“Azoi tants men in Odessa.” Delia hummed as she mounted the staircase. “This is how they dance in Odessa.” It was one of her mother’s old songs and one of Delia’s favorites. She executed a triumphal little two-step on the second floor landing. It had been a fine meeting, not so much for what was said but for how she felt. Though she had arrived late she didn’t have to languish in the back with the other tardy arrivals. David had singled her out, motioning her to the table where the organizers sat in the front. People were jammed together around it, but as she approached two of the girls shifted aside and someone brought another chair. They made a place for her, just like that. So this is what it’s like to be a person, she realized. People make a place for you at the table. You don’t have to push your way in with your elbows or stand outside on the stairs. Everyone had nodded to her and smiled. David told them that she had organized her entire building for the rent strike. Now they needed girls like her who could organize the shops for the union. For once she didn’t protest that others had done it and not her alone. “Yes,” she had answered. “We need to organize the shops.”
“How they dance in Odessa.” She sang out as loud as she could. Her voice filled the stairwell, drowning out the curses from the first floor.
She stopped short. At the door of her flat her mother stood with two bundles at her feet. Before Delia could say anything her mother thrust the bundles at her. “Go. You cannot stay here.” Mama looked around quickly, as if terrified that someone was listening. “Go to Bessie’s”
Delia just stood there.
Her mother gave her a push. “Can’t you hear? What is the matter with you? Go.”
Delia didn’t budge. Was her mama playing a game with her? “Are you putting me out?”
“Just to Bessie’s. Just to stay for a while. For a few weeks. They came today.” Her mother sat on the stairs and buried her face in her hands.
“Who?” Delia shook her mother’s shoulder. “Who do you mean?”
“Men. Them. They ask questions like the secret police. Who lives here? Where do they go at night? Why?”
“They are only from the landlords, not the police. It happens every place now. The landlords do not like the tenant’s union, but they can do nothing now that we are strong.”
“They know who the strike leaders are. They have the names on a blacklist. If you stay we will all be on the street.”
“What blacklist? Did Helga put ideas in your head?” Delia tried step around her mother. “I told you the landlords can’t hurt us now that we are organized.” Her mother stood up, blocking her way. “Helga knows nothing about this. It is I who decided you must leave.”...
Delia felt as if her mama had just struck her across the face. She couldn’t believe it. Her own mother stood between her and the door of her own home, sending her away.
“Can I let the children be thrown out into the street because of you? You think your union is so strong. But they are stronger. They have the names. If you are here we will all have to go.” Her mother stood firm. “You must leave.”
“Who are you to tell me what I should do?” Delia’s voice rose. This was her home. No one could turn her away. Not even her own mother. “I bring home the pay envelope here. I pay the rent.” Did Mama think they could live without her pay envelope?
“Hush!” Her mother hissed.
“I pay.” Delia didn’t care if the whole building heard. If the whole street heard. “I pay!’ She hurled the words at her mama like stones. “Me! I pay and pay and work and work—.”
“You think I don’t know what it’s like to work?” Her mama lifted her hands and shook them in Delia’s face. The hands that had once belonged to the best operator in the shop. “Me?”
Delia couldn’t argue with those hands. Those hands that sewed and cleaned and cooked for hours on end. But she was not going to give in. “So you throw me out on the street? Nu?”
“Not out.” Her mother started to weep again. “To Bessie. She is a godmother to you. She is our only friend. Go to her. Tell her. She will take you in for a short time. The rent men are angry. When they find you are not here they will go away. After everything is quiet you can come back again.”
“Nothing will ever be quiet again," Delia said. She herself would make sure of that. She would never let her mother forget this moment. The moment she threw her own daughter out on the street. She set her mouth grimly, hoisted the bundles and started down the stairs.
“Delia! Delia...child...please...you must understand…”
Delia looked back. Her mother stood there with her arms spread wide, waiting for a last embrace.
“Nothing,” she repeated and turned away.
“Deelie! Deelie!” Sid and Gertie chased after her as she trudged down the street. Where was she going, they asked?
What were they doing outside so late at night, Delia demanded?
They paid no attention. “Would there be another strike? Another parade?” They pranced up and down, big chunks of pastry oozing from their fists. They must have snatched the cakes from an outdoor stall when the owner wasn’t looking.
“Go inside. Go!” She pointed towards the stoop. It took most of her pay envelope to give them a home and they acted like they didn’t even want it. Like they would rather live in the street. “And stop stealing.” She swatted at Gertie’s hand. Gertie hopped away and stuck out her tongue.
The two children began to climb the stoop reluctantly. As they pulled the door open, she was taken by remorse. “Wait!” She hadn’t meant to sound so harsh. “Bitteh, please?” She opened her arms, hoping for one last kiss. Instead they scooted inside, letting the door bang behind them.
Two hours later, she sat down on a bench to rest. She had not gone up to Bessie’s, but in the opposite direction, down to Jackson Park where she could sit and think. She drew her coat around herself and shivered. Maybe she would not go to Bessie’s at all. That was it. She would stay out here in the park all night. So what if she should die of cold? Then her mama would die from weeping, she thought with satisfaction.
“Good evening.” A man sat down at the other end of the bench.
Let her. Let Mama weep till her eyes went white. Her dear child Delia would be found ice cold and lying dead on the ground.
“A fine evening.”
“No it is not fine.” Only a few hours before she had smiled at young men, now she just wanted him to go away. She picked up her bundles and started off. He got up and started to follow. She tried to walk faster, but the bundles made her clumsy and he laughed unpleasantly. She stooped and seized a stone. “May...may your head be used for a lump of coal to light the stove.” She drew her arm back. For a second they faced one another.
“Well then, good day.” He bowed and sauntered off, taunting her, in no hurry.
She hesitated a moment, then dropped the stone. “May the devil break your bones like tinder wood,” she cursed without enthusiasm. She thought of her neighbor’s chair leg. Why didn’t she have something like that handy?
She left the park and walked till her legs were weary and her arms ached. A teashop was open with several empty tables by the window.
“We have no work.” The woman behind the counter stepped forward as if to shoo Delia away. “We don’t need no girl here.”
“No, I...” Delia glanced down at her fine skirt, streaked with dirt from the bench. Leaves clung to the hem. She realized the bundles, coming half undone now, made her look like a green horn girl, tramping the streets, looking for work. “No.” She stood up straight. “I would like a cup of tea. Please.” She spoke in English. See, I am an American, she said silently. The woman understood.
She brought Delia a glass of tea and two sweet biscuits. Delia paid with a dime and left the three cents change sitting on the table just to prove she was no beggar. While she was eating, a noisy party of young people came in and ordered rounds of coffee, cold seltzer, smoked fish and apple strudel. She listened with longing to their talk about unions, strikes, theater performances and the latest book by a popular poet. Many of her own comrades were probably doing the same in some other cafe right now. Any of them might be able to help her find a place to sleep, even if just for the night. There was certainly nothing wrong in asking. But she didn’t want to explain that own mother had thrown her out on the street. She had organized the whole building herself, they all knew that. And now it was not the landlord, but her own mama who evicted her.
“Miss, we are now closed for the evening.” The counter woman wanted to show that she also spoke good English. The noisy group had gone. Delia was the only one left. She glanced at the three pennies sitting on the table. Perhaps they would be better off in her own pocket after all. She saw the woman looking at them. “For you.” Delia pushed the pennies toward her. With great dignity she picked up the bundles.
“A sheynem dank, freylin, thank-you very much miss,” the woman called after her.
The streets were emptier now and colder. How long would it take to get to Bessie’s, Delia wondered. Then she reminded herself that she was not going to Bessie’s. But where then? Two little newsboys boys with empty sacks darted down an alley. She knew that Jake and his kids often found places to sleep in cellars and basements. She saw the boys disappear into what appeared to be no more than a hole in the wall. Cautiously, she followed. Halfway down, she saw a heavy plank propped up against a gap in the wall like a makeshift door. Gripping it on both sides, she moved it away. The wood cut into her palms. She looked into blackness, emptiness.
“Yer either in or out, but close the hole. We’re freezing our arses,” a man grumbled. The blackness began to roll and shift like a sea.
“It’s the cops,” a kid cried.
“No it ain’t and what if it is? We got our rights to sleep.”
Delia blinked a few times and stepped forward.
“Hey watch it, girlie.”
Every inch of the floor was covered by shapeless bumps and humps, all of them alive. Carefully, she stepped in a little further. Then the smell hit her. It was worse than anything in the stairwell at home. Worse than the gutters or the outhouse. The smell of shame.
“Hey lovey, come here by me,” a man said.
“Leave her alone.” An old woman’s voice came from the back of the cellar, a place so dark you might never see into it. “You sleep by me, sweetie. Sleep by your bubbeh, your granny.” The voice crackled like splinters of glass underfoot. “Come here by me.” The old woman coughed or laughed, Delia couldn’t tell which, but the sound turned her bones to ice. By now she wasn’t afraid of strange men, landlords, bosses, or police with truncheons. But this old woman’s voice paralyzed her with terror.
“Go to hell or shut the door!” An angry shout made her jump. She backed out, almost falling and shoved the plank back into place. She was sweating like someone with a fever. In the alley she picked up a wooden slat and swung it in the air until she stopped shaking. The alley smelled positively fresh compared to that cellar. She tucked the slat beneath her arm and once more picked up the bundles that now felt the weight of the world. Did she really have so many clothes? She needed to find a quiet building where she could spend the night in the stairwell, like the old man at home whom everyone was always trying to chase away. She began to weep. She did not weep for herself or for her mother, but for the old man who plucked her skirts and whispered nasty words whenever she passed. Her tears burned with anger, pity, shame and fear.
She dried her eyes. The tenement she faced was as good as any other. The front door swung open a little. Only one or two lights flickered in the windows; most of the inhabitants were probably asleep.
She settled herself on the corner of the stairs, pressing as close to the wall as she could, trying to make herself nearly invisible and closed her eyes. She couldn’t sleep, but if she pretended to, she might eventually get some rest. She heard laughter above her, a woman and a man. A baby wailed. “Hush, hush, leiben, leiben.” a woman sang a fragment of a lullaby.
The front door banged, making her start and huddle closer to the wall. A couple sauntered in. As they passed Delia caught a whiff of sauerkraut mingled with lilac perfume. The young woman paused and looked down at her. She wore a big hat with plumes bouncing askew and a fitted satin jacket, too thin and too fancy for a night like this. In the dim stairwell, Delia caught a glimpse of red hair. Souerkraut and red hair. What did that remind her of?
“Come on, sweetheart. You ain’t changing your mind on me now are you?” The man pulled the girl on upward.
“What’s yer stinking rush?” The girl laughed and gave the man a shove.
It was Pickles. Delia knew it. Pickles, old enemy from her first months in the shop. How they had cursed one another the day of the great lockout. For a second Delia wanted to run after her, just to see, just to make sure. Pickles! she wanted to shout. It’s me! Remember? She was so glad to see someone she knew, even if it was her old enemy. The next instant he wanted to run and hide. That Pickles of all people should see her sleeping on the stairs like a beggar. A door closed a few floors above her. Silence once more.
She wrapped her coat tighter around herself and leaned her head against the wall. Maybe she was mistaken, maybe it wasn’t Pickles at all.
She was woken by the young man, whistling as he came down the stairs alone. He let the door bang carelessly behind him, letting in a big gust of wind.
“Hey.” A woman called. Something soft hit her shoulder, a piece of boiled potato or chuck of stale bread. “You can’t stay here. You want to do business, you got to rent a room like everyone else.”
Delia knew that voice. Sharp and bold. It was Pickles after all. She had nothing on now but an old shawl wrapped over her petticoat. Her red hair hung loose over her shoulders.
“You hear?” Her voice brought a scurry of feet onto the stairwell.
“You making trouble again?” A woman leaned over the upper railing. “You bring another girl in here like you, I’ll call the police, I will.”
“It’s not me. I got a room, like decent people. It’s her. She comes in our building to do her business like a streetwalker.”
Delia looked around for something to throw. How dare Pickles imply that she was a not a decent girl, just because she was sleeping in a stairwell?
“How come you wearing a red skirt?” The woman at the railing jabbed a finger at her.
“So?” Delia brushed off her skirt and pulled her coat back so everyone see. There was nothing wrong with her clothes. She was the one who was decent, respectable. With as much dignity as she could, she picked up her bundles and started out the door.
“You’re losing your drawers, girlie!” Hoots of laughter echoed up and down the stairwell.
“Oh!” Delia gasped. The string had come loose on the smaller bundle leaving a trail of underclothes and stockings in her wake. She dropped to her knees and started to grab as fast as she could. Other hands moved in, pushing hers away. Someone tried to steal a petticoat. “Let go!” It ripped in half.
“Looky here! I got one.” A woman whirled a cotton stocking round and round like a child’s pinwheel, high in the air.
“I got the other!”
“Hey girlie!” A hand grabbed for her skirt. Delia dropped the armload of underthings, seized her remaining bundle and ran.
She walked up and down the streets, clutching her bundle to her chest like a baby till the sky turned gray and the rumble of carts and streetcars let her know the day had started. It was time to go to work. At least at the shop they would let her in.
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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