She woke and found the room upside down, her head on the floor, her feet sliding off the bed. She had forgotten to take off her boots. She tried to loosen the laces and ended up folded in two, her knees against her chest. A whistle sounded in the distance. Could it be noon? She raised herself to her hands and knees, moaning, and grabbed the chamber pot just in time. Green bile oozed down her chin. She retched and retched until her throat burned.
“You should be ashamed.” Her mother stood in the doorway. “To be sick like that in front of the children.”
Delia looked up and saw Sid and Gertie staring at her, open-mouthed. They started to giggle and ran from the room. She was ashamed, but she wouldn’t say it. She was shamed by the memory of her mother’s sewing box smashed on the pavement. Shamed by her torn clothes and matted hair. Shamed by sleeping through the morning. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, struggling to breathe. But why should she feel so ashamed? She was tired of shame. “It is you.” She turned to her mother. “It is you who should be ashamed. Always bowing down to Helga. When I stand up for my rights, why don’t you stand with me?” She pressed her head against the wall. Her temples throbbed like someone was playing a hurdy-gurdy inside her head. She screwed her eyes shut. Why couldn’t Mama just leave her alone? “Everything I do, you are against me.”
“Against you? Who? Who here is against you? What demon gets inside you that you have to be out all night?”
Demon. She remembered last night. The bottle passed from hand to hand. It had tasted so sweet. That demon. She started to retch again.
“Here is a clean cloth.” Her mother tossed an old diaper on the bed and left.
Delia wiped her face. Her blouse was split under both arms, the hem of her skirt hung loose. How had that happened? All she had done was dance. And dance. And dance and dance. Her body felt sore all over.
She went looking for clean clothes. Everything was out of place. The dresser blocked the front room. Her clothes were scrambled with Leah’s among the pots and pans. Her little mirror was missing, her hat smashed beneath a cracked lamp. And where had Leah, Sid and Gertie disappeared to now? Why didn’t they help? “Why must I always put everything right?” she grumbled. Her mama kept sewing and said nothing...
She had already missed a half-day. Break was nearly over when she snuck up the steps and slipped into the shop. Fortunately, the boss wasn’t standing there today. She would just have to work double time to make up for her morning stint. The girls themselves were so excited and busy talking about the rent strike almost no one had noticed she was gone.
“A general strike,” someone said. “If the tenants in many buildings can strike together, so can the workers in many shops.”
Delia, who had always been among the first to speak, tried to break into the conversation. “We need our own local. The men’s unions will not recognize us--” The bell sounded. Everyone ran back to the machines.
Who were they to talk about the general strike, Delia wondered, irritated. That was her place, wasn’t it, to tell everyone about strikes? And why were they talking about unions when she wasn’t even there? She should have been happy to hear it, but it made her feel like nothing. Maybe she wasn’t so important anymore. Even Lilly, whose family had no reason to strike at all, had plenty to say. "I am with the workers," she declared bluntly. "Even is my mama thinks she is a bourgeoisie."
“We...our people....together...” Elated voices rose above the machines.
“I think...” Delia’s words dissolved into a yawn. She swayed with weariness. If only she could go back home and sleep, but of course, she couldn’t. There was another meeting, and besides, she did not want to look her mama in the eye.
The meeting hall was so crowded she ended up with the late-comers on the stairs. “What are they talking about?’’ someone asked her. Delia didn’t know. With the rent strike over, talk had turned to the conditions in the shops again. Some wanted a “closed shop” which meant only union members could work in the factories where people had voted to accept the union. Others said the unions should work on behalf of everyone, members and nonmembers alike. Once more, people brought up the idea of a general strike, a strike that would bring every girl in every shop out into the streets at once. “Every shop?” The idea seemed impossible.
As crowd on the staircase began to drift away, Delia squeezed into the hall where the argument went on and on. “A closed shop, that is the only way,” she heard David say. “Otherwise we have no strength against the bosses.” She wanted to voice her agreement, but she had no strength left herself.
When she finally got home, everything was just as she had left it. She cursed as she bumped into the dresser in the dark. Leah, Gertie and Sid all slid together at one end of the broken bed. Once more, she fell asleep without taking off her clothes.
After that, she was hardly ever home. None of them were. Ben seemed gone for good. His stash was empty and no one mentioned his name. Leah spent all her time at the settlement house or the Carnegie Library every evening until it closed. Sometimes Delia would find her sitting on the stone steps in front of the locked library doors, drawing under the street lamp in the freezing cold.
Gertie and Sid simply ran wherever they pleased. They scavenged the alley for bits of coal or played wild games of tag, tormenting the peddlers and shopkeepers, their fists and cheeks sticky with candy Delia knew they didn’t have the money to buy. Occasionally she gave them flyers to hand out for the union. They loved doing that, waving and shouting, “Getcher news, getcher news here,” though most of the flyers ended up in the gutter.
She tried to interest Leah in the union. But when she took her to meetings, Leah just sat with her head bent over her drawing pad, her pencil dancing over the paper, as if there was nothing else in the room. Delia would look over Leah’s shoulder and see pictures of gardens, fountains, strange animals with horns, things from a fairy book or dream. It made her think of Lucy’s lace, and she knew that, like Lucy, Leah hid her best things where she hoped no one would find them.
“If she could draw workers, real people, we could use her. She could work for a newspaper,” David said. “Why does she like only fairy stories? Why doesn’t she study life?” Leah acted as if she didn’t hear and just kept drawing.
What would happen to Leah, Delia wondered, if she didn’t want to work or go to school? Mama blamed her for Leah’s problems, blamed her because Sid and Gertie ran like hoodlums in the street. What could she do about it?
When her own clothes began to split at the seams, she didn’t ask for Mama’s old ones. Instead she went to the charity barrel at the settlement house where she had often pulled out pinafores and knee-pants for Gertie and Sid. At the bottom of the pile she found a Russian blouse with red and black embroidery and a matching red skirt. The blouse only needed new buttons and the skirt would fit if she took in the waist. A nice settlement worker, an American girl named Alice, helped her look through the barrel. They discovered a handful of nearly new ribbons and a knit jersey dress that was too small for Delia but might fit Leah.
“Are you the drawing teacher?” Delia asked. “My cousin comes for lessons all the time.”
“That’s Miss Johnson,” Alice replied. “But sometimes I help out. What’s your cousin’s name?”
“Leah Cohen. You have seen her perhaps?”
“Oh Leah!” Alice clasped her hands together. “Of course! We all know Leah. She is so gifted. Such an artist.”
“She is trouble to us,” Delia felt like Leah’s mama. “She only wants to draw now. She will not work, will not go to school. The lessons give her all kinds of strange ideas.”
“She should join the Art Students League. She can go to college, you know. A girl with her talent needs opportunity.”
“College?” Delia gathered the clothes into a bundle. She had only come for a few things, and here was this American girl telling her to send her cousin to college. And Delia herself had never set foot in a high school. What did this American know? She was just putting dreams in Leah’s head that would never come true. Maybe the socialists were right, Delia thought as she hurried from the room with a barely a good-by. These wealthy American reformers just wanted to meddle in everyone’s business.
At home, Delia and Leah tried on their new clothes in the bedroom. They had no mirror now, so they had to rely on each other. Leah turned up the collar of Delia’s new blouse so it framed her face. With a few deft movements she looped two velvet ribbons into a belt for the red skirt. The blue dress fit Leah perfectly, too. As a finishing touch, she tied a scarf around her neck and pushed the cuffs above her wrists. Leah had a way about her that would make you look at her, even if there were prettier girls in the room. Delia could see that.
Perhaps I could talk to Rachel, Delia thought. Ida Simon’s Fine Apparel could use a girl with a touch, one that could set a sleeve just so or choose the right trim from fifty samples. And there was money in a specialty place. But when Delia mentioned Ida’s to Leah, Leah just mumbled something about her class, scooped up her drawing things and slipped off before Delia could say anything more. Leah lived in a world of her own, Delia grumbled, where she could draw all day without a thought for money.
The shirts kept piling up around her mama. Helga helped a little now, with big, clumsy stitches like a child. If they didn’t keep their quota, her mama said, the jobber would take them off his rounds.
So it all came down to Delia again. She thrust her hand into her pocket. Two nickels and three pennies. She had no more money now then she did that long ago morning of the lockout when she had handed over her penny for a peach. She pressed on towards the meeting hall, feeling hungry. Her coat flew open in the stiff, cold wind.
“Good evening.” A young man tipped his hat as she passed. His face was not familiar. A comrade from the rent strike perhaps? He was gone before she could reply. Another young man nodded and smiled. Her hand flew to the top of her blouse. She clutched her coat closer. It was the new outfit, the bright red skirt. Maybe she should have settled for Mama’s old clothes after all. But it had been so long since she had worn something that fit her so nicely. She let her coat fly open again.
The next time young man smiled at her she smiled back. With every step she squared her shoulders and swung her legs forward in a way that made her skirt flip up above the top of her boots. When she got to the meeting hall, instead of going straight up, she bought herself a mug of tea for a penny from an outdoor stall and stood against a patch of wall, blowing on the hot tea, letting the steam rise up in her face. She could feel the heat on her mouth and cheeks. Every few seconds she would glance up. If she caught a fellow looking at her, she would lower her eyes and begin blowing harder as if the tea were the only thing that concerned her. But she would look up eagerly the next instant to see if he was still there. What would she have done if one of them had wanted to talk? She didn’t know. She remembered the way Lucy had once blown a kiss to a young man on the street. Her cheeks turned hotter than the steam from the tea could possibly make them. She couldn’t see herself blowing any kisses. Still... she glanced up again.
The meeting was about to begin. She left the tea untouched on the stall counter so the tea vendor could sell it to the next person who came by. She had just learned something. It was something that could not be taught at work, at a meeting or even at school. She couldn’t give it a name. She simply knew that in the space of a few blocks something within her had changed. She thought of herself in a new way. She adjusted the collar of her blouse and retied the ribbon belt. She wasn’t sure if she entirely liked what she had learned about herself, but she didn’t dislike it either. It wasn’t so bad to be the young lady men nodded to on the street, nu?
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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