Delia woke with a throbbing pain in her belly. She laced her fingers over her stomach and pressed down hard. The pain wouldn’t go away. She felt her cheeks and rubbed forehead. Was she hot? No. She was freezing cold. October ice had already formed on the inside walls. The rags stuffed into the window cracks did nothing to keep it out. Gently, she untangled herself from Sid and Gertie who slept like kittens curled up in the middle of the bed. She scissored her legs back and forth just to make sure they worked and shuddered with relief.
She must have been dreaming about Lucy again. She had not gone to Lucy’s funeral. There had been no funeral. The Italian girls were all shocked. Carlos had buried his sister without even a mass. Delia knew that Catholics almost always had a mass said for their dead. From what she had heard, Lucy lay in a grave in some distant cemetery outside the city without so much as a headstone to mark it. What had Lucy done that Carlos and Maria would deny her even that? She had asked Estelle. But Estelle either could not or would not explain. Lucy was gone and that was that.
Delia lay awake staring at the ceiling. She wanted to go back to here dream where Lucy was still alive. In her dream Lucy had been dancing with Ben. What a thing. Lucy had never even had the chance to meet him. Willow trees were in her dream too. Lucy had been making lace from willow leaves. She’d have to ask Lilly what it meant. Lilly’s mama had a book of dreams. Rachel said that she had seen her intended, her bershert, in her sleep one night by placing a pinch nutmeg beneath her pillow.
Pain shot through Delia as if a demon was twisting her insides into knots. That was no dream. Could her time have come around again so soon? She sat up and tried to see the marks she had made on the wall to count off the days. She had probably forgotten a few anyway. Twenty-two, twenty-three...What did the girls say? Twenty-eight? She ticked them off on her fingers.
Last month, the first time it had happened, she had gone to her mother because that was what a girl was supposed to do. But Mama had been so tired. “What? What now?” she had snapped. Delia had felt like a little child, plucking at her mama’s sleeve. “Nothing,” she had replied.
If Lucy were there, everything would have been all right. With Lucy she could talk about anything. But of course, there was no Lucy. So she had done the best she could on her own all day. She sat so still on her crate her back ached. She was afraid to get up even for break. Then, when she felt the wet spot soaking through her skirt, she ran to the washroom, her face blazing with shame, sure everyone knew.
That evening she had gone to pay a call on Rachel who had a new flat to go with her new husband in a fine apartment building on East Broadway. Delia had brought a little bunch of late summer daisies to make herself welcome and Rachel had taken her on a tour of the flat, making sure that she admired everything from the flower patterned rugs to the frosted glass light fixtures on the walls. When she finally got Rachel alone in the kitchen she had whispered her problem, not sure what words to use. Rachel looked puzzled for an instant than laughed, “So that’s it.” Delia shushed her with alarm. The new husband sat in the front room reading the Forward. “You need clean rags,” Rachel lowered her voice. “Clean,” she repeated as if Delia had never heard of such a thing. “Afterwards burn them, don’t bury them. Get yourself a women’s calendar. A little one you can keep in your pocket. They sell them at the pharmacy or the visiting nurse will give you one for free. Just ask at the Henry Street clinic. And oh,” she tapped Delia’s cheek lightly with two fingers and then enfolded her in her arms. “Mazel tov. You are a woman now.”...
A woman? Delia didn’t feel like a woman. She felt like smashing the chamber pot against the wall. She clamped her legs together. There it was. A trickle of blood. She grabbed a couple of rags from the box under the bed. She had washed an old petticoat and cut it into strips. She hoped they were thick enough. Swiftly she flung her woolen jacket over her nightdress and thrust her bare feet into her boots, not bothering to lace them up. She didn’t care how much noise she made on the stairs. This being a woman was just another trouble she did not need.
The old man who slept in the entryway plucked at her hem. She yanked it away without thinking. No one was afraid of him. Outside it was still dark but she could hear the creak of wagons and shopkeepers rolling their carts and barrels out. Dawn was coming. Too late go back to sleep again even if she wanted to.
So she was one of the big girls now. One of the ones who whispered and gave each other wise looks, always passing around handkerchiefs dipped in ammonia salts or cologne and saying you should eat beef liver or pickled beets to “bring the color back in your cheeks.” There’s things to make it go away, and things to bring it on when it don’t come. Where had she heard that? Birdie. Little Birdie the Irish girl in the big dark house, chattering about bitters and roots and iodine in water. I’ve had me fainting spells for a year at least. So that’s what Birdie had meant. “And I didn’t even guess.” Delia was amazed at her ignorance. “What a baby I was only last spring.”
In the outhouse, she kept fumbling with her underclothes, trying to keep her nightdress off the floor and her sleeves away from the walls. She left the door open a crack for air, but kept one hand ready to shut it if she heard footsteps. Clean? How could anything ever be clean?
Even the water from the public pump where she rinsed her hands and splashed her face afterwards left a trail of brown scum. She picked up an old can and hurled it against the building. It wasn’t heavy enough to make a good whack. It only bounced off with a puny ping and rolled back to her feet. Feeling lonely and miserable, she sat on an upturned barrel out of view from the street and cried for a while. That done, she wiped her nose on her jacket and just waited. The chill had eased from the air a bit and she didn’t want to go back upstairs yet.
She’d have to start a new set of marks on the wall. She should have gotten a calendar, but she didn’t want to beg at the clinic and she wouldn’t buy one. Delia had stopped dreaming of a new flat for herself and mama. Even if she could save a little each week, she’d never have enough. The landlords were at it again. Rent had gone up. Not just in their building, but all over the Lower East Side. The first week of that month the rent men had come round and said two dollars more. A two-dollar increase, without warning. Just like that. Up and down the streets you could hear women hollering curses that terrified even their own children. Every rent jar was emptied and some smashed on the floor by people who said they wouldn’t pay and pay. But they knew in the end they had to. And did.
She pictured Rachel’s new home with the enameled sink in the kitchen, blue and white papered walls, and electric lights in each room which turned on and off obediently, not hissing and spitting like little imps. The Hershfelds were blessed. Though why more so than other people, Delia couldn’t say. They always had enough, that’s all. Mr. Hershfeld had presented the newly weds with three months rent in advance and wouldn’t take a penny back. That, on top of giving his daughter a wedding fit for a baroness.
Delia was glad she had gone to Rachel’s wedding, even though the thought of all Rachel’s gifts gnawed at her heart. Mama had been invited too, but at the last minute she said she felt ill and had stayed home. So Delia had gone alone, feeling very grown-up, but sad somehow.
A group of girls from the shop were already at Landsmen’s Hall when she arrived, all of them looking each other over. Most were dressed in their best satin waists and long skirts they had to lift an inch above the floor whenever they moved. Delia had worn her brown silk skirt whose hem had already been let down twice and the white lawn blouse with invisible mending under the sleeves. For the first time in her life she had wanted a new dress, but she didn’t dare complain to Mama. She just tugged the skirt to make it look a tiny bit longer and reminded herself to keep her arms at her sides so she wouldn’t strain the mended places.
The ceremony itself was over so fast no one had a chance to cry, not even Rachel’s mama. Almost as soon as the groom had smashed the glass beneath his foot, his friends whisked the canopy away and brought in the orchestra. The groom was a free-thinker, Lilly said, which meant he could kiss Rachel on the mouth. Mr. Hershfeld, himself, was so progressive he kissed not just his wife and daughters, but a dozen other girls as well. And Mrs. Hershfeld, whose hair was only a shade darker than her eldest daughter’s, embraced her new son-in-law and each of his friends.
“Are you a free-thinker?” Someone had tapped her on the shoulder. It was David Levine, the boy from the Labor Committee.
“I...I don’t know,” she replied.
“In your article you say the workers should create a new culture, a new ethical life, beyond the boundaries of conventional religion or capital,” he continued. Like everyone else he had read her letter and gotten something completely different from it. “What are you writing now?” he asked.
“Nothing...” The idea of writing seemed so far away. With the rent increase her hands were needed every minute for work, not writing. “I mean nothing yet.” She didn’t want to give up entirely.
“Then I can look forward to seeing something new from you.” He made an awkward bow. All around them couples were dancing. She saw Estelle, Theresa, and Carmella in the arms of Jewish boys. That didn’t surprise her. The Italian girls genuinely liked Rachel and they were such good dancers they were always invited everywhere.
David offered her his arm. But dancing with him was no better than dancing with Lilly. It was bump-hop-bump all over again. The gliding couples swerved around them, the girls smiling as if at two children pretending to be grown-up.
Finally they managed to bump-hop over to the long banquet tables laden with sliced meats, pickled salads, iced cakes, and enormous pitchers of lemonade. After they had eaten, they got along better. He paced the floor, punching the air with his finger, telling her how they needed to demolish the hierarchy of the old guilds and establish a chartered trade union. She brushed the last crumbs of pastry from her lips, gulped down her lemonade, and punched the air right back at him, telling him that his Labor Committee had done nothing for the female sex as far as she could see. What was the use of a garment workers union if it was run only by men and the girls had no say? “The men are experienced organizers,” he argued. “Experienced organizers laying the groundwork for the workers.”
“We don’t need groundwork,” she told him. “We need our rights.”
All around them people started doing the same. Arguing, pointing fingers, shouting, and shaking fists. Socialists with anarchists, democrats with communists, progressives with nationalists. “A general strike!” someone cried. The dancers stopped whirling. Who was for such a strike and who against? Even the musicians joined in until Rachel wailed above the din, “This is a wedding, not a meeting. Always a meeting. Always another meeting.” She sobbed as her new husband tried to comfort her and the orchestra started up again. “With you people everything becomes a meeting.”
“But that is what you get when you marry a free-thinker,” Lilly grabbed both David and Delia by their wrists, pulling them onto the dance floor. So they ended the evening in a grand three-person polka, laughing like they could go on for forty days and forty nights without stopping for a breath. It had been a fine wedding indeed.
“Deelie? You all right?”
She jumped. She must have dozed off while she was thinking of Rachel’s wedding.
Jake had stopped as he was cutting through the alley, his sack of papers sagging from his shoulder. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. I couldn’t sleep. I...I was feeling faint. A fainting spell, that’s all.”
“Want some chewing gum?” It was a new American treat everyone was crazy about.
“Thanks.” She took a piece and chewed it slowly. The sweetness did make her feel better. She realized how hungry she felt. “Jake.” She looked at him seriously. “Are you a free-thinker?”
“A free-thinker?” He sat down on the overturned ash can opposite her. “Nah. Nothing’s free in New York. Not even thinking.” He unwrapped a piece of gum for himself. “That’s a joke,” he added when she didn’t smile.
“No it’s not. You’re right. Every time I think I make trouble for myself. One way or the other, I always have to pay.”
“You’ve got to kick and keep kicking,” he said. “All over the city that’s what people are doing.”
“You mean the rents?” After the landlords had raised the rents, there had been talk of tenement dwellers forming their own union. Stop paying, some people said. That will make the landlords listen. “You part of that?” she asked.
“Me? I haven’t slept in a house since I started selling papers full time. Don’t even know for sure where my ma is these days. Or the rest of ‘em either. My brothers are in the soup with the police most times worse than me. And my sisters? You don’t want to know about my sisters. When we pass each other on the street I don’t know them and they don’t know me.”
“That’s terrible,” she burst out. She had never realized he was so alone.
“Nah.” He shrugged. “I’m free. I’m not worried about no one and no one’s worried about me.”
Delia considered that. She wasn’t sure being alone was the same thing as being free.
“There’s union just for newsboys,” She reminded him. “And the socialist alliance for street sellers too. They have meetings.”
“Brotherhood? Solidarity? Not in my line. Besides,” he patted the sack of papers, “I’m not selling anymore. I’ve got my boys working for me.”
“You’re a boss?” She eyed him carefully. His legs were longer, but he still had holes in the knees of this trouser and the soles of his shoes were held together with string. “You’re a boss?”
“You bet. Five kids under me. I give out the papers, set them up on a good corner, show ‘em how to hook the customer, and step in if someone tries to get rough or walk off without paying up. I know a saloon, too, where they can sleep in the back room and the cook will save them some grub or let them scrape out the pots.”
“You do all that for them?”
“For twenty-five percent.”
“What do you mean?”
“For every dollar they make, fifty cents goes to the paper and twenty-five goes to me.”
She thought of all the kids she saw selling newspapers, some of them so young the sack dragged on the ground as they trudged along. “They don’t even make a dollar a day, the littlest ones,” she said.
“Look, I’m their mama, their papa, their teacher, nursemaid, boss, landlord, rabbi, and amalgamated union all wrapped up in one and tied with a blue ribbon. I’m a better bargain then you’ll find in Lechner’s Penny Emporium. Who else is looking out for them? They oughta be grateful.”
“Oh really?” She tried to look indignant, but ended up smiling anyway. He wasn’t so alone after all, even if he did not want to admit it.
“Really!” He left her with a tip of his cap and a paper. She promised to pay, next time she saw him.
It was light enough to read now. The front page carried a notice for a rally outside Cooper Union: “We Demand a Twenty-Percent Roll Back in All Rent!” The Labor Committee was holding an assembly too, and would give out free flyers to tenants who wanted to organize a rent strike in the building where they lived. The memory of being evicted with her with her mama still made her burn with anger and shame. Never again, she told herself. Kein mol nit. Never would she let herself be thrown out on the street again.
Inside the paper, the editors summarized something called the ‘New Tenement Law.’ Every building was required by law to have clean air shafts three feet wide, iron fire escapes, and indoor toilets with running water, at least one toilet on every floor.
Delia’s heart leapt. This was America after all, a land where even the great gentlemen who made the laws would think about the privies of poor people. She flipped the page. “Since it’s passage in 1901 this code...” 1901? She stared at the date. That was six years ago.
“Six years. Do you hear?” She shook the paper at the old man who had come out to scavenge for cigar ends among the ash cans. “They make the law and do nothing about it. Who do they think this housing code if for? The birds, the trees? It is for people!”
She had just enough time before work. Upstairs she snatched up a bunch of old brown grocery paper that Leah used for drawing. “Clean Air and Fire Safety for All,” she wrote in both Yiddish and English. “Roll Back the Rent Twenty Per Cent.” And on the biggest sheet, “We Demand a Toilet on Every Floor. It is the law.” She tacked her signs on the stairwell landings, driving the bent nails in with a broken brick. A few people leaving for work looked at her as if she were crazy, but said nothing.
After work she went straight to the Labor Committee. She saw David Levine but he was so busy she felt suddenly shy and didn’t speak. Someone thrust a pile of flyers into her hand. “What language do they talk where you live? Yiddish? English? Russian? German?”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” she nodded. They gave her flyers in Polish, Hungarian and Lithuanian too.
When she got back to her building on Cherry Street she stood outside looking from window to window. Where to begin? Not with her own family. She had already given them enough trouble.
She would start with the easiest flats, the Kriegers on the second floor whose eldest girl used to go to school with Leah, and the quiet couple with the baby who had just moved in.
Hannah Krieger said her mama and papa were at work. She herself always paid out the rent and kept the family expenses. “I won’t pay if no one else does.” She took a flyer and studied it anxiously. “But I don’t want to be the only one.” The woman with the new baby was sympathetic too. She supported the strike, “But my husband rents a storefront with his two brothers. What about storekeepers? Their rent is going up. What will you do for them?” Delia didn’t know, but promised to ask at the next meeting.
On the stairwell most of her homemade signs had been torn down, some ripped in pieces and scattered on the steps. One or two had been put back up, though, and the nails driven in deeper. All along one wall someone had written “No Toilets, No Rent” in gigantic letters with a piece of charcoal.
Good. She had one friend in the building.
Who it was she couldn’t guess. Certainly not the woman with soapy water up to her elbows who slammed the door in Delia’s face. Or the man who hissed that she was a spy from the police. Or the pale young student in a yarmulke and side-locks. He was only a boarder, he said, pushing the flyer back at her. “If the people who live here pay less, how will that help me? What will your rent strike do for the boarders? We don’t pay the landlords. The tenants are our landlords. What will you do for us?” Delia promised she would ask about the concerns of boarders if he would accept a flyer.
Boarders, storekeepers. Everyone had problems and questions she couldn’t answer. The only flat left was the one occupied by the couple who did nothing but fight and curse. She would just slip the paper under the door and leave.
Just as she stooped down, the door swung open.
“What?” The man held what looked like the broken leg of a chair in his hand. She froze, crouched at his feet, like a spy, a thief. “What you want?” He stepped on the flyer, narrowly missing her fingers.
Scrambling to her feet, she backed off. The entryway didn’t give her much space.
“Rent strike. Tenants union. We won’t pay.” Her words tumbled out. She clutched her remaining flyers against her chest and scooted towards the stairs.
“You?” He slapped the chair leg against his open palm. “You? No toilets, no rent?” He pointed his weapon towards the words on the wall.
She didn’t dare nod. Her mouth went dry.
“Little sister!” He lunged forward, clasping her in his arms, lifting her clear off her feet. “Little sister! Come in. Come in.” He dragged her into the flat where a woman with blackened teeth and scraggly hair stood with a washrag in her hand. “She!” He pointed at Delia. “No toilets no rent! It is she!”
The woman kissed Delia and fussed over her in Yiddish and Russian. They brought out a pot of weak tea and slices of stale cake while Delia spread her flyers out on the table. She explained as much as she could about the housing code and how some building on Houston, Delancy, Essex, and Jackson Streets had already been organized. “No one will pay,” she told them.
“When the rent man comes I bust his arm.’’ The man kept slapping the broken chair leg against his open hand. “I bust him.”
“No!” Delia protested. “He’ll just call the police.”
“The landlords bust the law. I bust their arm.”
“If just one person doesn’t pay, they can evict you. But if no one pays, if everyone says no, then it’s a strike, see? It has to be everyone.”
“Okay everyone. If someone tries to pay his rent, I bust his arm. And if he holds out the money in his other hand, I bust that too.”
“No.” Delia thought a moment. “I mean say it but don’t do it. That’s all.”
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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