“The poor!” Delia tossed her things onto the corner chair. “I show her the finest we have and she says she wants to see the poor. The poor are everywhere. All she had to do was look around.” Did Pamela expect her to point out every kid in an ally going through an ash can, Delia fumed? Every unwashed stoop or old man rattling a tin cup? That would be like pointing out the sky above and the cobblestones beneath their feet. “Doesn’t she have eyes to see?”
“Maybe not.” Olivia put her magazine down. “Maybe she can’t really see the poor in the way that you can.”
“And what am I supposed to do, then?” Delia sighed, exasperated. “Chuck her in the basement where the beggars sleep?”
“No,” Olivia laughed. “But why don’t you take her to work with you? Maybe she should see what it’s like to work in a factory, even for one day.”
“To work?” What ideas was Olivia hatching now? To sit Pamela down at a sewing machine in the shop was almost as bad as shutting her up in the cellar. “She wouldn’t stay a minute,” Delia told Olivia. “She likes everything quiet.”
Hadn’t Delia heard of Mrs. Van Vorst, Olivia asked? She was a wealthy lady from Chicago who disguised herself as a factory girl and went to work making pickles, boxes, cigars, or ladies underclothes. She worked side by side with the girls, ate with them and even slept in the same boarding houses. Then she wrote about it and spoke about it, so the rich, the upper classes would know what a worker’s life was like first hand. There was Ida Kennedy, Louise Farmer, Margaret Tarbell, all college educated reformers who did the same.
Olivia went on and on. It seemed as if America was just filled with rich women who wanted nothing more than to be sweated like the poor. “But we can’t turn it about, can we?” Delia asked.
“What do you mean?’
“The poor cannot go live like the rich for a day, just to write about it. It doesn’t work that way.”
At first Olivia looked as if she might laugh again. But she didn’t. “No,” she said simply. “You’re right. It does not work that way.”...
Someone must have conveyed the idea of working in a shop to Pamela, though. She sent Delia a long note thanking her for everything and also a book about social reform by an English woman named Beatrice Webb. “I would love so much to see where you work,” she wrote in a fine, round hand. “I have never, ever, been in a real factory and I’m sure the experience would be worth a thousand, no, a million words. Give my best to Ben, Your friend, P. MacKenzie.”
Delia sent a note back thanking her and promising to read the book when she had time. In return she gave Pamela a translation of Yiddish poets. She said nothing about Pamela coming to work in the shop.
Pamela responded with a book by called Twenty-thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne. Delia suspected it was really meant for Ben, but she had no intention of giving it to him. Ben had no use for books, as far as she knew. Even if he did, she’d pass it on to Leah who could copy all the pictures. Pamela sent yet another note, begging for just a glimpse of the shop. She did so want to meet some ‘real girls’ and see how they ‘really worked.’
Delia began to soften a little. It might not be a difficult as it seemed. As Olivia pointed out, Pamela didn’t need to be paid so it didn’t matter if she only stayed for one day. She just needed a convincing story, or ‘cover’ as Olivia called it, to get inside.
Delia would have to let the other girls in on the plan. When she did she expected the worst and got it.
What new trouble was she bringing in now, Estelle wanted to know, when work was so scarce and Mr. Meir was threatening a lockout every minute. Girls were at the gate begging for work. Why should they help this rich American who merely wanted to play a trick.
“She wants to help us,” Delia defended Pamela, though she was inclined to agree with Estelle. “There are Americans girls who want to help the workers. But they have no idea what our lives are like.”
Only the little girls of five and six beamed with excitement. Was she a princess, they asked? An American czarina? Was she beautiful? What would she bring? Would she bring candy? Would she sew with golden needles?
No, Delia replied. Pamela would use the same needles as the rest of them. As for the candy, she would see. “It’s only for one day. She will know how to behave. I will tell her.” Delia pressed her case with the older girls. “Heshel Meir is not so smart as he thinks he is. We can trick him easily.”
It was the idea of tricking the boss that won them over. It would be something to whisper about for weeks to come, a story to tell for a long time. Pamela could be Miriam’s cousin from Galicia, they decided. As long as she kept her mouth shut, there would be no problem. She was green, they would say, green and too terrified to speak for herself. But a good hand. That was what would get her in. She was a hard worker, a good worker, she had good hands.
Mr. Meir grudgingly added the name to the book: Natasha Karilova. It really was the name of Miriam’s Galician cousin. Delia had spent hours teaching Pamela how to pronounce it, how to look down when people glanced at her, how to stand there tongue-tied as if she were green. Pamela was shy by nature so it was not difficult for her to do these things. By the end of the lessons Delia herself could almost believe that she really was Natasha from Galicia, green and terrified of America.
“A good hand, you say?” Mr. Meir looked Pamela over. “You got good hands?”
Pamela obliged by turning red and staring at the ground.
“I’ve seen her sew myself,” Delia replied. “Good hands.”
“Cause I don’t got time to train nobody, understand?”
By now Pamela was literally quaking from the noise of the shop and the street, which was good, Delia realized. She only hoped Pamela wouldn’t run away like Reenie.
It had been settled that no one would pay any attention to Pamela when she came in. But that was not so easy. The little girls gaped, hoping from one foot to the other, keeping their eyes on her pockets until she pulled out a handful candies wrapped in silver paper. Two pieces for each child. The older girls gathered around in a little knot, eyeing her up and down. The new hat didn’t meet with their approval. Neither did anything else. They clicked their tongues over the plain jacket, Pamela’s thinness, her pointed chin and freckles dusted like soot over the upper part of her face. “Weaned on watered milk,” was Rosa’s judgment.
Pamela cringed at the cacophony of tongues around her. She looked at Delia, her eyes full of questions. “Tell them how grateful I am to be here,” she whispered.
“You are so welcome,” Estelle said in perfect American English.
Pamela jumped. Everyone giggled. Delia was afraid Pamela might bolt for the door, but at that instant the sound of footsteps sent them all running to their machines.
Delia had to admit that Pamela was no baby. She was a little slow at first, but kept at it, like a girl who genuinely had come to work. Even when Delia became inpatient and told her that three whole seams needed to be done over, Pamela didn’t argue. “I see, “ she murmured docilely and began to pull out the thread where she had allowed it to knot and come too close to the edge. And when it came to the occasional little bits that needed to be done by hand, she was the equal of anyone. Delia was amazed by the fine, even stitches Pamela made when she had the needle between her fingers. “My grandmother taught me,” she explained. “She had such good hands.”
“My mama had good hands too,” Delia replied. “But she could not pass them to me.”
Under the pretext of getting a drink, Estelle walked by slowly, peering over Pamela’s shoulder. “Buono mani.” She gave a brief nod. The new girl did indeed have good hands.
After that everyone forgot about Pamela. Gregor made his morning inspection, padding up and down the rows. Delia motioned Pamela to keep her head down. She was sure everything was going fine when Pamela screamed. She absolutely shrieked. “How dare you!” She sprang to her feet and smacked Gregor across his cheek. “How dare you touch me!”
Delia leapt to her feet too, cursing Gregor as loudly as she could to drown out Pamela. Did the son of a swine think they all lived in dirt like him? To her relief the other girls joined in, cursing Gregor all around, not because they were particularly angry at him today, but because times really were hard and it felt good to curse somebody even if it was only Gregor.
“My father knows the chief of police,” Pamela drew herself up and looked him straight in the eye. “Do you understand? The chief of police.”
“Police?” Unfortunately that was one of the few things Gregor did understand. “Police?” His mouth hung open.
“It is nothing. She is crazy. Meshuga. Crazy, poor thing.” Delia tried to push Gregor out the door. “She thinks her father is an American king.”
“The king of police?” Gregor staggered.
“It is nothing.” Delia pulled a couple of coins from her pocket and shoved them in his hand. “Buy yourself a drink.”
“It is nothing.” The other girls tried to calm Pamela down. “Just Gregor. Nothing.”
“How can you call it nothing?” She refused to shut her mouth. “He put his hand on my...my...”
“It was nothing,” Delia repeated desperately. The last thing anyone wanted was the police no matter what the reason. “He only tried it because you are new.”
“You should have just given it to him with your needle,” one of the girls told her. “That’s what I do and he leaves me alone. “
“Getting the arm is good,” another added. “Or on the leg, just above the knee. I reach down as if I’m about to pick up some cloth and--”
“I keep a needle with me all the time. On the streetcar. Or even in the cafes, where someone is always trying to rub up against you.”
“Or in a dancehall when a fellow gets too fresh.”
That led to a discussion of the various uses to which needles and hatpins could be put. Gregor was forgotten. Pamela sat back down, still shaking.
“As long as you have a good pin, they can’t do anything, to you.” Maria pulled a long silver spike from the crown of her hair.
“Then what about that Hungarian girl?” someone demanded. “The one they found sleeping here?”
“She was Rumanian not Hungarian. And she was green and didn’t know a thing.”
“She could have used a rusty nail, if she didn’t have a needle.”
“There were two men.” Estelle spoke quietly. “One of them seized her by her hands. He held her hands. She couldn’t do a thing.”
“How do you know?” Miriam argued. “She only spoke Rumanian. Or maybe it was Latvian.”
Estelle didn’t reply. She walked back to her machine, tall, slender and expressionless.
Estelle was nearly twenty, Delia reflected. She was the best looking girl in the shop. Probably one of the best-looking girls in any dancehall in the city. She could have gotten married, so they said, a hundred times over. But she didn’t. She stayed single. And unlike most Italian girls, she didn’t live with her family, but rented a room in a lodging house, alone.
At midday break, Delia and Pamela bought a couple knishes from a cart. It was warm enough to eat outside. Pamela kept peering around nervously until Delia reassured her that between his fear of the police and comfort of the saloon, Gregor would not be seen for the rest of the day.
Pamela took two small bites from her knish and set it on the step. “I am so ashamed.” She hung her head and covered her face with her hands.
“About Gregor still?” Delia chewed hungrily.
“No. Not that. Everything. Everything I have. My parents sent me to school and I hated it.”
“Nu? Even here some girls don’t like school.”
“You don’t understand. The school I went to was wonderful. Every novel or poem you might ever want to read was right there on the shelves. We had a whole room full of art supplies. Musical instruments and a singing teacher. Even a greenhouse, a garden with glass walls where they grew flowers all winter. I had all that every day and I was bored. I told my parents I wouldn’t go.”
Delia understood what Pamela was saying. She had had what Delia could only dream of and she had thrown it away like it was nothing. She tried to picture Pamela’s marvelous school. She knew she should be angry that there was a school like that for rich children, a place where all you had to do was hold out your hand and a teacher would put something--a book, a paint brush, a flower--right in it. And she herself would never see the inside of that school or any other. She should be angry at Pamela just to hear of it. But it was hard to be angry at Pamela who sat there on the cold stone steps, still shaking with fear of Gregor, her back aching from being bent over the machine all morning, her fingers raw from her mistakes, her stomach so filled with sorrow she could not eat.
“I never really knew just how fortunate I was until now. And now I am so ashamed. Ashamed. “ Pamela repeated.
“I too know shame,” Delia replied. “A hundred times a day. Over a hundred different things. But what good does shame do?” There was more shame to go around than there was bread and meat in the Lower East Side but Pamela couldn’t see that.
“I want to stay here, with the girls. With you,” Pamela said fiercely. “I’ll learn how to work. Really work. I’ll leave my family. Get a room. I will.”
Meshuga, that’s what Pamela was. Crazy. One moment she acted like she wanted to be back in school and the next she wanted to work in a factory. “No,” Delia said.
“Your mama would die weeping.”
“You’re right.” Pamela sighed. “No matter how much I tried, she would never let me go live here.”
The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully. A few of the girls kept on about Gregor. Emboldened by his absence Rosa suggested giving him a good boot down the stairs, ‘from the very top to bottom.’ That would probably take three girls. And which three would do it? Another debate broke out. “He’s fallen down the stairs a dozen times from drinking and it hasn’t done him any harm,” someone pointed out.
“Then we should put hot pepper in his chewing tobacco,” Miriam said. “That would have him howling.”
That was a better idea, but not so easy to do. How would they get the pouch of tobacco away from him long enough, and who find pepper hot enough? At times like this, Delia still thought of Lucy. “Lucy would know how to do it,” she said softly.
“Who?” Pamela asked.
“No one. Just a girl who...who isn’t here any more.”
The final bell rang around seven. From the pile of finished pieces sitting by Pamela's machine, Delia could see that she hadn’t done too badly, for a new hand. “But,” she pointed out, “you broke two needles which means you lost four cents. Plus three cents charge for the box you sat on. Ten cents to rent the machine. Another penny because you had to oil it. And a fifty cents for the two lengths of cloth you couldn’t use because they tore down the middle.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Pamela protested. “The cloth was flawed. Anyone could see that.”
“Anyone but the boss. So you see, you were supposed to earn a dollar sixty today. But maybe you will take home only ninety cents.”
“And if you stayed all summer, you would have to bring your own bottle of water, because they turn off the tap and there is never enough,” Rosa added.
“And if you stayed all winter, you’d have to put in a quarter in for the coal, because there is never enough,” Carmella chimed in.
Never enough...never enough...never enough....
Pamela hung her head, as the girls surrounded her. What could she say? Where could she take their complaints? “Come.” Delia took Pamela’s elbow and lifted her to her feet. She didn’t want Pamela to leave with only the memory of Gregor and the weariness of work in her bones. She had thought they might go to a meeting that evening, a real socialist meeting, but she decided on a dancehall instead. Landsmen’s would have two bands, even on a weekday night. She asked Lilly and a half-dozen other girls to go with them.
The first band was small and not well practiced, but enough people showed up to fill the hall. Girls and young men stood along the walls bolting down sandwiches and bottles of seltzer while waiting for the real music to begin. Jake was there and sent one of his newsboys running for Ben.
Ben arrived after the second band had warmed up. Gallantly, he asked Pamela to dance, which she did a little stiffly, the way Delia used to when she was a little girl, though she seemed to enjoy it, which was the main thing.
Little Reenie, who had the habit of appearing underfoot at the most unexpected times, came too, with her tray of bedraggled flowers. Cheerful and poorly dressed as ever, she bumped among the dancers pleading, “Lady, lady, buy a flower.” When no one bought one, she clung to Delia’s skirt, making it impossible for Delia to dance. Delia couldn’t shake Reenie off and send her packing, however, because Pamela had decided to make a pet of her.
“Poor thing, poor little thing,” Pamela cooed. She bought a flower and insisted Ben buy all the rest and pass them around to the other girls. Then she pressed a five dollar bill into Delia’s hand, telling her to “buy the poor little thing a pair of real boots.” Reenie wore a pair of old felt Cossack style boots, with holes in the toes and dirty tassels flopping from the tops.
“She will only lose new ones. Or sell them. Or give them to her brothers,” Delia tried to explain. Pamela wouldn’t hear it. “Take her to Rachel’s store where I got my hat,” she said. “Buy her the best of everything.”
“Rachel’s!” Delia cringed. She would take Reenie to the Henry Street Settlement and let her spend an hour choosing what she liked from the charity barrel. The money would do better in the union’s general fund where it would help everyone. She caught Ben’s eye. He hadn’t been too happy about buying Reenie’s flowers for Pamela. Delia folded the bill over, hiding it in her hand. Maybe he thought she owed him something for his trouble. She turned away. Let him learn a lesson about rich American girls and their crazy ways. Maybe she would spend the money on Reenie, just to spite him.
“New boots?” Reenie tugged at Delia’s skirt.
Delia nodded. “Yes.”
“I like the kind with red stitching all around and fur at the top,” Reenie whispered. “And a babushka to match.”
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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