At first Delia couldn’t imagine what she would do with Pamela. What had she gotten herself into, telling Pamela “anyone” could see the Lower East Side? She hadn’t exactly intended to issue an invitation. But Pamela was intent on coming so she tried to think of all the best places--the cafes, theaters and emporiums--that might impress a rich American.
Much to her surprise, she came up with quite a list. Certainly none of her friends could object if she showed Pamela the finest the Lower East Side had to offer, the things that made them all proud. She wanted Pamela to see that they had style, even if it wasn’t uptown style. She would top off her tour with a matinee at the People’s Theater, she decided. The Forward itself had called the theater “a crowning glory of art” and Delia was sure nothing in the whole of New York could be more elegant. Good seats weren’t cheap, but she could solve that problem by asking Jake. He had a hand in all kinds of businesses these days and could no doubt get her tickets at a discount.
Filled with confidence, now that she had a plan, she tracked Jake down at his regular corner where she found him teaching two brand new newsboys the ropes. “Ya gotta make ‘em listen, see.” He took an armload of papers. “Forward,” he hollered making a dozen heads swivel in his direction. The two kids looked up at him with open-mouthed awe. Delia caught his eye and signaled that she wanted to talk. He handed the papers back to the boys and ambled towards her, tipping his cap. “Hear you’re living with a high-heeled crowd.” He grinned to let her know he wasn’t impressed by her association with Olivia.
“And I hear you’re king of the newsboys,” she replied.
“Business can’t be beat.” They both watched as the two kids cornered a well-dressed gentleman and made it clear they weren’t going to back off until he bought a paper. Jake gave them both thumbs up.
Delia told him she needed two tickets for the theater.
“Two?” He gave he a wink. “Who’s your lucky companion?”
“The son of the Baron Rothschild.” Delia clasped her hands to her breast in mock ecstasy. “He squandered all his money gambling and that’s why I’m paying our way.”
“He must have been the gent who lost his fancy shirt to Ben at the card table last night.” For a moment Jake looked as if he wasn’t joking with her. Delia frowned. If Ben was gambling with rich men, he was in more trouble than she thought. She started to ask about him, but stopped. She wasn’t here to talk about Ben.
“Yes, the Baron’s son hasn’t even been able to send me my weekly bouquet of hot house flowers.” She made a great sniff and dabbed at an invisible tear on her cheeks.
“Allow me to remedy that.” Jake reached in his pocket and drew out a lumpy wax rose, the kind Reenie sold. If fact, Delia was sure it came from Reenie. Jake may have talked tough, but she knew he had a soft spot in his heart for the little street seller.
“Oooh, isn’t that sweet of you.” She gave him a peck on the cheek that made him turn beet red. “I’ll put it in my hat band.”
“I’m honored.” He gave her a mock bow.
Having teased one another sufficiently, they got back to business. He’d have her tickets, two seats in the front row of the balcony, to her at half-price before Sunday...
At quarter past noon that Sunday Pamela descended from the streetcar at the corner of Union Street and East Broadway. She was trembling and wide-eyed, like the greenhorns when they first set foot in New York. And like a greenhorn, she turned round and round trying to see everything, making the other people getting off the trolley grumble and curse as they dodged around her.
“Pamela!” Delia rushed across the street. The trolley had pulled away, leaving Pamela stranded in the center of the avenue. If she didn’t move soon, she would be trampled by a dozen carts. “Pamela!” The English name felt strange on Delia’s tongue.
Pamela heard. She grabbed hold of Delia’s hand like she was sinking in sand. “What’s happening? Why is there so much noise? Why is everyone out on the street?”
“Nu? Where should they be?”
“But it’s Sunday.”
“It’s not our Sunday. Unless you count the Italians and Poles. And even they do their shopping on Sundays sometimes.”
Peddlers’ cries surrounded them on every side. Shoppers buffeted Pamela back and forth nearly knocking her down. “I’m so sorry. I beg your pardon. Please excuse me,” she murmured to no avail. Delia tried to pull her to a nearby coffee house but Pamela kept getting swept back by the crowd. If she didn’t learn how to stand up for herself, Delia thought, she would be going back home half dead.
“You have to walk like this.” Delia cocked her elbows out. “Whenever someone gets too close—” As a woman with a great shopping basket neared, Delia swiveled slightly. Her bent arms made the woman veer around her without missing a step.
“But—“ Pamela stood there, her elbows glued to her sides and her hands folded in front of her, looking as if she were china doll molded from a single piece of porcelain. “My mama always told me ladies shouldn’t take up so much space.”
“Here ladies take up as much space as they please.” Two matrons barreled down on them clutching so many bundles you could hardly see their faces. Delia knifed her way between them, arms akimbo. Pamela followed, her elbows poking out an inch or two, like the wings on a baby chick dodging a pair of great brood hens.
“Better.” Delia regarded her critically. “Let’s sit and have a Viennese coffee.” She indicated the window of Leipzinger’s, one of East Broadway’s best cafes a few steps away.
Now that she had gotten her first lessons in walking like a Lower East Sider, however, Pamela wanted to stop and examine the contents of every cart they passed. The silverware peddler with his knifes and forks dangling like wind chimes delighted her. The cart laden with men’s under-vests mortified her. “Do men really buy their underwear on the street?” she whispered, blushing.
“Yes,” Delia replied. “And sometimes they try it on right on the street too.”
“No!” Pamela’s hand flew to cover her mouth. Delia nodded. They both burst into giggles.
The next moment, Pamela became enraptured by a cart piled high with flowered kerchiefs, the cheap woolen kind worn by old women and greenhorn girls.
“Those babushkas are only for the poor,” Delia tried to guide Pamela away. “If you want to buy something nice, I’ll take you to my friend Rachel at Ida Simon’s Fine Fashions.”
“The poor?” Pamela seized a kerchief. “How much?” she asked the peddler.
He didn’t speak English, and seeing that there was no way to get Pamela to surrender the babushka, Delia reluctantly translated.
“Nu?” The man held up his fingers.
Five, six, eight, Delia counted. “Eighty cents!” she exploded in Yiddish. Did he think he was a pirate that he could plunder innocent girls of their money? He might as well have been flying a skull and crossbones from his cart instead of a flowered kerchief.
“For workmanship from the Czarina’s own weavers,” he spread the scarf out in front of her. “Not less than sixty cents."
“Nu?” Delia snorted. She knew the scarf had been cut and hemmed by children in the sweatshops not two blocks away. “A dime.”
They finally settled on a quarter. Delia told Pamela and Pamela pulled a coin from her little velvet purse. She presented it to the peddler who bowed a dozen times at his good fortune.
“What were you talking about so long?” she asked Delia as they walked away.
“He wanted eighty cents. Eighty cents for a babushka. Can you imagine? I bargained him down to twenty-five.” Delia smiled at her victory.
“How could you?” Pamela gasped. “Only eight-cents for such a beautiful scarf? He should get a dollar.” She marched straight back to the cart and thrust a dollar into the man’s hand. He kissed the dollar and then her hand, blessing her a thousand times over. An instant later, Pamela was besieged by vendors shoving gloves, stockings, blouses, dresses, and even pink-laced corsets into her face. “Dollar. Dollar.” They all shouted in English as they hemmed her in on every side. “Dollar!” The cry spread like fire down the block.
“Delia,” Pamela screamed.
Delia plunged into the melee, her elbows working double time, and hauled Pamela away just as she seemed about to faint.
With the cries of “Dollar! Miss American Dollar!” echoing behind them, she finally managed to steer Pamela safely into Leipzinger’s and settled them both in a back booth.
“What did I do?” Pamela hung her head over her coffee. Her chin trembled. “I just wanted to be fair. Is that wrong?”
Pamela was trying hard not to look rich, but apparently she couldn’t stop herself from acting rich. By tomorrow the whole street would be bubbling with the story of the mysterious American girl who had paid a dollar—a dollar!—for a babushka.
“If you give one a dollar they will all want the same. Nu?” Delia felt like she was talking to a child.
“Isn’t that what the factory owners say? If you raise the pay of one worker they will all want the same?” Pamela looked Delia in the eye. “You say you support workers, but when that man asked for eighty cents you bargained him down to a quarter. Doesn’t he work too?”
Pamela wasn’t child, Delia realized with a start. She had presented a puzzle to which there was no solution. “Nu?” Delia lifted her hands, palm up. “And what about the old woman who goes to buy a babushka from his cart tomorrow and finds he will not take a penny less than fifty cents?”
“Noo?” Pamela echoed, lifting her own hands. “What does ‘noo’ mean? You say it so much. Is it your answer to everything?”
“Maybe.” Delia struggled for a definition. “It means ‘so,’ or ‘well,’ or ‘what do you say?’ and ‘What can you do about it?’” What could she do about it indeed? Did Pamela think she was now responsible for the welfare of every peddler? They finished their coffee in uncomfortable silence.
“’What do you want to see first?” Delia changed the subject diplomatically. “The Carnegie Library, the Henry Street Settlement House, Lechner’s Emporiums?” She ticked of the names of the most impressive places. Pamela was her guest, after all. She had to find some way to keep them busy until the performance at the People’s Theater and staying indoors as much as possible seemed the best idea.
“Noo?" Pamela took off her hat and unfurled her new scarf. “You decide.” She settled it over her head and tied the ends in a big knot under her chin. “I want everything.”
Delia resigned herself to walking side-by-side with a babushka on the street. “Let’s start with the library.” It was open a half-day on Sundays, she explained, because the people of the neighborhood had sent a petition to the city council. Other public libraries were closed all day on Sunday, but not this one. The scholars of the Lower East Side would not let it be.
“It’s very…nice.” Pamela gazed around the great reading room. She didn’t sound impressed.
The elderly scholars sat elbow-to-elbow at the long tables, bent over their books, whispering to themselves and stroking their beards. City College and night school students had their own tables where they scribbled notes and argued in hushed tones over something someone had found in a newspaper or magazine. Two girls shared a large book, one pointing to the English words as the other pronounced them softly.
“This is a library. Why is everyone talking?”
Was no place ever quiet enough for Pamela? “This is hardly talking at all. Come, you can meet my cousin Leah.”
They found Leah upstairs sitting by one of the windows whose colored panes spread rainbows of green and blue over her pencils and paper. She nodded shyly when Delia introduced Pamela and went back her drawing. She was copying a picture of a horse and rider from an open book.
Delia thought both horse and rider were too tall and thin. The artist had must have made a mistake, she said, and Leah should not do the same.
“No, it’s El Greco,” Pamela said. “That was his style.”
Leah smiled as if someone had at last said something she wanted to hear. For a while she and Pamela talked about the painting. They used words Delia could not quite understand. The picture was not just a horse and man, it was mass, tone, foreground, background, contrast and harmony. Leah, who usually kept her best drawings hidden, took some out of her satchel and Pamela praised them, pointing to details here and there.
“She goes to classes at the settlement house.” For once Delia felt proud that Leah did not work, that she did not sit at a machine or wait on people behind a counter. Her cousin could talk to rich people about the things they knew in their own words. “And when she’s old enough she can join the Art Student’s League.”
“Oh, yes, the Art Students League.” Pamela looked at Leah, impressed.
“That’s such a pretty scarf,” Leah told Pamela by way of thanking her for the encouraging words. “But you should wear it like this.” Deftly she undid it and draped it around Pamela’s shoulders, with the triangular points hanging to one side.
Delia stared. Now it was her turn to be impressed. Leah’s quick hands made it look as if flowered babushkas were the latest fashion. Perhaps she should have bought one for herself.
“You should get a new hat.” Delia pointed to Pamela’s little stiff brimmed toque, which had gotten crushed in their flight from the peddlers. “My friend Rachel can help.” She was not sure how Rachel would feel about a rich American in Ida’s store, but now the babushka was now longer a problem might be nice to give Pamela a little more style.
“So thin.” Rachel clucked when she saw Pamela. “Doesn’t her mama feed her?” She chatted with Delia in Yiddish while her eyes traveled over every inch of Pamela’s outfit. Only the scarf met with her approval. “Yes, worn just so,” she murmured. “I can see that we need to stock some for our ladies.” The dowdy jacket, however, would have to go. What kind of mother would let her daughter wear such old clothes?
“It is not her mama,” Delia replied, “It’s herself. She wants to look poor.”
“Poor!” Rachel exclaimed in horror.
“What is she saying?” Pamela asked Delia. “Nooo?”
Rachel burst out laughing at the sound. Pamela blushed miserably. For a minute Delia feared the whole visit would end in disaster. Then the door chimed and Rachel went to wait on someone.
“She only meant your Mama might want to see you in a new jacket to go with the new hat.” Delia tried to coax Pamela to look around the shop.
“My mama!” Pamela cocked her elbows defiantly. “My mama would like to see me dressed like a fashion plate in satin and lace.” She spat out the words, as if satin and lace were the worst things that could befall anyone.
“That is so bad? Nu?”
The customer made a large purchase, which put Rachel in a better mood. She clucked over Pamela, calling her ‘little one’ and ‘poor child’ and showing her one new model after another.
Pamela remained adamant about her jacket, not a stitch could be altered. But the hat? There was a small velvet one, deep red, with a cluster of black cherries to one side. Or perhaps she would like a dove gray one with a black velvet ribbon around the crown?
“Small hats can have style too,” Rachel said, encouragingly. More customers came. While Rachel waited on them, Delia and Pamela tried on hats. A slightly larger brim would not be so bad, either, Pamela decided.
Rachel herself was nearly six months pregnant, but she wore a smock so cleverly designed you would hardly notice. She showed them how she had made it with buttons and hidden panels that could be let out gradually. Enciente. She used the French word, which even Pamela could say without blushing. Rachel told them was going to make a whole line of smocks for ladies who were enciente. Why should a woman spend months wearing nothing but an old housedress or shirtwaist straining at the buttons? Already she had a dozen requests for copies of her smock.
Pamela remarked that she knew of no lady reformers with children. Delia thought a moment “My mama went to labor committee meetings back in Russia. Her friend Bessie told me so. She would even stand up and speak like the men. But she met my papa at one of those meetings and then...”
“Ida says I can bring my baby here and make my smocks at the same time,” Rachel said. “Ida would rather watch the baby herself than lose me.”
“But you’re not a reformer,” Delia argued.
“Making stylish clothes for pregnant ladies, isn’t that a kind of reform?”
Delia and Pamela found the idea so strange they had no way to dispute it, so the conversation turned back to hats. Pamela finally settled on a red one with single rose on the band to match her new scarf.
They reached their seats at the People’s Theater just as the show was about to begin. Looking over the audience, Delia was sure Pamela was glad to have her new hat. No one wore less than their best for the Sunday matinee. The play was Morris Chavitz’s Rent Strike and many in the theater knew the lines by heart. Delia tried to translate, but it was too noisy and after a while she realized all Pamela had to know was when to laugh, when to cheer, when to hiss, and when to cry, which was easy enough with so many people doing the same around them. Moshe Cohen, who was a great favorite with the women and girls, played the leading role. He was no longer young, but he was still handsome enough to be called out for three extra bows after the curtain came down.
“I didn’t know Jewish men could be so good-looking,” Pamela told Delia as they left the theater.
“What? ” Delia had no idea what Pamela was talking about. “Nu?”
“Well, you know, the women and girls, you’re all so pretty. You, Rachel, the others, but the men, at least the ones who come to meetings, I guess they seem so small somehow. And pale, like they spend too much time indoors.”
Delia didn’t know what to say. It was nice that Pamela thought she was pretty, but what about Jewish men? How could Pamela believe such a thing? Was Moshe Cohen the only handsome man on the Lower East Side?
At that moment they ran smack into Jake who certainly wouldn’t change Pamela’s mind. He had just finished his rounds and acted as if he had nothing better to do than stroll around with them, his hands in his pockets, chatting about the show. For a minute Delia wondered if he had been waiting outside just to see who she had gone to the theater with. But she dismissed that as ridiculous. They were old friends from childhood, nothing more.
Jake was certainly no Moshe Cohen, but he was so funny and kind, Pamela couldn’t remain self-conscious. She raved about the play and sighed again and again over the leading man. Her ecstasies over Moshe Cohen finally began to get on Delia’s nerves. Did she really find it so remarkable to find a handsome man on the Lower East side? Then Delia had an inspiration. She pulled Jake aside. “Can you find Ben?” she whispered. “I know you talk to him.”
Jake looked away. “Every now and then.”
“I don’t care about his business. Go get him. Tell him that my friend and I will be at the Cosmopolitan Cafe. Tell him to come.” She grasped Jake by the shoulders to make herself clear. “Please.”
Jake made a great show of tipping his cap to Pamela and disappeared. Pamela said that it was getting late. Her mama had gone out to tea and she would be scared silly if she didn’t find Pamela at home when she returned. “I didn’t tell her where I was really going.” Pamela looked down and shuffled her feet like a child. “I just said I would be having luncheon with some friends.”
“And that’s exactly what you are doing,” Delia ushered her into the Cosmopolitan Cafe. “You told the truth even though you didn’t know it at the time.” Once they were seated, she ordered whitefish, cold borsht, bagels, chopped liver, sweet blintzes and more tea. Pamela opened her purse, but Delia wouldn’t hear of it. “It is my treat,” she said, while she calculated how she could make her remaining two quarters last till the end of the week.
They ate slowly. The Cosmopolitan had a picture gallery on the wall displaying portraits of famous Yiddish actors, actresses, writers and poets. Delia pointed each of them out to Pamela, explaining who they were and what they had done. Her eyes kept darting towards the door every time someone entered. She was afraid Ben wouldn’t come and equally afraid that he would. Beyond her first inspiration she had no plan. She hardly knew Ben these days.
She needn’t have worried. He came in with Jake, smiling at Delia as if they were both in on a plot. Two waiters greeted him by name. He wore an immaculate white shirt, gray silk vest and dark suit with no trace of shine at the elbows or knees. With a careless motion he took off his hat and smoothed back his blue-black hair. When Delia saw Pamela’s mouth drop and her eyes go wide, she grabbed hold of Ben’s hand, telling him to sit, calling him ‘dear cousin’ as if they’d grown up arm-in-arm. Ben might be a gambler, liar and cheat, she reasoned, but like the reformers he had his uses. See, she said silently as she turned to Pamala, we have plenty of handsome men.
For his part, Ben acted as if meeting rich American girls was something he did everyday. “Miss MacKenzie.” He made a little bow before he sat down. “Miss MacKenzie.” He repeated, enunciating each syllable of her name.
“Oh, just Pamela, please.” Pamela turned pink.
Ben raised his hand and the waiter appeared instantly with another round of pastry and tea.
They ate and talked for hours, discussing the play and then everything else of importance they could think of. Pamela wanted to know what Ben thought of reform. He wasn’t as ignorant as Delia expected him to be. He seemed to know what the unions were up to, though he expressed little enthusiasm for them. There were other reforms he actually supported, however. Something called redesigning the voting districts, for instance.
“What about women,” Pamela leaned towards him. Didn’t he think that women should have the vote?
“We will have the vote.” Delia said. She wasn’t sure what Ben meant about ‘redistricting.’ “When we have our own unions, we will vote in them.”
“I don’t mean that kind of vote,” Pamela explained in a slightly superior tone. “I mean the real vote. To vote for the president of the United States.”
“We have our own presidents down here, our own leaders,” Jake took Delia’s side. “Why should we vote for your president?”
“He is your president too,” Pamela protested.
“Who on the Lower East Side knows him?” Delia demanded.
“Oh I think I should vote for Mr. Roosevelt, if I were twenty-one,” Ben said airily.
Delia was sure Ben knew nothing more about Mr. Roosevelt than his name, but Pamela was impressed enough to fall silent.
“MacKenzie.” Ben murmured. “MacKenzie. Your father is great friends with the chief of police, isn’t he?”
Pamela dropped her fork with a clatter. A waiter sprang forward to replace it. “You must be mistaken. My father?”
“My apologies,” Ben replied.
“I mean, they may have met. But not friends. Certainly not great ones.” She smiled weakly.
Ben made a gesture with his hand to indicate they should forget about it.
No doubt he had confused Pamela with some other American heiress he had met in a Lower East Side cafe, Delia thought acidly.
Suddenly Pamela jumped to her feet and declared her mother would be sick with worry and she must leave immediately.
Ben offered to walk her to the streetcar, but Delia stopped him in mid-sentence. She could see Pamela off. They would be fine alone. She was not sure she wanted the whole street to see Ben and Pamela walking along together. Even here in the cafe, they were getting a few too many curious glances. Tongues wagged, Delia knew. People could make a meal out of the smallest scrap off the bone.
Before she boarded the trolley, Pamela leaned over and kissed Delia on the cheek. She had had a wonderful time, she told her. Lovely. “But the next time, I want to meet the poor. Everyone, everything you’ve shown me has been so fine. But I need to see the poor. To see how they live. You must promise you’ll show me next time.”
The poor? Delia stared after the departing streetcar, dumbfounded.
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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