“What is that?” Lilly pointed to the bundle at Delia’s feet.
“Nothing.” Delia pushed the bundle under her machine. She didn’t want to leave it in the coatroom where everyone could see it, but there was no hiding it from Lilly’s sharp eyes.
“Nothing?” Lilly nudged the bundle with her toe.
“Just some old clothes mama gave me to give Bessie. She will sell them for us.”
“Why not take them to Rachel. She knows the best second hand peddlers. I’ll help.”
“No.” Delia shoved Lilly’s foot away impatiently. “I’ll do it myself.”
“Whatever you say.” Lilly rolled her eyes and turned back to her work.
“No. Wait. Do you…do you..”
“Do I what?”
“Do you...have any candy.” That’s not what she really wanted to ask. Lilly was her best friend. Even so, she found it hard to explain that her mama had thrown her out. “It’s just that…I’m so empty.” She put her hand on her belly. “Like a pot before payday.”
“Candy? Of course.” Lilly held out a handful of cherry nougats from the Italian groceria.
Delia crammed two into her mouth at once. They only made her feel hungrier. She swallowed quickly. “Come and get some water with me.” She wanted to talk to Lilly alone. “You’ll never guess who I saw,” she whispered as soon as they were out in the hall. “Pickles!” She hadn't intended to tell anyone, but she knew Lilly would like it.
“Pickles!” Lilly choked on a mouthful of water. “No!”
“On Jackson Street. With a man. An ugly one.” She couldn’t remember what the man had looked like, but it would make Lilly laugh. “ And so late at night, she walks right into a tenement with him on her arm.”
“So it’s true what they say. She’s a streetwalker.”
“In a big hat with a mountain of feathers.”
“But what were you doing in her building?”
“I...I...was looking someone. A new girl at the union, she boards with a family but I couldn’t find her.” The explanation didn’t sound right, but it was all she could think of. “Does your family need a boarder?” That’s what she wanted to ask in the beginning. Rachel had said something about a young man moving in, but perhaps he had not yet arrived. Maybe she could go and live with Lilly, like sisters. She didn’t want to ask outright though, that feel like begging. The Hershfelds always seemed to have so much and she had so little.
“Now that Rachel’s gone, has your mama already taken someone in?” As she spoke she tried to calculate how much she could offer Mrs. Hershfeld in rent. She couldn't live for free. Not even with Lilly. Only a real schmeil, a person with no pride, would live that way...
“A boarder?” Lilly made a face. “We have a boarder. Don’t you know? He has the front room. A boy from Warsaw. A glove-maker. I would not mind so much if he could play cards or dance. But he’s religious. Can you imagine religion in our house? What were my parents thinking? “ Lilly chattered on like the old days when she and Delia were always together. “I hate him. And he hates us, he really does. Mama has to cook kosher for him, and then he won’t even eat, because we are not clean enough. He just sits there with his mouth shut, waiting to get back to his books. I talk English to him to make him learn, but he won’t answer. Then Papa scolds me for being rude to our guest. Guest! He is not a guest, just a greenhorn boarder. Papa takes his side always. Religion is not such a bad thing in a girl, he tells me. And that after Rachel married a free-thinker. What is he thinking?”
He is thinking that you will marry this Yeshiva boy from Warsaw, Delia said silently. One daughter marries out of the synagogue and the other daughter marries in. That way the Hershfelds could keep a foot in both worlds. Families did that sometimes, though no one talked about it.
“Of course you would know all this if you weren’t so busy with your big meetings,” Lilly added resentfully. "We never talk any more."
“That is not true.” Delia was hurt. "We are talking now." She always felt close to Lilly. “Things are not so good for me at home either.”
“I know.” Lilly relented and slipped her arm around Delia’s waist. “Remember how we danced that day on the sidewalk?” They bumped and giggled. “I hate going home myself. Sometimes I wish I could go be a boarder and do what I please.”
“Your mama would die weeping.” Delia couldn’t imagine Chava Hershfeld letting her daughter leave home to live in someone else’s house or walk the streets alone.
“Then let her. I’d go dancing every night. Spend shabbos at the Biograph. Eat blinis and seltzer for dinner. Nobody would rule me.”
“It’s not so easy, leaving home.”
“How should you know? Nu?”
Footsteps on the stairs sent them running back to the workroom before Delia could say anything more.
At break Delia asked around for places that took in borders and got three addresses. Without money in her pocket, though, the names meant nothing. No one would take in a boarder who promised to pay ‘tomorrow.’ Tonight she would just have to stay where she was--in the shop. Sometimes girls who had no place else to go would sleep on the floor in the shop. It was against the rules to sleep in the shop. You could get sacked, or even worse, taken by the police.
But that wasn’t the real reason she was afraid to do it. It was the shame. Always the shame. So many things to be ashamed of, she thought irritably. The older you got, the more shame crept up on you, sprang out on you, making you want to run and hide. Shame, calling from every corner, like the women on the stairs. She remembered Bessie telling her that in Russia workers were forced to sleep in the factories, chained to the machines, like animals bedded together in a stable. Men and women right next to each other. Once Bessie herself had seen a woman give birth right there on the factory floor. In America, at least we can sleep in our own beds, she had said. And now Delia was going to sleep on the factory floor, like the lowest of the low, like a slave. She tried to push Bessie’s words from her mind. That only made other fears come creeping in.
She knew that a Romanian girl had once been caught sleeping in the cloakroom at Meir’s. The girl had been sacked, of course. But something else had happened to her. Her dress had been ripped all down the front, the girls said, and afterwards she tried to poison herself. No one knew what had become of her.
Delia was thankful she had kept the stick she had picked up in the alley. It had two good nails sticking out of one end. Nothing will happen, she told herself.
She worked late, past nine o’clock. A half-dozen other girls stayed too. These were the ones who always worked. Early and late, they were there. They had big families and many relatives in the old country waiting for passage to come over. They wouldn’t turn their backs on those that depended upon them. Delia bowed her head and kept pumping away at her machine. She had to make sure she was the last one here.
The shop fell silent. She heard the last footsteps on the stairs and the clang of the gate. Then nothing. Never had she known the building to be completely quiet. No rattling, whirring, or grinding. No one was singing, cursing, laughing or arguing. She hauled her bundle back into the cloakroom, pulled a wall of crates around her and settled down against the wall. Just in time. The door opened. The lights flicked off. She held her breath in the darkness. Then she heard satisfied grunt. The door closed. It must have been Gregor, so eager to get to the saloon he barely glanced around.
She wondered about Mr. Meir, though. “I am here when you are not.” That’s what he had said. Was he still upstairs, poring over his account books, counting every penny he would hand over to each girl tomorrow? Something scratched the floorboards. She slipped her stick out of her bundle and grasped it her hand. A rat, that’s all. She relaxed. A rat she could handle. But what about a man? Was Mr. Meir prowling around in his rubber-soled shoes? “I built this shop from the bottom up,” he had said and she was certain he didn’t want any girls using it for a flophouse.
Suppose he grabbed her. Shook her. She tried to imagine the two pointed nails going right into his long wolf’s nose, the blood spurting out. She couldn’t see it. He was only Heshel Meir, after all. No matter how much she might hate him, she had known him nearly half her life, since she was eight years old. All the girls made fun of him behind his back. But what would she do now if he suddenly appeared, looming over her, dragging her up by her ear. “Did you?” Lucy’s voice seemed to whisper in her ear. “Did I what?” “Kiss him.” Kiss him! In a flash the stick came down on his nose. Then she had to laugh. Kiss him, indeed. She burrowed down into the pile of cloth. Except for the familiar scratching of the rats, the building was completely silent. She lay there staring into space. How could she sleep without someone snoring in the next room, without Leah by her side, without the two little ones fighting for the last bit of blanket?
She tied to picture Henry Mendelsohn in his yellow-checked suit. She did that sometimes when she couldn’t sleep. He was bending over her, his fingers gently brushing against her cheek, tickling her hair. She tossed her head. Henry Mendelsohn disappeared. Someone else came to take his place. Her face went hot with tears. Her mama’s kisses were the only ones she wanted. And her mama, she felt certain, would never kiss her again. There was nothing to do but cry herself to sleep.
She woke the next morning before the first bell. Already she heard the noise outside the gate. All she had to do was hide until she could pretend she was with the first group to reach the cloakroom. There was always such chaos in the morning it wouldn’t be hard, and even if a few of the girls noticed something strange about her presence, she felt sure they wouldn’t say anything.
Working all day would be the difficult part. Her entire body ached. Even after she went to the washroom and splashed water on her face she felt dirty and sore. Lilly gave her a strange look when she sat down. Delia rubbed her cheeks as if trying to bring some color back into them. “I’m having a fainting spell, “ she said by way of an excuse.
“You and everybody else.” Lilly nodded wisely.
The others were all talking about a general strike. “The general strike!”
“Were you at the meeting? They’re going to call for a general strike?”
If only she had been there she would have had so much to say. “You can go to a hundred meetings and nothing happens,” she grumbled. “You miss one. Everything changes.”
“Why weren’t you there last night?” Lilly asked.
“I will go to meetings. I start tonight.”
“Your mama won’t like it.”
“The boarder and his prayers make my life miserable. Mama treats him like her son now, always putting the choicest bits on his plate. And what does he do? He turns his face away. Take with me with you to the committee meeting tonight.”
“Tomorrow,” Delia replied hastily. “I promise. First thing after work tomorrow.” Tonight she would have her pay envelope in her pocket. She would be free. Free to find her own place and do as she pleased.
As she left the shop, she fingered her pay envelope in her pocket uncertainly, Somehow it felt wrong to be walking away from her own home, her back towards Cherry Street on payday. Her stomach felt heavy, like she had just swallowed a bad piece of meat—a chunk of roast pork or thick, greasy slab of ham--something forbidden. Even if her mother had thrown her out that didn’t mean she should let the whole family go without money. What would happen then? She knew her mother still thought she had gone to Bessie’s and would bring her pay home tonight. But she wouldn’t. Mama would wait and wait, but no Delia would come.
Delia kept her head down as she walked. She never saw her mother outside of Cherry Street these days, but suddenly she was terrified that Mama would appear right there in front of her on the sidewalk. Mama in her dress that was mended in eight different places and her old felt slippers with the heels worn off. "Delia?" She would hold out her hand and Delia would hand over her pay without a word.
No! Let somebody else work. Let Leah sew all day, let Helga wake up from her dream and act like grown woman again, let Gertie and Sid sell what they scavenged, let them all drag Uncle Avram from the saloon, let them find Ben and turn him upside down till everything fell from his pockets, dice, silver dollars, everything. He had money and no one expected him to hand a penny of it over. If she could find Ben she'd beat him until blood ran down his fancy shirt. She had no idea where Ben could be. He had turned his back on Cherry Street a long time ago
At the first of the three addresses the woman was sympathetic, but her flat was full right now. "You see I have not an inch to spare." She opened the door to show a gaggle of little ones rolling over the floor and a group not much older seated around a table sewing knee-pants. But if Delia came back in a week, she was sure she would be able to fit her in. "My back bedroom boarder will be gone. A salesman who is moving to New Jersey. And frankly I would rather have a decent girl with a steady job. This salesman is always late with his rent. He won’t pay. He--"
Delia could see the woman really wanted to talk about the salesman, but she couldn't wait a week.
The lady at the second address wouldn't even poke her nose out the door. She peered at Delia with one eye to the crack. A boarder? No, it was a mistake, she insisted, she took in no one. Especially not factory girls. "You girls think you can turn the world upside down these days with all your talk about strikes. I rather let the devil in my house."
So she was either a decent girl or a devil, Delia, sighed. Nothing in between.
At the third place, though, everything seemed fine. Yes, she could move in right away, the lady said. Tonight, even. The hall bedroom was free. The last girl had gotten sick and was taken away to the sanitarium. Yes, of course, everything had been scrubbed clean with carbolic acid and ammonia. Couldn't Delia smell it?
She could. She sniffed and for an instant saw Lucy, lying limp on the bed in her narrow little room where two people could hardly fit. And a hall bedroom wasn't even as big as that. It wasn’t a real bedroom at all, just a canvas cot set out in the hall at night and folded back during the day. Hall bedrooms were cheap.
"See?" The woman pulled out the cot a pressed down on it just to show Delia how firm it was. It had metal legs, she pointed out, not the wooden ones that would give and send you crashing to the floor. A real sturdy cot. Certainly worth another ten cents a week.
"So it is one dollar and sixty cents a week?" Delia set her bundle down and reached into her pocket.
“No wait.” The lady held up her hands. There were certain things to settle first. Her husband came home late, never before ten at night, and he hated having to stumble over boarders in the hall. If Delia needed to sleep early it might not work.
"It is no problem," Delia replied. She was always at meetings and hardly got home before ten herself.
And she and her children rose early, the woman continued. They made ladies petticoats at home and needed everything neat and ready when their jobber dropped off their work for the day.
"I must leave early for my own job," Delia explained. “Always before seven.”
"Then it is ideal!" Her new landlady beamed. "I am Mrs. Grossen."
"Miss Brenner." Delia looked around and asked if there was someplace she could put her things.
She could have a dresser drawer in the children's room, she was told, and a hook for her coat in the back cupboard. Mrs. Grossen gave the bundle a long look. "You have your own bed sheets and towels of course?"
Well, no, Delia apologized. "I did not think of that." How could have asked her Mama for bed things?
"Not a problem," Mrs. Grossen replied hastily. "I am glad to lend you some of ours. Of course, it will be an extra ten cents. Twenty-five if you want me to wash them for you." Delia was welcome to make herself tea, she added, when they weren't eating meals. Mrs. Grossen would lend her a glass and spoon for another two cents a week. And if she wanted to use the hip-bath once a week to bathe herself, that could be arranged for a nickel. And the washtub for her clothes? Only three cents. Delia began to feel her pay envelope melting like a lemon ice on a hot day, only there was no sweet taste lingering on her tongue. "Then maybe I should think on it."
Think on it? Mrs. Grossen lifted her hands in the air, amazed. What was there to think about? Such a good place for next to nothing. “All you girls these days, you expect to live like czarinas.”
Delia dragged her bundle back down the stairs. You girls! Mrs. Grossen's protests echoed in her ears. She felt the envelope in her pocket. Her money. But what good did it do her? She would have to go to Bessie after all. And the first thing Bessie would say is, “Did you bring your pay to your mama before you came?”
They just took and took, she repeated as she started towards Bessie's. They all took. Not just the bosses, not just the landlords, but the women. The women with the sick babies and flats full of sniveling children. The ones with the soup pot that never had enough meat in it and the line hung with washing that was never quite clean. The women who watched from the window or stood at the top of the stoop on payday, always waiting for someone to come home with an envelope in their pocket. And how had her mama, her mama who once had the best hands in the shop, who had scolded the boss until his ears turned red, how had her own mama become one of those women who was always taking? For an instant she never wanted to see her mama again.
She was getting tired and hungry. Too tired to remain angry. She just needed a place to stop and think. A small shop on the next corner advertised tea and a buttered roll for three cents. She should eat something too, she reminded herself. That way she would not arrive at Bessie's with a greedy stomach. She would be able to say ‘No Thank-you’ like a guest even when Bessie tried to make her sit and eat. The little cafe had no tables. People ate standing up. She leaned on the counter beside a line of tired greenhorn girls and chewed her roll slowly. Carefully, she pulled the pay envelope from her pocket. A little calling card slipped out with it. She caught it before it dropped to the floor. "O. Moreno.” The card Olivia had given to her on the night they celebrated the rent strike. “If you ever need help.” That’s what Olivia had said.
Delia studied the address on the card. She hardly knew Olivia, but it was obvious that Olivia did not did not have to work in a factory or wait on people behind a counter. Though rumor had it that she had gone to a university, she wasn’t a settlement house worker or schoolteacher like educated American women. Nor did she have a husband and children, as far as anyone knew. She was different. A person. Some one who did what she pleased. She was free.
“23 Waverly Place, Greenwich Village, New York City,” Delia had a good idea where that was. She slipped the card back into her pocket. If she went to Bessie’s nothing would ever change. She would sleep in the front room alcove for a few weeks. Then Mama would send Leah to fetch her and she would tie up her bundles and go back home. Nothing would ever be different. Not really. No matter how she felt or what she wanted to believe. No matter how many meetings she went to nothing would ever really change. She would work and work and there would never be enough. She might feel like somebody important on one day, but the very next she would be just another girl sitting at a machine. She wasn’t sure what kind of change she wanted or how to make it happen. She looked at the little card again. Maybe this was a start.
Waverly was a narrow little street close by Washington Park. Delia had been to the park many times to hear people give speeches beneath the great arch. Greenwich Village was a neighborhood where all kinds of people mixed: Jews, Italians, Irish, businessmen, university students, and the Americans who called themselves Yankees because they had arrived here first. People also said it was a place for women who were ‘independent’ meaning they preferred to live alone.
She almost walked right by the house. It was so small—a tiny, old-style cottage set back from the street behind a low wrought-iron gate. One window was lit and she thought she could see someone moving behind the thick, rippled pane.
Delia let the brass knocker fall twice. The heavy thud made her heart thump. Perhaps this was not such a good idea after all.
Delia had expected a maid. But Olivia herself opened the door. She wore same dark tailored jacket and skirt Delia had seen her in before. Her hair was pulled back into a single knot and her face was the same, too, serious, yet somehow amused.
"You...you gave me your card," Delia didn't know how to begin. "You said if I needed help…”
"Yes, I remember. Lucia's friend. Come in." Olivia gestured Delia inside as if people with bundles of clothing showed up on her doorstep all the time. Maybe they did.
"I need a place to stay you see..."
"Of course. You can put your things in the cupboard there. I'll make us some tea."
“Wait!” Didn't they have to get some things straight first? "I can pay."
Was it up to Delia to set her own rent? "Two dollars a week," she said. That was fair. "Maybe two dollars and ten cents, because I will need to borrow bed linens."
"Oh no," Olivia protested. "I meant just for tonight. I'm not looking for a boarder."
"Oh." Shame caught up with Delia. She looked away so Olivia would not see her red face. In the front room, to the right of the entryway, she saw a small bed with a blanket and sheet folded down, ready to be slept in. "I am sorry. I see you have a boarder already.”
"No, no. Not at all.” Now Olivia seemed embarrassed. “I keep that ready in case I have visitors from abroad."
Abroad? No one Delia knew called the old country ‘abroad.’ You simply said, ‘back home’ or ‘over there.’ Someone might name a village, a certain street or talk about ‘the baker's corner’ or ‘the cobblers’ courtyard.’ But where was this ‘abroad’? That must be where all the rich people came from.
"What am I saying?" Olivia looked at the empty bed. "It's been a long time since I have had visitors from abroad and I don’t take in boarders because," she turned to face Delia, “because to tell the truth I am not so easy to get along with.”
"I am not easy to get along with either,” Delia blurted out. “My own mama evicted me.” She flushed even more. She shouldn’t tell Olivia about her mama.
“Your mother?” Olivia stood for a moment not saying anything. “Well,” she finally replied. “Perhaps you can stay. At least for a while.”
Delia set her things down and they had tea. Olivia asked a hundred questions, but not the ones Delia expected. She didn't ask about Mama. She did not even agree that two dollars rent was all right. Instead she asked about the union, the meetings. What did Delia think of a general strike? Did she know about the Women's Trade Union League? Had she heard of Mary Dreier and her sister Margaret, two heiresses who gave their money to the workers’ cause? No, Delia replied. She knew of no rich American sisters. And she never went to Women’s Trade Union meetings because League ladies didn't like socialists and they weren't a real union anyway. They could not declare a strike, for instance. They left that to the American Federation of Labor, which consisted entirely of men.
"Why should we let men tell us if we can walk out or not?" Delia demanded.
"You need to build broader alliances, coalitions." Olivia said. "If every shop walks out separately whenever the girls feel like it, nothing will get done."
They talked for at least an hour. What newspapers did Delia read, Olivia wanted to know? The Forward and Die Neue Frie Presse were good, but what about the American papers? The Sun, the Observer, the New York Times, the Herald. Before she knew it, Delia had a long list of newspapers, books and magazines that Olivia insisted she had to read. She got dizzy just thinking of all those words. If she spent all day in the Carnegie Library for the rest of her life she would never get to half of it.
Olivia stood up and took a waterproof cloak from a hook. "I have to go out for a while."
"A meeting so late?" Delia asked.
"No...yes. A meeting for two people." Before she left Olivia handed Delia a key. " I am out most evenings and you'll need to let yourself in."
Delia examined the key. She had never had one before. Who on Cherry Street would need a key? The door was always open because people were always going in and out. From now on she would have a key in her pocket. It gave her something, a sense of power, which even a pay envelope didn't bring.
As soon as she thought of pay envelopes she felt guilty. Now that she had a place to stay, her earlier anger at her mother dissolved. Tomorrow she would find Leah at the library and give her some money for Mama. She hoped Leah could be trusted not to spend it all on toys for the children and drawing things.
Delia took two dollars and put them in an empty jar. She placed the jar back on the shelf where Olivia could see it. Then she rinsed out the teacups and set them to dry by the edge of the sink. She didn't think Olivia would charge for the tea. Maybe she could buy a little tin, for the common good, as the communists would say. It seemed that she would have to set her own rules here.
In the front room, she unpacked her things, placing them in a large empty chest of drawers with elaborately carved legs like lion’s paws. After that, she sat upon the bed with her hands in her lap gazing around in wonder. Against nearly every wall stood shelves packed with books-- English books, Italian books, French, Russian and Yiddish ones. There were stacks of magazines, too--McClure’s, Mondiale, Outlook, Il Jutte. It was like having a library right in your own home. She got up and walked around the room, tapping the spines of the books with her fingertips shyly, like she had just stepped into a party and had to greet a roomful of important people.
She took down a thick volume of English poetry and cracked it open, searching for something she knew. There it was:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high, o'er vale and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering, dancing in the breeze....
She felt delighted, as if she had just glimpsed an old friend from childhood. She tried to imagine herself a little girl again, standing with shaking legs in front of the great school assembly, reciting the poem and straining to make herself heard. I wandered lonely as a cloud. If Mr. William Wordsworth ever came to New York, she thought, he should stay in Central Park with his poems. Wandering around the Lower East Side certainly did not make you feel like a floating cloud. She kept looking through the book until she found the poem by Shelly, the one about lions she had heard the young man recite at the party when they won the rent strike:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew,
Ye are many, they are few.
That poem was a friend, too. But more like one she hoped she would know better. “Ye are many, they are few,” she whispered. The book was filled with hundreds of other poems. Poems about nightingales, sailors, and a strange land called Xanadu that reminded her of the fairy tale pictures Leah drew. “Reading is like dancing,” That’s what she had told Lucy. And it was true. Once you started you never wanted stop.
She yawned, her head nodding with weariness. The words before her eyes began to turn into lace. “Delia! “ The teacher whispered and bent forward to give her a ribbon. The lace began to unravel. Delia panicked. “The words are gone!”
“Delia?” The teacher turned into Olivia with her strange, intriguing accent.
Delia woke. The light was still on. She was still in her clothes.
Olivia picked up the book. "The Romantic Poets of England? I forgot I had that.” She put it down, bemused. “When did I ever have time for such things?"
Olivia brought out an extra blanket and showed Delia the switch that worked the lights. Then Delia undressed and crept into bed. She could feel all the books looking down upon her, like angels and judges at once. Finally she fell into a real sleep. Sleep so deep, she spoke only Yiddish in her dreams.
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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