“Run, Delia, run.” The girls called out from the top of the steps.
“Presto, presto!” Lucy urged her on.
“Schnell! Schnell!” Rachel, Lilly, Bertha and Naomi chanted.
Delia galloped down the street and hurdled up the stairs to the factory gate two at a time, remembering at the last moment to tuck her copy of the Forward inside her coat where the boss couldn’t see it. “You riding Der Leydikgeyer? The slowpoke express today?” she heard him mutter as she scooted around him, right before big door clanked shut behind her. Once more, she had escaped being locked out for the morning.
She had only been working for a month and already she was coming later and later. She knew it was because she spent too much time talking to Jake when she bought the Forward, but he always seemed to know what was going to happen on the Lower East Side even before the editors did--what shops were closing or cutting wages and where the workers were going to walk out or maybe call a strike.
She hung up her coat and slipped her lunch out of her pocket. All around her the workroom was roiling with girls’ voices laughing, singing, teasing, and arguing.
“Delia! Come and sit by me.” Lilly Hershfeld patted a vacant crate. “We’ll be sisters today.” Lilly was the same age as Delia and they sat together now nearly every day. Lilly also had an older sister, Rachel, who also worked with them too, but Lilly wanted a “sister equal” who didn’t boss so much, she told Delia. So she called Delia her sister at work.
Delia, of course, had no sister anymore. Or brother or papa either. She was alone with her mama. Sometimes their three-room flat seemed so empty and silent with just the two of them to fill it, she couldn’t sleep at night.
“We are work sisters, then.” She smiled gratefully at Lilly. Before sitting down, she hid her lunch in a corner underneath the bench that held her machine. She had only one roll today, with a thin schmear of butter instead of cheese. By lunchtime the bread would taste of the machine oil and soot that always seeped through the paper no matter how tightly she wrapped it. At least the thief wouldn’t find it, though...
The girls fell silent as the foreman, Gregor, and his Ukrainian sidekick came in and began to parcel out the morning stint. Everybody snuck a look around to see how much work her neighbors were getting. You could tell what the boss thought of you by the size of your stint. The piles of cloth that Gregor dumped beside them at their feet were rarely equal. Too little was not good. How would you earn enough to eat? The younger girls like Delia and Lilly were paid three cents for every skirt they finished. That meant three long straight seams, one on each side and one down the back, and a band at the waist. A fast seam stitcher could make up to a dollar a day, though Delia never did. But if the boss only gave you enough for ten skirts you could only make thirty cents no matter how fast you worked. And if you were slow, he might give you a big stint just so he could fire you for not finishing it. “Meshuga.” The girls would mutter. Crazy. They never saw any sense to what he did.
He kept an account book to add up everyone’s weekly pay, but he never let anyone see his marks. All the girls tried to keep track of their pay, sure that he was cheating them.
The older girls in Delia’s workroom assembled the long-sleeved button-front tops for the dresses at a nickel apiece. Then both skirts and tops were taken to the second floor girls to be sewn together, hemmed and button-holed at seven cents a garment. After that, they were sent to the third floor operators who did the all the fancy stitching and tucking and attached the collar and cuffs for a dime. So everyone’s pay envelope was different and it was never what you expected it to be. The boss always had a hundred excuses to short your wages. He didn’t call it cheating, he called it business.
And I call it meshuga, Delia thought, as Gregor tossed her stint on the floor. She hunched forward, squeezing her elbows close to her sides. Gregor and his assistant never failed to find some way of touching your arm or brushing the back of your neck as they passed by. Some girls acted like it was nothing, but it made Delia feel dirty.
Lilly looked over at Delia’s pile. “We are equal,” she whispered.
“Sisters.” They bumped shoulders.
It was also forbidden to share work or help anybody with her stint. You could be fired if you were caught. Delia knew now that Lucy had taken an enormous risk when she had helped her finish her work on that first day. But Lucy was different, as everyone said. She always acted like she was free to do whatever she pleased.
“The devil take you, you Sicilian witch!” Gregor howled and hopped on one foot, clutching his knee.
“Mi scusi,” Lucy said. “My needle must have slipped.”
“Into his leg,” Lilly hissed.
The girls could barely suppress their laughter. As soon as the two men left, the whole room seemed to rock with giggles. Everybody exhaled and began talking again.
“He gives me nothing.” Pickles complained about her stint. “Nothing.” She stood up and pointed to her pile, which appeared to be no smaller than anyone else’s. “But this Lucy!” She stalked over to where Lucy sat and stood there with her hands on her hips. “See how she gets all the best pieces. No rends, no loose threads in the weaving.”
If a piece of cloth was torn, your pay would be docked, even if you could prove it was damaged before you even touched it. Pickles insisted the flawed pieces were set aside especially for her.
“My cloth is no better than yours,” Lucy said patiently.
Pickles paid no attention. “It doesn’t matter if she sticks Gregor with as many pins as a hive has bees, the boss tells him to give Lucy the best pieces because she--”
“Here.” Lucy picked up a half-dozen lengths of cloth and held them out to Pickles. “Prendero. If you like my stint so much. Take.”
“I wouldn’t touch it now that your fingers have been upon it.” Pickles backed off and made a big show of wiping her hands on her skirt. “Treif,” she sneered. Unclean. “Fifty different fellas, at least, you in your arms in the Golden Land Ballroom on Houston Street last night.”
For a few seconds Delia thought a fight would start. But Lucy only laughed. “Fifty? You must have left early. I think I danced with eighty, no a hundred fellas, at least.”
“A hundred!” Someone gasped.
“Well why not?” Lucy asked. “I’m not anyone’s findanzata. I’m not betrothed.”
“But a hundred?” Rosita demurred. “How will you ever choose one from so many?”
“And why should I choose one?”
No one bothered to reply. You had to choose one. Everyone did.
“Even Rachel will have to make her choice,” Lilly told Delia. “The matchmaker comes to the house with a new suitor every week. But not one of them pleases her.”
Delia looked over to the row where Lilly’s sister sat with the older Jewish girls. It was easy to pick Rachel out in any crowd. Her thick golden hair, which she had just started to twist atop her head like a grown woman, shone like liberty’s torch, like a beacon of light. Delia could tell from the way she had momentarily stopped sewing to throw her hands up in mock horror that her friends were teasing her again.
“This one is too tall, that one’s too short,” Naomi sing-songed. “He’s too fat, but the other’s too thin. His back is bent, his toes turn in. If he’s not schemiel, he must be a schlemazel. Nu? If you don’t choose soon you will end up alone.”
“You should listen to them,” Rosita who understood some Yiddish, scolded Lucy. “Do you want to be alone?”
“I want to be free,” Lucy said stubbornly in English.
“Oooh, free love!” Someone cooed. “Lucy is a follower of free love.”
“Free love.” They all tittered.
“Yes,” Pickles broke in sourly. “That’s what her brother the anarchist teaches her. Free love.”
“Carlo?” Lucy refused to let Pickles goad her. “He believed in free love until Maria dragged him by his hair to the priest.”
The Italian girls who knew Carlo and his wife Maria chuckled slyly.
“Ogni sera di sotto al mio balcone,” Lucy sang a popular Italian song. “Sento cantar una canzone d'amore.” They all knew the words. “Every evening underneath my balcony I hear a love-song.”
“E battere mi sento forte il core,” they chimed in, Jews and Italians alike. “And it makes my heart beat faster.” Everyone understood a love song no matter what language they sang in.
“What is this free love?” Delia asked Lilly. She had heard the phrase but she wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Lilly’s parents were enlightened, so she knew many things Delia didn’t.
“It is when Jews decide to marry without a rabbi or Catholics without priest. Or when two strangers marry and no one in either family will recognize them so they have to get a certificate marriage at City Hall.”
Delia nodded. “Strangers” meant a Jew and a gentile. Those marriages weren’t supposed to happen but they did. And when they did the couple couldn’t have a real wedding. They could not stand beneath a canopy or before an altar because if one did the other couldn’t be there. Instead they went to City Hall and got a piece of American paper that said they were married, though no one really believed it. These paper marriages were as bad as the free love marriages. As bad as not being married at all “They say Estelle has a free lover,” Lilly whispered, indicating a girl who sat next to Lucy.
Estelle was tall, slender and stylish. She was known for wearing the most elegant hats and rarely spoke. Many of the girls avoided her, feeling she was odd in a way they couldn’t quite name. But she was Lucy’s friend. The two walked to work together every day and Delia didn’t want to believe anything bad of her. “Maybe freedom is not so wrong,” she said.
“Nu?” Lilly’s eyebrows shot up. “And you? Would you rather marry or be free?”
They both burst into giggles. Of course they would marry beneath the chuppa, the canopy. That’s what you did when you were old enough to be a woman. You married and became a mama and maybe stayed home like Lilly’s mother. Or you could work in the shop, if you had to or wanted to. Delia’s mother had worked when her father was still alive, even though her father had earned good money. Her mother liked to work because she was a good operator. She had the best hands in the shop. Only Mama didn’t work in the shop anymore, Delia reminded herself. Last week her mama and several of the older ladies had been turned away at the gate. Sacked the girls called it. Delia hated that word. Sacked, as if a woman were nothing but an empty sack to be tossed down the steps, her head hanging, like a flour bag flopping over at the top. But her mama had not left in shame. She had marched down the steps with her head held high. “It is only because all you young learners are learning so fast,” she told Delia later, trying to make a joke of it. “Soon they will not need us old ladies anywhere anymore.” Delia had laughed. Mama wasn’t old.
“Oy!” And she wasn’t learning very fast either. A big knot of thread stopped her needle in its tracks. And she had been doing so well this morning, she grumbled. Now she would have to do the whole seam over.
Mama would find work soon. There were a dozen shops that would hire her. A hundred. “I have good hands.” Her mama had held up her hands for Delia to see. Delia loved looking at her mama’s hands. The fingers were long and strong and tapered like candles at the tips. Good hands.
“Ow!” The needle jumped loose and jabbed her thumb. Hanukah had come and gone. Spring was nearly here and still her own fingers felt like ten crooked noodles always going off in different directions as she worked.
“Don’t worry,” Lilly said. “I will finish it if you read.”
“Yes read.” The girls around them echoed.
“Nicola,” Lucy called to a little girl at the end of the row. “Go be look-out for us.” Nicola was only six and had worked as a snipper for two years, cutting the loose threads from the finished seams. Snipping was the simplest job in the shop and snippers earned about quarter for every hundred pieces the older girls completed. Nicola could easily snip and watch for the boss at the same time.
Delia picked up her Forward and mounted her crate so the entire workroom could hear. In the early days, when she had first come to the shop, she had only read the Forward on breaks to Lucy. But the other girls liked it so much they had begged her to read while they worked. That’s how she made friends with everybody. Everybody except Pickles, of course. Lilly, Rachel, Lucy and some of the braver ones would even help finish her stint if she would read.
Delia scanned the letters to the editor, the section called the Bintel Brief. Everyone, it seemed, wrote to the Forward with their troubles, fears, hopes and dreams. “Worthy Editor.” Her voice rose above the clatter of the machines. “I am a working man from Bailystok and there I belonged to the Bund. Then I traveled to Minsk and joined the Socialist Revolutionaries--”
“No! No!” Rachel covered her ears. “Not the Socialist Revolutionaries today. Please! Read about girls.”
“Yes, girls,” everyone chorused. They loved hearing the letters from girls like themselves.
“Esteemed Editor, I am a poor girl all alone in this country... “ Delia read one letter after another. “Dear Editor, I come to America to wed my fiancé, but I find he has another.... Worthy Editor, there is a gentleman I see every day on my way to work. In America, please, is it right for a girl to speak what her heart knows?” She read in Yiddish first, then translated into English for Lucy, who in turn would translate for those who knew only Italian. Delia could tell by the sighs and laughter which parts of letter they had just heard.
“Have pity on my sufferings and advise me in the Bintel Brief. I am in this country four years...” This last letter was especially long, for the writer did indeed have many miseries and the girls wanted Delia to repeat them all at least twice. As she paused for Lucy to translate, she heard something scratching beneath her workbench. A rat? Cautiously she peeked over the paper. No. No rat had those long, red braids flapping loose. “Thief!”
Pickles was trying to steal her lunch under her very nose just to spite her. Just to prove that she could. Pickles was scrawny and quick. The girls all said she moved like a snake, striking and slipping away unseen. But not this time.
“What thief? I dropped my bobbin and it rolled beneath your table. That is all.” Pickles rose and tried to walk off with dignity.
“Gonif! Thief!” Delia sprang from the crate. “You steal my lunch.”
“Liar!” Pickles turned and snatched at the newspaper, ripping half of it from Delia’s hands. “I have nothing of yours. You daughter of a three-headed serpent! Spawn of a hump-backed nanny goat!”
“You…you…” Delia couldn’t think of a word bad enough. Her mama didn’t allow her to curse like that. “You!” She leaped at Pickles with a ferocity that surprised even herself.
“Descendent of sewer rats!” Pickles spat.
“Thief!” Delia sprang again.
Pickles tottered backwards tumbling head over heels into a big iron-staved barrel filled with unwanted scraps of fabric. Her top half disappeared and her legs shot up into the air, waving frantically.
An astounded hush fell over the room.
“Oy gevalt!” The Jewish girls murmured
“Santa Maria.” The Italians crossed themselves.
Beneath her plain woolen skirt Pickles wore red silk under-drawers, so thin and tight the color might as well have been dyed right onto her very flesh. And her black knit stockings were held up by a pair of matching scarlet garters adorned with ruched ribbons and enormous satin rosettes.
“I cannot believe what my eyes tell me I see.” Rosita covered her face modestly.
“Where should a decent girl get such things?” Naomi demanded.
The barrel rocked as Pickles kicked, trying to free herself. Hoots and jeers rang from the walls.
“Gonif! Gonif!” Delia’s voice was loudest of all. “Thief!” She shook her torn Forward and danced around Pickles like a dybbuck, like an imp around a burning pyre. “Thief--”
“Girls!” Mr. Meir loomed in the doorway.
Little Nicola had been so transfixed she had failed to spot the boss.
They all froze. The barrel keeled over and Pickles crawled out, her skirt hiked to her waist.
“So this is how you girls conduct my business?”
Delia dropped the paper. Too late. She could see that his wolf’s eyes had devoured the scene in a single glance. He knew she had been reading instead of working.
“Nu?” He folded his arms.
Sacked. Without waiting to hear him say it, she ran out the front door and down the steps. Sacked. She had just gotten herself sacked in front of everyone.
She stopped on the bottom step and collapsed. What would she tell Mama? Her legs would take her no further. Sacked. She hunkered over, burying her face in her lap and clutching her knees. Dimly, she realized that she had left her coat and hat inside. She could not go home without them, but she didn’t dare tiptoe back in to fetch them. Soon the big door would open a crack and someone--Gregor, his assistant, or Mr. Meir himself--would toss her things down to her, telling her not to come back and reminding her that a hundred hungry girls were ready right at that very moment to take her place.
She heard the door creak. She waited. Any second her hat and coat would come sailing down over her head, landing in the dust of the street. They didn’t. Instead, Lucy came and sat down beside her. “I was afraid you had run home,” she said. “Grazie.”
“Thank-you? For what?”
“I laughed so hard my stays burst. Imagine! Pickles in a barrel!” Lucy started laughing again.
Delia wanted to laugh but she couldn’t. “I’ve been sacked.”
“No. Mr. Meir didn’t even see you he was so busy staring at Pickles. And he didn’t stay long enough to sack anyone. He went right back up to his office. Probably so we wouldn’t see him laughing too.”
“The boss laughs?” Delia couldn’t imagine it. Did he lean his head back and yowl?
“Why not? He is only a man.”
They sat for a while, watching the endless parade of people on the street. It was a fine day for a stroll, bright and clear.
A good-looking young man tipped his hat to Lucy. “Bon Geer-nee-oh.’ Obviously Italian was not his mother language. Still, he tried. “Bella Seeg-nor-eeenah.”
Lucy blew him a kiss.
“”Grat-zee. Hope to see you again tonight, sweetheart.” He grinned and passed on.
His English was perfect American, which impressed Delia highly. “You know him? He is an admirer?”
Lucy shrugged. “Maybe I’ve danced with him once or twice.”
“Lucy?” A knot of worried faces appeared in the doorway at the top of the stairs. “Delia? Aren’t you coming back in?”
“Come out with us, “ Lucy beckoned. “Come outside.”
Did she mean to start a walkout? Their mouths dropped open,
“Well?” She stood up and faced them. “Are you afraid?”
No one answered.
Delia stood beside her. She wanted to tell Lucy she wasn’t afraid, but in truth, she was. Hers would be the only pay envelope this week and she and her mama would need every penny. Every time she thought of how close she had come to being sacked her insides began to quake.
“Oh all right. Adiammo. Come on.” Lucy sighed. And they walked back inside.
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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