When word got round that she was living with Olivia, Delia thought all her friends had turned against her, even the ones who liked Olivia. Or seemed to. A few of the older girls in the union who had met Olivia and repeated her phrases all the time, questioned Delia coldly. “Do you know where she goes at night?” Rosa asked.
“Only to meetings, like everybody,” Delia replied innocently.
Naomi snorted and looked at Delia sidewise, as if to say ‘oh you baby.’ “Who sleeps in the house at night?” Berthe demanded.
“Just the two of us,” Delia answered. Why was everyone so eager to poke their fingers in Olivia's affairs? “She has the back room and I sleep in the front, in the alcove, the boarder’s place. Do you want to come and spy through the windows?” That shut them up. “It’s only that she’s rich,” Naomi explained. “And we’re afraid she will influence you.”
Delia didn’t understand. She and Olivia might disagree. Delia had no interest in Olivia's American friends or the Ladies League. But Olivia always listened.
Lilly, too, was curious and indignant. “How can you go and live with one of the goyim, a stranger?”
“We work with the Italians,” Delia said. “We have known Italian girls all our lives. Rosita, the four Maria’s, Carmella, they all came to Rachel’s wedding.”
“But we don’t live with them,” Lilly insisted. “Besides, those Italians are poor, like us. This Olivia is rich. You will be different now that you have a new rich friend.”
Rich. That’s what seemed so important to people. “But she’s not....I mean she is, but not the way rich people are rich.” Delia couldn’t make her thoughts clear.
It was hard to say what made it so completely obvious that Olivia was rich. She certainly didn’t have a steamer trunk full of silk gowns. She wore only two outfits, both nearly identical blue serge tailor-made dresses without any trim. Except for the books, the house was no fancier inside than anybody else’s flat. If anything, it was plainer. The floors were bare and the sofa and chairs covered only by thin horsehair cushions. They slept on coarse muslin sheets and took their meals from tin plates and earthenware cups. Olivia had none of the things that all but the very poorest of tenement women bought to soften their homes--no crocheted doilies, braided rugs, or checked cotton curtains, any of which could be had from a peddler’s cart for less than a dollar. Not a single ten-cent photograph in an imitation gilt frame adorned the walls.
Yet Olivia was rich. Anyone could see that. All the buttons on her jacket matched and the sleeves never looked threadbare, not even on the elbows and wrists. When she took off her boots, the leather was so supple the tops folded over like cloth, and the toes had metal tips. Olivia might never reach for another slice of bread at supper, but she said nothing when Delia did or when Delia added an extra shovel of coal to the stove. She had no need to watch her pennies. Nor did she seem to notice the jar where Delia conscientiously added her two dollars rent every week. She never asked about it. And she never counted it. Delia was sure...
But it was more than all this, Delia decided. More than the books, even, that made you know Olivia was rich. It was, she realized, the way Olivia kept herself clean. Delia had never seen anything like it. The house was too old for a modern bath, so Olivia used a big galvanized tin tub in the kitchen. No matter how late she came in, she’d set a kettle of water on the stove and fill the tub every night. Then she’d sit in it and scrub herself all over, not minding at all if Delia came in to fix some tea or warm herself at the stove. They’d talk about a book or a magazine article while Olivia scrubbed herself from her heels up to her ears. She had a different brush for everything--a long one for her back, a short one for her nails, another for her elbows, knees and feet. After she finished her bath she used a square thick-bristled brush on her hair, and last of all, a tiny pearl-handled one to polish her teeth.
Delia used the tub too, but not so often or for so long. She could never rid herself of the feeling that one of her little cousins was standing near crying ‘me next.’ So she rushed though her bath and never felt completely clean.
Her skin began to itch with longing for a deep pool of water. On her next free day, she would go to the public bathhouse, she promised herself. She’d try the big modern one that had just opened off Delancy Street, where she was sure she wouldn’t run into Mama or Helga.
She arrived at a quarter to seven on Sunday morning. Work was slack and more than one shop was closed that Sunday; a long line already snaked down the block. Girls and women greeted each other in a holiday mood, happy and exited to have the day free. Everyone came in a group, mothers with daughters, sisters with cousins, married women with friends and in-laws. Delia had no one. She paid the matron for three buckets of hot water and stood there in the cabinet stall, pouring them over herself slowly. It would have been nice to have someone to help. Still, she managed to hoist the bucket high over her head and tilt it so the water came in a great, warm gush over her hair, her neck, her shoulders, down her back, and over her legs in wonderful silky rivulets. She had brought her own washcloth and bar of soap and after the second bucket, she scrubbed and scrubbed, from the soles of her feet up right up to her hair, which turned into a great soapy crown. She used the third bucket to rinse and asked for a fourth, just to make sure all the soap was completely gone. When she was done, she tipped matron a nickel, feeling at last that she was rich. Then she wrapped herself in a Turkish towel, rented for a penny, and headed to the big common pool.
“There she is, the girl that breaks her mother’s heart,” Bessie’s voice boomed out, just as Delia lowered herself into the water. Of course Bessie would be at the newest place.
Delia wanted to sink into oblivion, but Bessie pulled her close, kissing her on both cheeks. “Your mama weeps her eyes out over you, Little Twig.” Bessie sighed and shook her head, then pinched Delia’s cheek and laughed as if it were no big thing. A bunch of little girls started splashing each other and everyone else. All around her women and girls were busy kibitzing. Everyone had some bit of gossip to pass on—who was getting married, whose engagement was broken, whose baby was sick, who had moved, who was out of work. “It will never happen, this general strike.” Even here they talked about the strike. “It is an anarchist idea.” “That doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.” Everyone took sides, for or against it.
“If some girl is at Klien’s or Clark’s is having trouble with her boss, why should I walk out?” Bessie demanded. “I don’t ask her to walk out for me. If I have trouble with my boss, I tell him so. For eleven years I work for Heshel Meir. I know him, he knows me. Sometimes he gets his way, sometimes I get mine. The general strike is for those who can’t stand up for themselves.”
“Each shop is separate. That’s what keeps us weak,” Delia argued. A few of the younger women echoed their support. She leaned back against the smooth tiled wall of the pool and let the water lap her shoulders and neck. This was the best kind of meeting. Everyone naked and up to their chin in warm water. “Every meeting should be like this,” she sighed happily.
“But what about the men?” They all laughed, even the matrons carrying towels and buckets.
“Let them hold their own meetings in their own baths.”
“Collective action!” “Collective action!” “Power to the working classes.” They hollered and splashed until their hair was dripping wet.
“Collective, feh!” Bessie hoisted herself out of the pool and rubbed herself roughly with a towel. “You girls sound like my boarders.”
“You have boarders too?” Delia asked.
“Why not? Everyone takes in boarders these days. Since my daughter married, I have two brothers from Lithuania in her old bedroom. Skilled pattern cutters. Quiet boys, I thought. Next thing I know they’re having a meeting right there in my back room. Anarchists and freethinkers coming in with loud voices and black fingernails from doing who only knows what kind of work. ‘You will have the secret police at my door,’ I tell them. They say, ‘In America there are no secret police. Just Irish police.’ ‘No,’ I say. ‘Police are police everywhere. Even in America.’”
Delia thought for a moment of the way she had seen the police push girls every time there was a lockout or trouble on the street. She had never actually seen them hurt anyone, though. “They are not so bad, maybe, the Irish.”
“No? And have you ever seen Jewish police?” Bessie asked.
Girls laughed as if the very idea was ridiculous. “A Jew in a policeman’s uniform?” No one could imagine it.
“They have it all over us, the Irish,” someone added angrily. “They get better pay, better work.”
“Not the girls,” Delia remembered Birdie the little servant girl in the big house. “They are servants and have it worse.”
“Worse? Servants get their board for free and save all their money.”
“I wouldn’t go be a maid for an American lady even if I were starving.”
“And have you ever been starving?’
The talk continued until everyone’s toes and fingers were wrinkled with cold.
At home, Olivia and Delia argued too. Olivia kept telling Delia she should come with her to the Ladies League meetings. Delia flatly refused. She was a socialist and didn’t need to meet charitable ladies.
Didn’t Delia know some of the rich were socialists too, Olivia asked? Didn’t she know that Jane Addams who had started the settlement house movement was one of the most famous socialists in the world? No, Delia insisted, Americans couldn’t be true socialists. “They are nothing but reformers,” she added with contempt. She had heard the word ‘reformer’ used as an insult at many meetings. The reformers were the ones who would settle for a little, instead of demanding a lot. Some old man of forty or so was always saying ‘reform, not revolution,’ only to be shouted down.
“Let the settlement workers give their English lessons and art classes,” she told Olivia. “And leave socialism to us workers.”
“Why are you so angry?” Olivia laughed at her like Bessie, as if she was only a child with whims. “No one owns the people. Americans have their socialists, even their anarchists, Marxists and communists, too. And some of the reformers aren’t so bad if they can make themselves useful.”
Finally Delia relented a little and agreed to go with Olivia to a meeting at an American reformer’s house.
A stern-faced maid greeted them when they arrived and for a moment Delia feared they might be sent round back. But the maid only pointed them towards the drawing room as if it was nothing to her to have socialist workers parading through the front door, as if it happened all the time.
The drawing room itself was almost as big as an entire flat. Rows of chairs had been set out and a small speaker’s platform arranged at one end. Many people were already there and Delia was surprised to see three or four familiar faces from the Lower East Side.
Everyone was speaking English. She had no trouble with the language at home. She knew she could speak it better than most, but now she wondered what she would sound like to these Americans. When one of the Lower East Side socialists said something quite loudly, she thought for an instant that the Americans around him smiled too broadly. A crush of newcomers filled the room. The contrast between the American English and the Yiddish English embarrassed Delia. Olivia didn’t notice the noise or didn’t care. She only seemed pleased when a tall man with fair hair reached out to draw her through the jumble of chairs and people. She said something to him that Delia couldn’t hear. Then he shook Delia’s hand and said, “So pleased you meet you at last,” as if she had been expected all along.
Someone called the meeting to order. To Delia’s amazement, silence fell almost immediately. The tall man ushered them to two empty seats. Delia craned her neck right and left trying to appraise those around her. Everyone looked old, Olivia's age or more. Some of the women were stylish and others wore plain dark clothes, though not so well as Olivia. The American men wore suits, except for one dressed in a Russian style tunic with a high collar and loose sleeves. He was so obviously an American trying to look like a greenhorn peasant Delia almost laughed.
Olivia nudged her and she turned to face the front. The blond man was talking. He brought forward another man who started to speak. Than another took his place. She could understand their English, yet she could not follow what they said. Their voices neither rose nor fell. Each word was clear, but no different from all the others. There was nothing in their speech that would make you want to jeer in derision or cheer in support. Nothing that would make fights or laughter break out in the back of the room. Nothing that would make you nod and sway as the speaker brought his hands together or raised them in the air to make a point. They spoke, she realized, like people who didn’t know how to sing.
She stared at Olivia intently. For the first time it dawned on her that she had never heard Olivia sing. Every other woman or girl Delia knew--Jewish, Italian, Greek, Polish, Slav-- sang almost without thinking about it. Girls in the shop would start singing together as soon as the closing bell rang each day. Delia herself sang or hummed snatches of old or new songs while she fixed dinner at home or walked along the street. But Olivia didn’t sing. Not when she was bathing or cooking or polishing her leather boots. Not when she was getting dressed in the morning or when she came in at night. She might talk to herself or laugh at nothing at all. But she never sang.
“That’s Pamela MacKenzie,” Olivia leaned over and whispered. Delia was surprised to see a girl her own age walk to the podium. She was so small someone had to bring her a footstool to stand on. Even then, her head barely rose above the lectern so they asked her to come around and stand at the front of the stage.
Olivia whispered again that Pamela was the only child of a man who owned a railway company. She had decided to join the Ladies League, much to her father’s dissatisfaction. They waited for Pamela to begin. She just stood there tugging at her jacket, clasping and unclasping her hands, like a child missing a beloved toy. Her eyes fastened on Delia’s. She stared and stared at Delia like someone in a fever dream.
‘Go on,’ Delia mouthed the words silently. ‘Go on,’ she nodded her head.
Pamela blinked. She came out of her dream. She spoke in a whispery, trembling voice. “It’s not just about the state, or capitalism or the working classes.” She paused and took a breath. “It’s about girls. Girls who work.”
Delia nodded again, taken aback. She would have said the same thing herself. But Pamela’s voice remained so soft, you had to lean forward to hear it, and even then you could only catch half of it. Some men were talking in the back. One of chuckled and repeated the word ‘girls.’ They hadn’t come just to hear about girls.
“And it makes me feel so bad, so…” Pamela searched for the right word. “Angry?” She looked around uncertainly. “To think that so many work and work so that the rest of us will have fancy things to wear...”
That is true, thought Delia, but if you are angry make a noise. Don’t be angry like kitten. Be angry like a lion, like a lion in the street.
Pamela finished her speech. People applauded enthusiastically, even the men in the back, no doubt more for the money she might bring to their cause than for what she actually said. She bowed and scuttled back to her seat.
A break was called. Someone announced that refreshments had been set out in the dining room. Hot and thirsty from so much listening, Delia got up to see if they had lemonade or seltzer. She felt a tug on her sleeve.
“You’re Delia!” Pamela whispered breathlessly. “I knew Olivia would bring you. She’s told me all about you. You’re one of the leaders. The organizers. You organized a walkout in your shop. You wrote for the Forward.” Pamela blinked and blinked as her words tumbled over each other. “I read about working girls all the time. But I don’t meet any of you.”
“You read about us?” Delia couldn’t see any lemonade or seltzer. There were pitchers of plain water, though. She poured herself a glass.
“Oh yes, in the Sun. They had a whole series on immigrants. ‘Portraits of the City’.”
She reads about us like we are something in a fairy book, Delia thought. She took a gulp of water. It wasn’t even iced.
“And it makes me feel so…so...”
“Angry?” Delia offered.
“Yes. Just to read about a girl who works all week for only a dollar.”
Delia put the glass down. “If you tell people you are angry, than be angry.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you speak. You want to be angry, but your voice is so soft. Who will believe you? When you give a speech you must make people listen.”
“How?” Pamela fiddled with the buttons on her jacket. “I worked so hard on my speech. Yes, I know they only let me speak because my father is so rich. Honestly, most of them don’t even think I have something to say. But I want them to listen. I want them to believe me. And I want to be angry.” Pamela lifted her hands helplessly. “I just don’t know how.”
How can you teach someone to be angry, Delia wondered. How did anyone learn anger? There were as many kinds of anger in her world as there were sick babies, crying women, or old men begging in the street. As many kinds of anger as there were cheating landlords, sneaky factory owners, and foremen with hands always trying to feel your hips through your skirt. Anger was not a special or different feeling. It was just part of being alive. Your anger was with you even when you were singing and dancing. It was as much a part of you as your lungs or your feet. But Pamela didn’t live in the Lower East Side. What could help her understand anger? “If you and your mama were to fight,” Delia began hesitantly. “And your mama said you could not do something even if it was the one thing you wanted to do in the world, how would you feel?”
“How did you know about me and my mama?” Pamela stared at Delia amazed. “She says tells me not to talk too loud, not to say what I think, not go to meetings.” Pamela spoke very fast and turned bright pink. Her little hands contracted into fists. “And when I go to meetings anyway she runs to her room and draws the blinds and lies there all day with a wet cloth over her eyes. She says she is dying and the servants have to tip toe and whisper because her head hurts so much.” Pamela’s hands went limp. She looked down and shrugged miserably. “So how can I get angry at her then?”
Now Delia didn’t know what to say. She thought of the way she and her mama would shout at one another until the walls rang with their voices. She couldn’t imagine her mama lying down in the middle of the day over an argument What would she have done if her mama had decided to go to bed with a wet cloth over her eyes, every time they fought about something? Her mama would have had to spend her life in bed. No, Delia shook her head, that didn’t make sense. She felt a little sorry for Pamela. It could not be easy to have mama like that even if you were rich.
Pamela smiled weakly and shrugged, as there was nothing more she could say about her mama. “Would… would you like some refreshments?” she asked Delia,
“Danke. Thank-you.” Taking Pamela’s cue, Delia dropped the topic of mothers, too. How could she advise Pamela to argue with her mother, when she had never yet won an argument with her own? “Let’s get something to nosh.”
“Nosh?” The word came out of Pamela mouth like a sneeze.
“It means eat.” Delia took Pamela’s arm and strolled over to the refreshment table like she took tea in a rich lady’s parlor all the time.
When they got there, however, she just stared with dismay. The food at this meeting was just as bland as the voices. Trays of pale crackers, bread that was neither brown nor white, a few platters of limp sliced cheese, and a crock of stewed prunes.
“We won’t serve fancy food here,” Pamela said proudly. “Just simple things. Because the workers don’t eat fancy things.”
“No fancy things?” Where in the word did Pamela get that idea? “Just because we work that doesn’t mean we never have fancy things to eat.” On the Lower East Side women horded all year just to produce holiday foods. Mothers passed down recipes like precious jewels. Bakeries displayed their wares like works of art. “We have kreplach and kugel, rugelah, babkes, blinis, kuchen...” Delia pointed to the empty spaces on the table where so many things could have been. “And those are just the Jewish ones. The Italians have their own fancy things. Biscotti, canolli, gelato....” Maybe people didn’t eat that way all the time, but she didn’t want Pamela to think that no one on the Lower East Side ever had anything good to eat. That would be like saying they didn’t know how to dance or sing. She thought of all the places where she and her friends would go after meetings. “And the cafes. Every place has its own specialties. There’s the Cosmopolitan, Bloomgarten’s, Die Rougenstrausse Cafe…”
“Where is that? What is that?” Pamela kept interrupting. She couldn’t tell the difference between the names of places the things to eat. “I’ve never seen that. I’ve never even heard of it.”
“Anyone can see the Lower East Side. Nu?” Delia raised her hands palm up. “Just take the streetcar. It’s not so far.”
“Oh I would. I want to so much. But I’ve never taken a streetcar on my own. And my mama hates the idea of my walking about alone.” Pamela hung her head. “She says the streets are so dangerous. If she thought I was out by myself she’d take to her bed for a year. ”
Always these mamas, Delia thought impatiently. Warning their daughters against this and forbidding that. They ruined everything. She felt sorry for Pamela. But what could she do? Here was a girl who wanted to give speeches but was afraid of walking down the street.
“Delia could meet you.” Olivia suddenly appeared and put her hands on both their shoulders. “It’s not dangerous at all. And I’m sure Delia would love to show you around the Lower East Side.”
“Could you? I mean would you? It would be wonderful!” Pamela’s face lit up like a little girl invited to Coney Island.
Delia panicked. She didn’t mind talking to Pamela, but she hardly wanted to befriend someone who was afraid to ride a trolley alone. And what would her own friends say? They already gave her trouble for living with Olivia. How could she explain walking around with some rich American girl at her side? “I have work,” she sputtered. “And meetings.”
“But not always.” Olivia seemed to think it was it was a fine idea. So somehow, in spite of Delia’s misgivings, it was settled that she would meet Pamela at the corner of East Broadway the next time she had a day free.
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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