“You’re organizing your building?” David greeted her at the union hall like an old friend, like he was delighted to see her.
“I already have.”
“The whole building?” He looked at her doubtfully. “It can’t be just one or two tenants you know.”
“Yes.” Delia almost told him about Mister I-Bust-Your-Arm but decided against it. “The whole building,” she repeated.
“Good. Then you can leaflet the street for next week’s rally.” He shoved an enormous stack of flyers into her arms.
“What do you mean where?” He steered her towards the door. “Anywhere there are people.”
To her relief she discovered she wasn’t alone. Several girls from her shop and a group of young men, all carrying stacks of flyers and leaflets, were also on their way out. Some wore little flags pinned to their caps and jackets--the stars and stripes and the red socialist flags crossed together. Everybody was laughing and singing like they were headed to a dance party.
They started down the street, thrusting flyers into the hands of everyone they passed. Peddlers tacked the signs up on their carts and storekeepers pasted them in their windows. Even the streetcar conductor took one.
“We should split up here,” one of the young men said. “Each of us takes a corner.”
“Oh.” Delia felt disappointed. She had thought they would all stay together. “Where should I go?”
“Anywhere. Anywhere there are people.”
Jake wouldn’t mind sharing his corner, she thought. It was a good one, right on East Broadway and Orchard Street.
She didn’t find Jake. Instead two small boys cried out “Forward, Forward,” in thin, squeaky voices as they darted out into the crowd to make a sale here and there. Among so many peddlers and pedestrians, Delia could hardly find a place to stand. If she stepped too far out she tripped people up, but if she hung back no one would see her.
“Rally!” She called out. “Rally for the rent strike!” Her voice seemed no louder than the little boys’. Someone knocked the flyer from her hand. Another man took one but immediately dropped it. “Rent strike!” She flapped a paper in the air. No one took it. A moment ago everyone wanted one. A moment ago she had felt part of a big group. Her voice one of many. Now that she was alone she felt like a child again. People walked by as if she wasn’t there. “Rally for--” The rumble of a trolley cut her off.
“Hey girlie, this ain’t your corner!”
Delia went sprawling, Flyers shot from her hands, scattering across pavement beneath a thousand trampling feet.
“Get outta here.” One of the boys straddled her back. The other kicked the flyers farther and farther away. “This corner ain’t up for grabs.” She tried to roll the kid off. He yanked her hair. “No cutting into our business.”
“Leave her alone.” Someone lifted the kid off her back and grabbed the other one by his collar. “I’ll settle it.”...
She scrambled around on her hands and knees trying to gather up the flyers.
“Look girlie you can’t just elbow in, you--Deelie? That you? Again?” Jake gawked at her. “You selling papers now, too?”
“No.” She stood up, clutching the rumpled flyers, her hair hanging loose. “It’s the union newsletter. About the rent strike. I’m not selling nothing. It’s free.”
“Free?” He scratched his head. “See what I mean about the unions. Now they got you working for free.”
The two kids stood there scowling at her and sticking out their tongues.
“Go on.” Jake gave them a push. “Get back to work. She ain’t cutting in on our business.”
Delia felt so shamed that Jake had to rescue her from these babies, she reached out and gave one a pinch sharp enough to make him squeal. Instantly, she was sorry. The jacket was so thin and his arm so skinny it was like pinching a bone. She whispered she’d bring something good to eat next time for him and his buddy, too, if they left her alone.
Jake lounged against the wall, watching, just to make sure things were okay.
Delia smoothed out her flyers. “Rally for the rent strike.” Her voice was hoarse and shaky. “Rally.” She waved the flyer vigorously. A woman brushed her aside.
“Don’t wave it like it’s a wash rag. You gotta make them take it. See.” He took the stack from her hand. “Rally! Rally!”
She watched as he worked the crowd. Never far from the corner and never right on it, he had a way of stepping in front of people without out tripping them, making them stop, but tipping his cap and hopping back just before they bumped into him. “Rent strike. Yes sir, yes ma’am. Rent strike. Stand up for yer rights.” He rolled the flyer into a tube as he held it out.
People took it, some of them reading it right there on the pavement. “Rent strike.” With the older people he was respectful, bowing and calling them sir or madam. With younger people he laughed and walked along side them for a few seconds, especially the girls, telling them that when they won the strikers would throw a ball.
Delia laughed too. In a minute the flyers would be all gone.
“Here.” He shoved them back into her hands. “Now you know how to do it.”
“I gotta check on my other boys.”
She was alone again with the two kids. Still suspicious, they both closed in and tried to nudge her away with sneaky little jabs. She elbowed them right back. “Rent strike!”
“Watch it girlie,” a man grumbled. He didn’t even look at her.
She bumped into people every time she turned around. When she tried to roll a flyer into a tube it crumpled and tore at the edges. How could just handing out pieces of paper be such hard work? Worse than sewing button holes or setting sleeves. “Rally.” She didn’t even bother to raise her voice. “Rally.”
“Lady, lady.” Someone plucked at the back of her jacket. “Lady, lady, buy a flower. Buy a flower, please.”
She turned and saw a little girl about seven years old with a wooden tray slung from a strap around her neck. The child was dressed like a gypsy fortune teller in a ruffled silk skirt dyed three different colors, a velvet jacket with all the buttons missing, and boy’s leather cap with a feather in the brim.
“Lady, please, a flower?” The tray held a dozen dirty paper roses. “Please.”
Delia dug in her pocket and held out a penny. The girl stared, as if astounded that Delia would actually buy one. Delia dropped the coin in the tray and picked out a rose. She poked around for a good one, but there didn’t seem to be any, so she settled for a lump of wax and red paper.
“Oh ladies, ladies.” The girl smacked into two young women walking together. “Buy a flower!”
“’Scuse me, missy, can we have one of those.” One of the young women reached out and slipped a flyer from Delia’s pile. She and her friend studied it for a minute. They were both tall and stylish and looked as if they were headed uptown.
“What’s it about?” one of them asked.
“It’s about the rent strike. You know, the increase. We want a rollback, twenty percent.” Delia was glad someone had stopped to listen.
“Oh.” The young woman tried to hand it back. “I thought it was for the excursion train out to the Catskills.”
“Or maybe you got one for the lady who does electric massages. There’s a boy over on Broadway and Grand who’s got flyers for all kinds of things. Ten cents off new rubber heels on your shoes, a free ticket to the Biograph show, a portrait photograph of yourself for a dollar.”
“This is all I’ve got.”
They started to walk away. One of them changed her mind. “Oh mister!” She stopped a good-looking young man who was just about to cross the street. “Can you read this? I forgot my eyeglasses.”
“She means she forgot how to read,” the other girl teased.
The young man looked from one to the other, smiling a little sheepishly. “Well,” he cleared his throat. Both girls leaned on his shoulders, looking at the flyer as if it was the most fascinating news they could imagine. “Rally for the rent strike. Wednesday Evening, October 20th. Eight O’Clock. Clinton Hall. Organized by the Socialists Solidarity and Labor Committee.”
“It’s awful,” one of the girls shook her head sadly. “What they’re making us pay.” The other girl shook her head too, sighed and leaned in closer.
“Lady? Mister?” The little flower seller butted her tray against them.
The man bought two and handed one to each girl. The girl who had spoken to him first took her ragged flower and tucked it in his buttonhole.
Looking at them, Delia nearly forgot about the rally entirely. Three minutes ago, these two had never seen each other. Now they laughed and whispered like the best of friends. How did that happen?
“The problem is capital.” A hand reached for a flyer.
“The tenant law has no teeth.” And another flyer was gone. The little group had drawn people in. Her flyers began to melt from her arms.
Only one old man cursed her. “You rob me.” He flung the paper back in her face. “You anarchists have no respect for property.” But the crowd defended her, chasing him off with taunts of “bowery baron” and “tenement czar.” “We will not pay,” she shouted to his retreating back. Everyone cheered.
By the time her hands were empty she was dancing with triumph. Even the flower seller did all right. The coins rattled in her box as she hopped, “Lady, lady, buy a flower.”
“Rent strike, rent strike,” Delia sang out. She felt so good she ran into a candy shop and come out with six cents worth of caramels, enough for herself, the two newsboys, and the little girl.
The girl gazed at the two pieces of candy Delia tossed in the box with the same stunned expression she had regarded the coins. “Go on.” Delia nudged her. “They’re for you.”
The kid crammed both caramels into her mouth at once. She followed Delia chewing noisily and jiggling the pennies in her box.
“I’m done,” Delia told her. “I’m going home. You go on too.”
The girl looked around forlornly.
“Where do you live?” Delia knew the kid could find her own way home. There wasn’t a child over two in this neighborhood who couldn’t. But she wasn’t in any hurry to get back herself and face her mother. She wasn’t going to be able to keep her support for the rent strike a secret much longer and she dreaded another fight.
“Home?” The girl turned in the opposite direction and headed west towards Mott Street. Delia followed. The girl stopped at a hopscotch grid chalked on the sidewalk. “One two, buckle my shoe.” She chanted as she jumped from square to square, “One two..” She balanced on one foot unsteadily, grinning at Delia.
“Three four go to the store.” Delia was an expert on hopscotch though she rarely played anymore. She was far too old. She glanced around quickly just to make sure no one she knew could see her playing a kids game. “Five six pick up sticks.” They skipped back and forth and till they were both breathless. It was getting late. “Come on,” Delia helped the girl pick up her box and took her hand. A grown-up again.
The child led them through the neighborhood until they turned down a nameless, narrow street hardly wider than an ally, the kind of street on the border between the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods where anyone and no one lived. The girl plopped down on a stoop and slipped the strap of the box from her shoulders. “Is it enough?” She looked up at Delia.
Delia looked up at the tenement. Like the street, there was nothing remarkable about it except for being darker and shabbier than most.
“Is it enough?” The girl shook the box. She sounded as if she was about to cry.
“Why don’t you count it? One, two, three.” Delia picked up the pennies one by one.
“One, two,” the girl echoed. “One, two...”
“Three, four, five.” Delia made a little pile on the stoop. “Remember hopscotch?”
“Hey Reenie.” A boy opened the door. “You better get yourself upstairs quick. He says if he has to come down and get you, he’ll knock you clear out of yer boots.”
“Is it enough?” Reenie begged Delia. She clutched her knees, drawing them up to her chin.
Delia could see an old pair of boy’s boots beneath the skirt, two sizes too big. It wouldn’t take much to knock her out of them.
“Hey, buy a flower lady!” the boy exclaimed.
Delia dug out the last of her coins and tossed them in the box.
“Enough!” Reenie squealed as she saw bits of silver--a dime and a nickel--land among the leftover roses.
“Enough.” Delia stood there with her fists shoved in her now empty pockets and watched Reenie walk up the stairs.
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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