Three months had come and gone. The rent collectors had come and gone too, week after week. And every week they had left empty handed. All over the city, women and children slammed the door in the landlord’s face. The rent jar stayed on the shelf. Ten thousand families refused to pay. That’s what the Forward said. Others claimed it went even farther than that. In Harlem, Brooklyn, and across the river in places like Newark and Jersey City people had joined the rent strike. They would not pay and pay.
One Sunday evening a parade wound through the streets, from Cooper Union all the way through the Lower East Side and down to Jackson Park on the waterfront. Red socialists’ flags and the American stars-and-stripes hung side by side from nearly every building. Delia marched too.
When the parade reached Cherry Street even Mama and Helga came out on the stoop to watch and wave. Delia’s little cousins, Gertie and Sid, ran to her, whooping with delight. “We won’t pay,” they hollered as they swung hands together and marched along.
Delia went to work exhausted every morning but she didn’t mind. Everyone talked of nothing but the rent strike. Meetings after work ran late and would often adjourn to a nearby cafe where the debates would continue over tiny cups Turkish coffee or tall glasses of black Russian tea. Anyone without money could count on a comrade for a treat. Delia would squeeze her way in and let her tea go cold while she listened.
Now, when she handed out flyers on the corner, people stopped to talk. They addressed her by name, asking what had happened at the last meeting or telling her about buildings that still needed to be organized. The two newsboys helped, too, tucking flyers into copies of the Forward in return for gum and candy.
Always, Reenie hung around. She’d show up whenever Delia appeared. “Lady, mister, buy a flower,” she repeated over and over, badgering every passerby, until a few soft-hearted customers tossed a penny her way. Delia tried to get Reenie to hand out flyers with her flowers, but Reenie couldn’t keep track of both at the same time.
Delia asked her about her family. Reenie lived with a bunch of step-brothers, she wasn’t clear exactly how many, and a step-father, whom she simply referred to as ‘him.’ What did they do, Delia demanded. What kind of work? Reenie wasn’t sure. They sold things, or fixed things, or simply went out on the street.
Reenie herself sold waxed paper flowers “sometimes.” She scavenged them from the trash bins of flower makers who worked at home, she told Delia. Anything the jobber didn’t want Reenie could take. A few of the flower makers even left food for her, too, she added brightly.
And when she didn’t sell flowers, Delia asked, what then? Reenie looked down and shuffled her feet. The soles of her old boots flapped loose. She tried selling bits of coal, balls of string, scraps of leather and wool, anything she found in the alley, she said, but there was never “enough” that way.”...
“Do you want a job? A real job?” Delia asked. In the factory, Reenie could earn money every week, and she’d be indoors.
Reenie started playing ‘one-two’ on a hopscotch grid. She seemed to have no idea what Delia was talking about. “One two buckle my shoe, one two...one two...”
“Three four," Delia added patiently. "Remember three four?
“Two more open-the-door!” Reenie bounced to the end, then turned to start over. “One, two--”
“I mean go to work.” Delia tried to get her attention again. “With me.”
Reenie stopped. “With you?” She wobbled precariously on one foot.
“You’d get a pay envelope. Like me.”
“One two, buckle my shoe!” Reenie jumped so high roses and pennies cascaded from her tray and went rolling all over the ground.
“Yeah? What you want?” The boy who answered the door to Reenie’s flat the next morning looked a little older than the one Delia had seen before. He wore his cap indoors.
“Reenie,” Delia said.
“What you want wit’ Reenie?”
“Work. I have work for her. “
“Work? Hey Reenie,” he hollered over his shoulder. “This lady says she got work for you.”
Reenie came twirling into view sporting her latest hand-me-down get-up--a gingham summer dress topped with a ratty squirrel-fur cape and over that, a red fringed Spanish shawl. She spun and curtsyed.
“Yeah lady, she’s a good worker. A real steady worker.” He gave Reenie a playful shake on the shoulder. “Now don’t you kick none. You do what the lady tells you.” Reenie beamed. “See lady. What’d I tell you. She don’t kick.”
“Come on.” Delia grabbed Reenie’s hand.
“My hat!” Reenie shrieked, snatching up her old boy’s cap.
Delia had to keep pulling Reenie along. There was no time today for one-two-buckle my shoe, she told her. They reached the shop just as the gate was closing. Mr. Meir stepped in front of them, his arms folded.
“She’s a new learner,” Delia explained, panting.
He looked Reenie up and down. “We don’t hire no gypsies here.”
“Angela Benotti’s little girl took sick last week,” Delia continued, catching her breath. “And the two Friedrich girls are gone too. Reenie’s just a learner. She won’t need much. Not in the beginning.” Delia made herself smile at him. One girl more, and a little one at that, wouldn’t bust his books.
Delia smiled wider. Reenie fidgeted.
“How old is she?”
How old? Rennie held up her fingers. “One, two...”
Delia reached over to smooth down the shawl and cape. Seven? Eight? If only Reenie could stand up a little straighter, she might be even pass for nine.
“’Cause, you know, Miss Brenner, if she ain’t fourteen yet, the inspector is gonna lay a fine on me. ”
Fourteen! Delia had barely passed her fourteenth birthday herself. The shop was filled with girls of six and seven. Delia could tick off their names: Beila and her sister Dinah, Shosha, Nicola, and little Flora who couldn’t have been a day over five and a half.
Mr. Meir gazed at her solemnly. “You know it’s the union that’s been kicking about children in the shops. Used to be the inspector was an understanding man. He knew when a little girl needed her job and her family needed her pay. But the union people had him sacked. This new fella upholds the law, just like the union people say. He sees this kid on the floor of my shop and lays a fine on me just like that. Now where am I going to get the forty dollars to pay?”
Delia had nothing to say.
Reenie hung her head. “We don’t have enough,” she murmured. They started to turn away.
“Of course, this new inspector ain’t all together unreasonable.”
They turned back.
“Not completely. Sometimes instead of a big fine he just lays a little one on me. Just a few dollars, you see.”
A bribe, a little grease. So that was what he wanted. She should report him to the union, Delia told herself. Yet she felt almost proud that he thought she was someone worth bargaining with. But how much? She floundered in her mind. Six? No. Too much. “Five.” She lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes, trying to sound confident.
“Five? Why five wouldn’t convince him to overlook a cracked window pane.”
They settled on eight. Six of which would no doubt end up in Mr. Meir’s pocket and the remaining two in that of the inspector, the young and educated factory inspector whom Delia knew sincerely supported the union. But what could he do? What could she do? People needed money. People needed jobs. Everything was supposed to change. Someday. But not today.
Delia stood there, her lips pressed together. She knew this was wrong. She wanted to say “No.” She wanted to say that she had only been seeing how far he would go. She wasn’t going to bribe him. She wanted to say that things changed today.
“The kid can stay today,” Mr. Meir said. “But I can't put her name in the book until you bring the money tomorrow.” He flashed his wolf’s grin.
Delia despised him. She really did.
“Enough?” Reenie clutched her hand. “Do we have enough?” Without this job she’d be back on the street.
“I’ll have it,” Delia said.
Mr. Meir stepped aside to let them in. Delia told Reenie she wouldn’t be officially working until tomorrow. “But you can learn today,” Delia whispered as they slipped into the big room already filled with the rattle and roar of work. “That way you’ll just be faster when you start for real.”
Reenie hung back, terrified. It was obvious that she had never been inside a factory or even seen a sewing machine. Delia settled her on a crate by her side and started with the very simplest tasks, things that could easily be done by any child of four or five. “This is snipping, see?” Little girls known as snippers cut the loose threads that dangled from the edges of the finished seams as they came off the machines. The only trick was holding the edges even and not cutting too close to the seam itself. “It’s nothing. Beila can do it. And Nicola too.” Delia indicated the two little girls huddled over the pile of skirt lengths, their scissors endlessly flashing. Snip- snip. They snatched up one finished seam after another.
Delia handed the scissors to Reenie. Reenie let them dangle awkwardly from her hand. “Go on.” Delia was impatient to start herself. But Reenie couldn’t quite make the blades open and close right. They poked this way and that. She cut into her own skirt and started to cry. Once or twice she snipped right through a finished seam and Delia had to do the whole piece over.
Then Reenie wanted to wander around and see what everybody else was doing. She wanted to look out the window, to get a sip of water, to sit closer to the stove. Every other minute Delia had to jump up and chase after her.
The other girls laughed at her frustration. “That your baby, Delia?” “Where did you find her?” “Someone must have left her on the stoop.” “No, they turned the charity barrel upside down and that’s what fell out.”
Everyone snickered. No one would admit to taking clothes from the charity barrel at the settlement house, though many did when money got tight.
By the end of the day Delia had fallen so far behind herself there was no question of attending a meeting. She’d be working till nine to finish her stint.
Still, Reenie acted so happy, clinging to her hand and dancing down the factory steps when they finally left, Delia didn’t have the heart to scold her.
When Delia got home she went straight to the back bedroom and lifted the loose floorboard that hid Ben’s secret stash. This wasn’t stealing, she told herself. She’d work double time to pay it back. No one would suffer and Reenie wouldn’t be out on the street all winter. There was enough.
“The drawing teacher says we should have colored pencils.” Leah appeared behind Delia, watching. “Water paints too.”
Delia scooped up another handful of coins and thrust them at Leah. “Get yourself your pencils and water paints. If Ben asks tell him…” she shifted the board back and dusted off her hands. “Tell him….oh tell him we paid the rent!” If she was going to steal, why not lie too, on top of the bargain?
The next morning Delia slipped the eight dollars into Mr. Meir’s hand as they passed through the gate. He looked off above their heads as if he hardly noticed.
“You’re working for real now,” she told Reenie. Reenie wanted to stop and talk to Mr. Meir the way they had yesterday, but Delia yanked her along. “We’ll never make our quota if we don’t start early.”
“It means enough. You’ve got to make enough.”
Of course Reenie had forgotten everything she had learned the day before and Delia had to explain all over again. After that Reenie seemed to get the hang of it. But by the middle of the morning she just wanted to curl up on the floor and go to sleep. Delia had to keep nudging her awake with her foot. At break time, Delia left Reenie with a poppy seed roll and half a bottle of seltzer while she ran down to the meeting hall to pick up another bundle of flyers. When she returned she found Reenie cowering in a corner of the cloakroom surrounded by a group of girls.
“So what are you then?” one of them demanded.
“I...I don’t know.” Reenie whimpered.
“How can you live in America and not know what you are? A Slav? Pole? Lithuanian? Greek?”
“At home what language do they speak?”
“My stepbrothers, they speak Greek. And English. They’re the ones that taught me.” Reenie looked around uncertainly. “My stepfather, just Slav and Greek. My stepbrothers laugh when he speaks Slav, so he beats them.”
“But your own mama and papa?”
“My mama? I don’t remember. She sang in Greek. Songs from all other places too. My papa, my real papa, I never knew. I think he was a Jew.” She caught Delia’s eye. “Like you.”
“Another half-breed,” someone snorted. “I knew it.”
“There are so many these days. A plague of mongrels.”
“Everyplace you look. Nothing can be done with them. No wonder she cannot learn anything.”
“Then I spit on you!” Reenie sprang to her feet, her fists clenched. “All of you. Phew, phew. Spittle flew from the gap between her teeth. “I spit on you!” She dashed from the cloakroom.
“Wait!” Delia caught her arm.
Reenie twisted away. “Let go of me!” She was out the great door before Delia could stop her.
“Leave her be.” Rosa and Estelle held Delia back. “She is of no use to anyone here. Not to us, not to her family, not to herself. Certainly not to you.”
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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