Delia tucked her flyers under her arm, and cut across Canal Street towards East Broadway. She was already late and in a hurry to get to her corner. What had gone wrong? She had only wanted to help, to do for Reenie what Lucy had done for her. Yet her efforts had only led to disaster. Reenie probably hated her now. And suppose the other girls were right? Suppose Reenie couldn’t learn? What then? Would she just disappear into the hordes of people who lived in the cracks and crannies of the neighborhood? The ones belonged nowhere and to no one? What kind of freedom was that for a little girl?
Delia was so absorbed by worry she almost failed to jump aside when a chair came tumbling through a first floor window right into her path. A three-legged stool fell too, followed by cooking pots, pans, and a baby’s cradle. Two men carried a bed out the door while a woman trailed behind, wailing. Everywhere Delia looked furniture began piling up on the street. Eviction. The word spread like fire. Eviction. Big men and surly looking boys hauled out couches and kitchen tables. Some of them were strangers, Irish and Poles from the waterfront, but others were from non-striking buildings, paid by the landlords to throw their neighbors’ things in the street. The women cursed them by name. As soon as the furniture came out the tenants tried to drag it back in.
Crockery crashed onto the pavement. “See! See!” A woman held up two halves of a broken plate to anyone who would look “See what they do.”
Delia turned onto Pike Street. The same scene greeted her. Everywhere she looked, she saw furniture and fights. It was almost too dark to tell who sided with whom. Whole teams of thugs moved down the street, kicking in any door closed against them.
“Where are they going?” She grabbed a passerby.
“Everywhere.” He brushed her off. “East Broadway, Jackson, Hudson, Delancy, Henry Street, Cherry Street--”
Cherry Street. She dropped her pamphlets and started to run.
Everybody’s stuff was lumped together on the sidewalk. The nice woman with the crying baby in her arms begged two men to “just be a little careful with the bed.” The Krieger family wrestled their dresser away from a bald man who swore at them in a kind of English they couldn’t understand.
“I bust you, I bust you.” The first floor neighbor swung his chair-leg at anyone within reach. Delia’s own mama raised an iron pan by its handle. Helga just sat on a backless chair, staring blankly. But Sid and Gertie darted into the street, hurling stones, broken china, horse dung, anything they could grab, at the men.
“My drawing things!” Delia heard Leah scream. She saw one of the thugs grab something right out of Leah’s arms. Pencils and jars of paint rolled across the pavement. Delia seized the first object she saw, a wooden box, and flung it in his face. Needles and pins flew through the air, spools of thread and ribbon too. It was her mother’s sewing box, the carved cedar-wood one from Russia, which had belonged to her grandmother and great-grandmother before her. Now it splintered into a hundred pieces as it hit the ground.
She looked around for her mother. Mama was busy trying to restrain Gertie and Sid who were hanging on to the legs of one of the thugs and kicking his shins. She hadn’t seen the box go flying from Delia’s hand. But Delia knew what she had done. I’ll never be able to buy Mama another one so fine. Enraged by her own mistake, she threw herself into the fight, hurling herself against the man, bringing him to his knees. “Son of a three-headed serpent. May you creep on your belly through all the fires of gehenna.” She kicked and screamed...
“Delia!” Mama gasped like she couldn’t believe her ears.
The man shook them off, like a dray horse ridding himself of flies and stomped away.
The next minute everything was over. As quickly as they had come, the thugs moved on to the next building. With no one to stop them the tenants began to lug their things back inside.
Delia and her cousins hauled their bed upstairs. Her mama followed with a armload of clothes and dishes. Helga came like a sleepwalker. Most of the doors had been busted on their hinges. There had been no need for that. No one locked their door here anyway.
As she gathered up another armload outside, Delia heard a woman mutter, “So this is what your rent strike brings us. Now everything is busted.”
“It’s not my strike,” Delia muttered back defiantly. “It’s ours, everyone’s, the people’s. We will not--” She saw the remains of the cedar wood box and she couldn’t finish. She didn’t feel like arguing anymore.
Upstairs, everything was piled upside down. The bed had lost one leg, the table was cracked down the middle. The divan had lost its back cushion and every chair had a broken slat. Leah and Mama were trying to push the bed into the back room. Delia started to help.
“Delia!” Someone was calling her from the bottom of the staircase. “Delia.”
She ran out onto the landing.
“Come on.” David and a bunch of other people from the meeting hall stood there, bundles of flyers and red flags in their hands. “There’s a meeting now.”
“I can’t...my family...” She was already halfway down the stairs. “Mama leave it,” she called over her shoulder. “I’ll be back in a minute. Soon.” She had to run to catch up with her friends. She expected the streets to be filled with nothing but wails and curses, but as she reached East Broadway she heard singing and cheers. “Alons Enfants de la patria, la jour de gloire et arrive... “ The French revolutionary song reverberated with Yiddish, Russian and Italian accents.
“What is it?” she demanded. The meeting hall was jammed. “What is so good?”
“Don’t you see?” David grabbed her by her shoulders. “They can’t evict us. We are too many. The landlords already agreed to set the rents back. The evictions were just for show. They put up a big fight but we won.”
“Some show!” voices clamored. The hall had become so crowded it was impossible to hold a real meeting so they spilled out across the street into Lodz’s Cafe where they pushed tables together and emptied their pockets to order platters of pastry, pickles and cold meats. The waiters, who were part of the rent strike too, piled on extra servings. “See,” one of them pointed to the purple lump on his forehead. “That is how we fought on Essex Street.”
“I too. Here and here.” Everyone had a bruise and cut to show. Everyone had a story.
Delia told about Mister I-Bust-You and his faithful chair-leg, about Gertie and Sid throwing everything in sight, and the Krieger kids winning their dresser back. The people on Cherry Street became bigger and braver as she talked. She only stopped when she got to the part about the sewing box. “And then I--”
She caught David looking at her from across the table. His lip had been cut. His glasses were bent and tilted askew. He sat silently, without eating or drinking, looking around sadly as if he were not part of this group at all. “This business of breaking heads will never get us our rights,” he said.
“But don’t we have to kick?” Delia protested. She felt caught between two different ways of looking at things. Jake didn’t understand the union. He had told her he had no use for organizations. But he understood about kicking. “You have to keep kicking.” That’s what he had said.
“If we don’t keep kicking,” she told David. “The landlords will forget.”
Others felt the same way. A shouting match erupted between the kickers and the talkers, between those that were ready to go out on the streets again that very minute for the workers and those that insisted you could not strike without a proper meeting and a vote.
“Rise like lions after slumber,” a young man with a good voice rose and began to recite a poem.
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew,
Ye are many, they are few.”
Everyone fell silent. “By Shelley. Percy Bessby Shelly,” he bowed. Most people at the table already knew the poem and considered it a general favorite.
Rise like lions. Delia repeated the words to herself. She liked it. It was a poem that would make you feel brave even when you were afraid.
“But lions do not travel in great numbers.” Someone who had seen an exhibit on lions at the Natural History Museum pointed out. “Your Shelly is not scientific. A pack of lions is only a few. How can workers rise like lions then?”
Another argument broke out. Was it all right to write about something even if you were not in agreement with science? Or should the scientists among them have the final words?
“It is an idea,” David explained. “The poem is an idea. We must be brave as lions when we rise, but we should not act like lions in the street.”
“And why not?’’ Delia asked.
“Because the lion is a savage,” David replied irritated. “He kills without mercy.”
“It is the lioness who hunts,” a bemused voice spoke behind them. “Not the lion. He does nothing but watch and eat.”
Delia twisted around in her chair. She had heard that voice before with its strange accent.
“It was your lionesses that won this battle for you. The women stood firm and would not pay the rents. They will win the fight, too.”
“We can take care of our own,” Delia said loudly, then felt like a fool when everyone looked at her.
“So you can.” The woman looked down at her and smiled as if the two of them were friends. She was dressed in the same tailored jacket she had worn when she stood in the doorway of Lucy’s flat. She had the same look about her too. Intelligent, alert, and a little amused, as if she were not quite a part of what went on around her. Two young men stood beside her, both in dark coats and white shirts. They tipped their hats and said something in Italian Delia couldn’t understand. For a few moments everyone sat in uncomfortable silence, then David rose and invited the newcomers to join them.
“No, no, it’s your celebration.” The three declined, but asked the waiter to bring fresh platters and a pitcher of beer. The woman talked quietly in French and Russian with some of the older people at the table, then she and her two friends settled at a smaller table near the window. Delia stared, not caring if they noticed. But they were deep in their own conversation.
“So?” She looked around at her friends, waiting for an explanation.
“The countess.” Someone made sure the word sounded like an insult.
“A red aristocrat, she calls herself.”
“She is the widow of an anarchist,” David shrugged. “That’s all.”
“And the mistress of another.”
“Who is she?”
So that was the Olivia Lucy had talked about. Delia turned to gaze at her once more. Others at her table stared too. Olivia went to meetings, Lucy said. She talked to men as an equal. What was that like, Delia wondered. When she tried to talk to David as an equal, he made her feel as if she didn’t know enough to do so.
If Olivia was aware of everyone’s curiosity, she gave no sign.
Out of good will or guilt someone sent a pitcher over to her table and they all toasted each other. The argument about lions faded into a general celebration of toasts and cheers. “L’chaim.” “Prosit.” “A bon sante.” “To the Workers” “To the strike.” “To love!” A girl’s voice bubbled shrilly above all the rest. “To love! L’amour.” They tried to hush her, but she would not be quiet. “L’amour, l’amour.” Her cry was taken up by the other girls, until they started another round of toasts, laughter and more stories of fights, broken chairs and broken, or nearly broken bones. “To love!”
By the time the cafe closed it was past midnight. Delia left her friends at the corner and headed towards Cherry Street alone. The cold air cleared her head. She felt free and swift. “Alons enfants...far from your homeland where will you be....oh carry me away...” All the songs she knew ran together in her head one after the other.
“Little girl.” Olivia appeared out of nowhere, running up behind her.
Delia stopped. Olivia clutched to top of her jacket, panting a little. Her face was flushed. “I am sorry about your friend Lucia.” She reached out and touched Delia’s arm.
Lucy. Delia forgot about singing. She thought of Lucy lying so thin and small on her narrow cot in that dark room. Now she lay in an unmarked grave Delia had never seen. “They didn’t take care of her.” She leveled her gaze at Olivia. “You said people should take care of their own. They didn’t.” She turned and walked on. “She was their own.”
“I know,” Olivia said softly. She fell into step beside Delia. “I sent a doctor to see Lucia myself, but Maria wouldn’t let him in. She said she didn’t want any doctor I paid for.”
“Carlo should have made her,” Delia insisted. “Lucy was his sister. I thought he cared about her. He let me go in and see her.” Not that it mattered anymore, she thought bitterly.
“Families are not so easy to know,” Olivia replied.
For a moment Delia felt they shared something she couldn’t name. A sorrow or a secret somewhere.
“Here.” Olivia held out a small white calling card.
Delia accepted it hesitantly.
“Keep it,” Olivia told her. “If you ever need help.” Then she turned and ran back to her friends. Delia watched her go. Olivia ran lightly, like a girl, though she must have been nearly thirty.
Delia studied the card carefully in the streetlight, hoping to learn more about the owner. “O. Moreno.” Just a name with an address in smaller print underneath. Nothing more. She slipped it into her pocket.
Back on Cherry Street, she looked around for the remains of the sewing box. She found a cooking pot and a baby’s shirt and picked them up instead.
As she entered her building someone reached out and seized her arm. “Little sister, little sister.” Mister Bust-Your-Arm pulled her into the first floor flat. A crowd filled the front room. “It is she,” he announced. “It is she who sends the landlord running like a dog.” Flustered, Delia tried to protest. Cheers silenced her.
Some of the same neighbors who had been hired to throw the tenants out were here laughing with the striking men. They punched each other on the shoulder like boys. “Next time you better wear your cooking pot on your head.”
“Next time I bust your head too.”
“Drink.” Someone pressed a bottle into her hand. The clear liquid smelled sweet.
Without thinking, she took a big swallow. Instantly a burning demon leaped down her throat and shot out her nose. Laughter roared around her. Heaving and sputtering, she bent double, her blouse soaking, and tried to run from the room. “No, no.” The toothless woman drew her back. She kissed Delia on both cheeks and smoothed her hair. “Be brave. Be brave.” She handed Delia the bottle again.
Delia raised it to her lips. She would only pretend to drink. A little bit of the liquid seeped behind her teeth. She closed her eyes. The demon rose up at the base of her throat. She fought it down.
Her face, her neck, all the way to her belly she felt warm. All at once I saw a cloud... She felt like she was sitting in the park once more. Soft grass all around. The sun so warm she wanted to stay forever. A crowd of golden daffodils...She lowered the bottle and opened her eyes.
“Little sister!” The woman kissed her again. People thumped her on the back. Musicians began to play. A concertina, violin, balalaika. Everyone started a clapping, stamping dance. A dozen arms lifted her up onto a table. “Little sister!” They clapped for her as she danced. “Little sister, little sister,” they chanted. She hoisted her skirt and stamped until her hair came loose, falling over her shoulders. The table collapsed beneath her, but a hundred arms were ready to catch her. Everyone danced with everyone else. The sweet demon in the bottle was passed again and again from hand to hand. And they laughed and cried as if they really had reached the Promised Land.
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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