. Sick people needed light and air. A public health nurse had said so at the settlement house. Carefully, she pressed her hands against the window casement. The wood crumbled a little against her palms. There was no way to raise the window quietly. It grated and squeaked and she grunted a little as she gave it an extra shove. Dust few up making her wheeze.
Something stirred behind her, but she didn’t turn around. She didn’t have the courage to look. Not yet. Instead she stood there at the window studying the view intently. Laundry lines crisscrossed over the alley between Lucy’s building and the tenement next door. She could almost count every stain and ragged hole in the neighbor’s linens. In the window opposite she saw a woman scrubbing over a zinc tub while a little girl tried to feed baby off a too-big wooden spoon. Down below in the alley two boys fought, upending an ash can. These were the gentiles, the goyim, the strangers, she reminded herself. She kept waiting to see something different. Something she hadn’t seen before.
Along the windowsill, Lucy had arranged a small collection of treasures on a faded silk scarf: a curved seashell, an ebony comb, a pair of pearl buttons, the familiar blue perfume bottle with lilacs on the label, and a small glazed porcelain statue of a woman in a blue and white robe, her arms outstretched. Delia guessed the woman was religious thing, one of the idols the gentiles prayed to. One by one, she picked up the objects up and examined them, except for the woman, whom she felt she shouldn’t touch. She lifted the stopper from the bottle. It was empty, but she could smell a ghost of lilac perfume.
“Chi es lie?” Who are you?
She turned, the bottle stopper still in her hand. Lucy had pushed herself upright. Her arms looked pale and limp, like green shoots pulled up too soon, so thin they might snap in an instant. She studied Delia, puzzled.
“Lucy?” Delia shifted from foot to foot, shyly. She had come all this way just to see Lucy and now she didn’t know what to say.
“Who are you?” Lucy formed the words slowly.
Who was she? It had never occurred to Delia that Lucy might not recognize her. “Delia.” She pointed to herself. Lucy said nothing. “From the shop? Remember?”
Lucy clutched her hair. Her body swayed and then crumpled forward, her chemise sliding from her shoulder. She fumbled with the straps, but it was her shorn hair that seemed to shame her the most. “Get out.” Her fists gripped the stiff black wisps. “Go. Who told you? Who let you in?”
“Here.” Delia thrust the envelope towards her desperately. “It’s the money. We all got it for you. Your pay.” The envelope was upside down. Bills, coins, a big fifty-cent piece, and the little gold cross all cascaded out, scattering over the bed.
“I had to bring it to you because Carlo couldn’t come get it. He got into a fight and...and...I guess you know. But we walked out. You didn’t know that.” Delia started cramming the money back into the tattered envelope. When Lucy saw how thick and heavy it was, she’d understand.
Lucy picked up a dollar bill in two fingers, examined it and let it drop as if it were nothing. She lay back down, silent, staring up at the ceiling. Delia wondered what she should do. Get a cool, wet cloth? A fresh glass of water or a bottle of seltzer? A soda pop? Why didn’t she think of that before she came? She sat down on the footstool by the bed, arranged the bills in a neat pile and dropped the little cross on top. “Your hair will grow back,. You’ll see. “ She held out the money. “My mama cut mine too when I had a fever. When I was seven. That was before I started work. Remember my first day at work? You bought me a bottle of pop and helped me finish my stint.” It seemed that all she could do for Lucy, after all, was talk.
“Grazie.” Lucy took the money and thrust it beneath her pillow. “Grazie,” she repeated without turning her head.
“We had a walkout. A big one. We all went out on the street in the middle of the day. Even the third floor women.” Delia kept on chattering. Not to the Lucy on the bed, but to the other one, the she remembered, the one in the red jacket with braid at the waist whose foot danced on the treadle of her machine. The one who would have been the first to walk out. “So we made Mr. Meir go back in and get his account book and your pay,” she concluded.
“And did you?”
“Did I what?”
Then Lucy laughed. A new laugh, short and harsh like a man.
In the front room, Maria let loose a volley of curses. “Mal ochio!” The evil eye, again. Delia understood that much. Maria was calling the evil eye down on Carlo.
“She’ll have our ears ringing,” Lucy sighed. “Every time he goes to a meeting now, she screams. But it does her no good. Carlo does what he wants. Takes whatever he needs. Poor Maria.”
But Carlo was the one who let me see you, Delia wanted to say. Maria tried to send me away. She held her tongue. It was hard to understand what went on in someone else’s house. Who was good, who bad. She herself had stolen fifty cents from Ben’s secret horde for Lucy’s envelope. She was a thief. But she knew that even if Ben had caught her, she’d deny it. Deny it with her last breath. ‘Liar!’ She’d spit right back in his face.
Pots banged in the front room.
“What are they about, these meetings?” Delia asked.
“They....how should I know?” Lucy said. “I followed Carlo once, but he sent me home. They don’t allow women, he said. ‘Non signorine.’ But he’s lying. I know about Olivia. She goes. They say that she’s rich, from the north, from Napoli, a countess who ran away to be an anarchist. She doesn’t care what men say. She goes to their meetings. She talks to them like she’s one of them, an equal. Carlo says I’m crazy. It’s all a story. He swears he doesn’t know this Olivia at all.”
“We’re going to have a meeting ourselves,” Delia said. “ Just for girls.” Men, she thought, would only get in the way and try to take over. “All of us girls in the shop,” she explained. “The second floor girls and even the third floor women. Girls from some other shops may come too. Maybe we will have one big meeting for all the girls and women who work in the shirtwaist shops. ”
“Delia,” Lucy propped herself up on her elbow. Her chemise slipped from her shoulder again. She clutched at the strap, her knuckles blue and bony. “Don’t you want to burn all the shops down?”
“Is that what they talk about in those meetings? Burning things down?”
“No.” Lucy laughed her new harsh, laugh. “I think they just talk about books. Who said this, who wrote that.”
Like Jews, Delia thought. They talk books just like Jews.
“The last night, the night before...before I got sick, I went out dancing in the Golden Land Ballroom on down Houston Street. The room was so packed the floor started to sway and give way beneath our feet. So the musicians went out to the park and we went on till the sun came up. I must have danced with a hundred fellas. And I never thought of work, not for one minute. My grandmother, my nonna, used to tell me about a little girl who danced to spite the evil eye. So the evil eye made her dance until she died. Isn’t that wonderful? To dance until you die.”
“You’ll get well.” Delia didn’t like the way Lucy said ‘die’ as if death were soft and pretty like lilac perfume.
“Reach under the mattress.” Lucy told her. “There’s something I’ve hidden. I want you to take it, before Carlo gets it.”
Delia knelt by the bed and prodded between the mattress and rope trestle. She couldn’t find anything. “You sure?” The mattress was only a couple of layers of cotton batting. She could feel Lucy’s back and hip bones right through it. Delia’s hand closed over a small lump of cloth.
Delia drew out a bundle of rags.
She unfolded the first rag and found another slightly less dirty one beneath. After that another and another, each one a little cleaner, until at last she a held pure white linen bag closed by a blue silk drawstring. It contained a tightly wound roll of white thread thick as a bandaged finger.
Very gently, Delia unwound the roll, revealing three pieces of lace, one inside the other. As she lifted the largest piece up by her fingertips it unfurled into a magnificent collar, light as air and nearly twelve inches wide. Peering through it was like gazing into a new snowfall when the flakes are just thick enough to make you blink.
“From home,” Lucy explained. “From my grandmother, my nonna. It was supposed to be for my wedding. My nonna went blind. You know that lace-makers go blind?”
Delia nodded. She had heard that too much fine work could make a woman loose her sight and sometimes her mind.
“She wanted me to be a lace-maker too. I went to the priest and begged him to write to Carlo for me. I promised Carlo I’d pay him for the passage. I’d work at anything as long as I could keep my eyes.”
There were a pair of matching cuffs to go with the collar. Delia spread the collar and cuffs out on the bed. They both studied the lace, saying nothing. Against the gray coverlet the delicate threads became a network of climbing roses, trellises and turrets, like a castle hidden in an overgrown garden.
“You sell it.” Lucy rolled the lace back up with deft movements. “Give half the money to Maria. But ask Estelle to bring it. She knows Maria and won’t let Carlo get it. Give the rest to the union’s fund. If there’s a strike, people will need to eat.”
“We had a strike. I told you, we already walked out and we won. When you come back, you’ll see.”
“No.” Lucy pressed the bag into Delia’s hands.
Did she mean they hadn’t won or that she wouldn’t be back? Delia didn’t want to ask.
“Go on. Take it. Go.”
It was getting late. There was no candle or lamp and the room had become steadily darker. “My mama will be waiting,” Delai said softly, squeezing Lucy’s hand. Lucy seemed so small and thin, Delia felt incredibly big and strong by comparison and it frightened her.
“Ciao,” Lucy whispered. Ciao. That’s what the Italian girls called to each other as they left work, especially when the weather was fine and they knew they’d meet in the dancehalls and cafes few hours later.
“Shalom,” Delia replied, which meant both hello, goodbye and hello again.
She hoped she could slip back out through the front room without speaking.
Carlo still sat at the table, reading or pretending to read. Maria was dishing out soup for the children. Both stopped and watched Delia as she emerged from the hallway.
“So.” Carlo put his paper down. “You tell her friends she is well.”
“She’s not well. She needs a doctor. A doc-tor. Understand?”
Carlo seemed about to speak, but then he looked at Maria. She shook her head, her lips in a tight line. Something passed between them, though Delia couldn’t tell what it was.
She gripped the bag of bag of lace, thrust deep within her pocket. Should she tell him about the pay envelope, she wondered. No, she decided, Lucy wouldn’t want her to. “The settlement house can send a nurse,” she told him. “They sent one to my mama when she was sick.”
Again Carlo looked at Maria. Again she shook her head, almost desperately. “No doctor. No nurse,” Carlo said. “They cannot help Lucia now.”
“How do you know?” Delia’s voice rose. She glared at Maria. “I’ll go to the settlement house bring the nurse here myself.”
No, no, no. Maria shook her head relentlessly and clutched the ladle in her fist as if it were a weapon.
“You should go now.” Carlo’s voice was firm. The conversation was over as far as he was concerned
Delia didn’t budge. “The nurse will help.” How could she make them understand? “I’ll--
There was a movement behind her. “Sometimes you have to let people take care of their own, little girl,” someone said softly in English.
All three of them turned towards the doorway where a woman stood leaning against the frame as if she meant to stay a while. Though she wore a heavy tailor-made jacket, narrowly fitted and buttoned all the way up to her neck, she looked cool and easy, despite the stifling heat.
With great ceremony Maria put the soup ladle down. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, wiped her hands on her skirt and placed them on her hips. “Putta.” She spat and advanced two steps. “Putta.” Another step. The other woman just folded her arms and said nothing at all.
Delia found herself trapped between them. She looked to Carlo, but he only stared at the new-comer his jaw hanging slack with surprise.
There was no point in arguing about the nurse any more, Delia realized. They weren’t listening. The lady in the doorway stepped aside and let her pass. “Little girl,” she called after her.
Delia bristled at the ‘little girl’ but the something in woman’s voice made her stop. What kind of accent was it? Italian? Russian? German? French?
“Little girl. You are Lucia’s friend?”
They studied each other in the dim stair well. The woman wasn’t pretty or even young. Her cheeks were slightly pocked and her hair salted with gray strands. But Delia could see that she was definitely ‘a person’, someone used to being treated like somebody.
“It is not easy to help people, even when they need it most.” The woman gave Delia such a penetrating look Delia couldn’t tell if she was talking about Lucy or about the entire world. “Sometimes they must care for their own no matter what you say or do.”
“And if they can’t?” Delia stared back. “What then? Nu?”
“Nu?” The woman repeated the Yiddish word in her strange accent as if it were familiar to her. “Nu?’ She offered Delia no other answer.
People must care for their own. Delia had heard that all her life. Everyone seemed to agree upon it. Now she wasn’t so sure. But how could she dispute something the whole world held to be true? She turned away, silent, and went back down the stairs.
“It’s so lovely.” Rachel spread the lace out on her lap. “How can anyone sell such a thing?”
Delia sat beside Rachel on the front stoop of the Hersfeld’s home on Orchard Street. There was a tree beside them, small and spindly but bursting with tiny leaves. The steps had been swept. Everything here looked peaceful and clean “Priceless.” Rachel murmured, examining the lace. “Poor Lucy.”
“How much?” Delia asked anxiously. She knew nothing about fine needlework, but Rachel was an expert and when money was tight, they both knew even the priceless must be sold.
“I suppose you could get at least three dollars just for the collar. The cuffs, a dollar, maybe one-fifty each.”
Delia did the addition with her index finger, drawing invisible numbers on the stoop. Five, maybe six. She made up her mind she wouldn’t take less then a dollar-fifty for the cuffs.
“They make such beautiful things, the Italian girls.” Rachel rolled the lace back up. “I used to watch them on break working on their own embroidery. Always stitching and singing.”
“I could never understand it.” Delia said. “Who would sew for fun? I wouldn’t touch a needle if I could get work any other way.”
“It doesn’t have to be a chore. Remember the way Mimi smocked her wedding dress during lunch? Taking those tiny, tiny tucks. Quick as a bee. I wanted to ask her how she did it, to teach me. But I never did. Now, with all the trouble no one does anything but argue.”
“Maybe we need another strike. Not just for our shop. A big one. For all the girls.”
“And what good will that bring? Look what happened with the walkout. We went back in and what has changed?”
Rachel was right, Delia had to admit. For the past few weeks, she had been so pressed at work she hadn’t even had time to think of Lucy’s lace. The boss was on their necks to do more and do it faster. Every day there were new rumors: Another lockout was coming, another plot by the boss, workers were about to be sacked for no reason. They were just a powerless as ever.
“But I won't be there much longer,” Rachel lowered her eyes. “I’m getting married. “ Delia nodded. Lilly had already told her. Rachel was happy at last. She had found her match, her bershert, her intended. And if he didn’t live uptown, he was still a man of substance. “A tailor,” Rachel added. “A guild man, like Papa. He is the leader in a good shop. And Mama will give me a brand new Singer machine for a wedding gift. Now I will be free to make my own styles. Ida Simon said I can bring them to her specialty store. Ladies Fine Apparel on East Broadway. Exclusive retail only.”
“Oh.” Delia’s heart sank. She wanted to be happy for Rachel, she really did. But with Lucy sick and Rachel gone who would she have to rely on? Who would she turn to for advice?
“Just ‘oh’?” Rachel looked at her with raised eyebrows.
“I mean mazel tov,” Delia kissed Rachel’s cheek, which smelled a little like a fresh-baked pastry.
“Then why the cloud over your face?” Rachel laughed. “You’ll still have Lilly with you at work. For a little while.” She glanced up towards the open window of her flat and lowered her voice. “Mama and Papa decided to take in a boarder. Lilly doesn’t know yet. He’s a very nice young man from Warsaw. A glovemaker.”
So that was it. The Hershfeld’s had already chosen a suitor for Lilly and were moving him in on the sly. Delia could hardly believe it. “And who will be left for me?” Her own mama had neither money nor time for a matchmaker. “Henry Mendelsohn?”
“Who?” Rachel had no idea what she was talking about.
“Remember that day? The lockout. We took the streetcar uptown. All the way to Central Park."
"Oh that." Rachel dismissed the memory with a wave of her hand as if it were nothing but a childish escapade, as if she had far more serious things to think about now.
That day hadn't changed Rachel's life the way it had changed her own, Delia realized. Rachel had no reason to remember the details that remained forever impressed upon her own mind--the taste of the Italian ice in the morning sun, Henry Mendelshohn in his checked suit, Birdie in the big dark house, and every thing else. The park, the blinis, the dancing in the street. Delia looked at the lace in Rachel's hands. Maybe it was time for her to forget that day too. It was only a day of leisure. Work was what she needed to think of now. She needed to be serious.
“Give me the lace," she told Rachel. "I’ll bring it over to the second hand men on Henry Street.”
“Those cart-peddlers will bargain you down to nothing. Let me take it to Ida. She knows quality when she sees it.” Rachel slipped the lace back into its bag. “It was good of you to help Lucy, but people should take care of their own, you know.”
“Everyone says that. Why? Why should we only take care of our own?”
“Nu?” Rachel gave Delia with a sympathetic little pat, like a mama comforting an unreasonable child. “Someday you’ll understand.”
No, Delia thought, she wouldn’t understand. But once more, she had no way to explain why.
Rachel made the sale and Delia gave half the money the lace brought, three dollars and thirty- five cents, to Estelle. Delia made her promise that she would find an Italian nurse that Maria would accept for Lucy.
But it did no good. A few days later Estelle came up to Delia as they were leaving the shop for the evening. Silently, she made a cross in the air with her hand. Then she leaned over as if to whisper something in Delia’s ear, but instead kissed her solemnly on her forehead. “Lucia, Lucia,” was all she said. And Delia understood. The nurse had come too late. And there was nothing she could have done anyway. Lucy, Lucia was dead.
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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