“So I told her I was packing up my things. You should have heard her carry on,” Lilly said. “Like I was tearing her heart in two. But I had to.”
“Had to what?” Delia had no idea what Lilly was talking about. They were sitting on the steps of the shop, chewing their knishes slowly, trying to make their break seem as long as possible. Delia had been staring off into space, thinking about Olivia and the almost empty house she would soon have to leave herself.
“Are you going deaf now from the noise in the shop like everyone else?” Lilly shook her head. “I told my mama she had to choose. My mama can have either her boarder or she can have me. Not both of us in the same house. She makes of fool of herself over that Yeshiva boy living in our spare room, treating him like he’s her future son-in-law. I said I would never marry him. Never. She began to weep. So went out and found myself a room.” Lilly smiled at Delia triumphantly.
“You’re leaving home?” Delia was too shocked to return Lilly’s smile. “Now? When times are so bad at work? You’re the one who is a fool.”
“Why not? You think because you have rich friends you that you’re the only one who can be free.” Lilly got up to go inside, though they both knew the bell would not ring for another few minutes.
“No, please, bitte, come back. “ Suddenly Delia was tired of hearing about the rich, tired of thinking about them, even Olivia. How could she have forgotten about the friend sitting right beside her? “I’m sorry my mind was elsewhere.”
Lilly hesitated. She was quick to take offense, but equally quick to forgive. “You are always thinking about such big things.” She sat back down and patted Delia’s hand. “Always you think about the union, about the general strike, about what everybody should do. Me? I can only think of what I should do.”
Sometimes, that’s all I can think of too, Delia wanted to say, but she didn’t. She only asked, “So how did you find this room?” She felt like she could count on Lilly, no matter what happened between them. They were like sisters...
“When I told my mama I was leaving, I was really frightened but would not show it.” Lilly replied. “You hear so many bad tales of girl boarders. Girls living in hall rooms, without light or air. Landladies and their children stealing things. Girls who are treated like streetwalkers just because they have no families to take them in.”
Delia nodded, echoing Lilly’s indignation.
“But Sonya told me that Anna, a girl who works on the second floor, had found a new place. A house on Chrystie Street just for working girls. The landlady is a German Jew with English so good you can hardly understand her. Her family has been here a hundred years, she says, and she doesn’t even speak Yiddish anymore. She opened her house so it would be an example to others. What is the word?”
“A model.” Delia knew there were rich Jewish ladies as well as rich Americans who believed in reform. Not all of them supported the union but they did other things. They organized reading clubs and lecture series at the settlement houses or raised money for schools and libraries. Some had become interested in the problems of girls who lived on their own. They wanted to create homes for them. “You’re talking about model lodging house,” Delia said. She had heard about them, but didn’t know there was one on the Lower East Side.
“Exactly.” Lilly nodded emphatically. “I move there tonight. Every room is furnished in style,” Her voice became solemn, as if she were repeating the landlady’s very words. “Complete with curtains upon the windows and a woven hemp rug on every floor. Each border will receive one Turkish towel for personal use and a woolen blanket for her bed. You must see it for yourself.”
“Do you think I could?”
“Of course you can come and visit me.”
“I mean to live, not just to look.”
“Oh?” I thought you were so happy with your rich friend.” The chill between them returned.
Delia looked down at her knees, embarrassed and uncomfortable. Perhaps she had been wrong about Lilly. Perhaps they weren’t like sisters at all. But she wanted to live among her own people again, she realized, and she didn’t want to be alone. “The rich are not so wonderful or so happy as you think,” she said and told Lilly all about Olivia and her children and why she left.
“Her own mama steals her children from her?” Now it was Lilly’s turn to be shocked. “We may be poor but nobody on the Lower East Side would take a child from its mama. We may fight but we always make up. Even my mama and I will embrace again someday.” Lilly paused. “Someday,” she repeated. “Just not today.”
And what of my mama and me, Delia thought, once more trying to picture them in one another’s arms and once more hearing only the arguments between them. No, she thought, they would never make peace. To her mother she would always be the demon who drank and danced all night. She was the girl who nearly got her own family evicted and then to top it all off went to live with a stranger, a rich gentile, rather than with Bessie, her own godmother. She was the daughter who had turned her back on Cherry Street. No matter how much money she earned and passed on to her mama through Leah she could not erase those things. Not even if she tried. They were part of who she was now, she realized. And that meant she and her mama would never agree. Not someday. Not any day. She pushed the image of her home from her mind and made herself turn back to the matter at hand. “So this model lodging house, do you think the landlady will take me?”
“She likes me and that means she will like you too. I am sure she will give us a room together.” Lilly slipped her arm around Delia’s waist. “We’ll be like sisters from now on. We pay our own board, live in our own room, come and go as we please. We will be free.”
“Yes,” Delia returned Lilly’s squeeze, relieved. Of course, they would stay together, hadn’t Lilly been her friend since she first starting working in the shop nearly eight years ago?
The bell signaling the end of break brought them both to their feet.
“Free!” Lilly repeated fiercely as she trudged steps. “No matter what happens I want to be free.”
Olivia’s parting words came back to Delia. “Nobody wants to be alone and every body want to be---“ But her memory was cut short by the bell’s third and final warning. She followed Lilly back inside.
“ Brenner?” Madame Bloomberg pursed her lips and shook her head. “I do not know the name. Where are you from?” She peered at Delia through an eyeglass that hung from a gold chain around her neck. Mrs. Bloomberg was a widow in a black alpaca dress, older than Delia’s mama, but not so tired looking, Delia noted, as she stood side by side with Lilly in the boarding house parlor. She also noted that Mrs. Bloomberg had not invited them to sit down.
“My parents were from Odessa,” Delia answered, lifting her chin a little. She knew Mrs. Boomberg was not asking for her last address. No matter how long your family had been in America, to those on the Lower East Side the question “Where are you from?” meant the old world, not the new one.
“Ah! Odessa! So many of our educated people are from Odessa.” Mrs. Bloomberg lowered her eyeglasses with a small gesture of approval.
“Yes, educated people,” Delia assured her. Her papa especially. He had read everything. Books, newspapers, magazines of all kinds. She didn’t mention his membership in the Labor Committee, however.
“A reader, was he?” Mrs. Bloomberg seemed pleased.
“Delia reads, too, just like a teacher,” Lilly broke in. “Even better than the boys who go to night school at City College. She had a letter in the Forward once. A whole page almost.”
“The Forward!” Now Madame Bloomberg positively beamed. Every morning she bought the Forward from a boy who came right to the door. She couldn’t sit down to her coffee without the Forward open before her. She had written many letters herself about the lack of respect for authority among young people these days, but none of her letters had ever been chosen. Perhaps Delia could help her with her writing, sometime?
Delia nodded, not quite sure what Mrs. Brenner meant by “respect for authority,” but eager for the landlady’s good will.
“You have informed Miss Brenner of all the rules of the establishment?” Mrs. Bloomberg raised her formidable eyeglasses again and peered at Lilly.
“Rules?” If Delia had eyeglasses she would have raised them too. Lilly had spoken of freedom, not rules.
“Yes, yes,” Lilly shifted from foot to foot. “The rules. We should not put our feet upon the beds with out removing our boots and…and…” She looked around desperately. “Because Mrs. Bloomberg likes every thing clean. Just as this parlor is the cleanest place I have ever seen.” She gave Delia’s ankle a little nudge with her foot.
“Yes.” Delia took the hint. “It is…immaculate.” She chose the most impressive word she knew. The room did indeed appear so clean it was hard to imagine anyone sitting upon the chairs or the settees, which were all covered in light colored cotton, or playing upon the upright piano whose keys were covered and whose stool had been pushed out of sight.
“Everything here can be cleaned within minutes.” Mrs. Bloomberg smiled proudly. Her concern for the rules was momentarily forgotten while she basked in their admiration for her housekeeping. She owned a wonderful new machine called a vacuum cleaner, she told them. It ran on electricity and made every bit of dust disappear.
“An electric broom! I know what that is.” Lilly bounced up and down on her toes with delight. “My sister is buying just such a machine on the installment plan. A salesman came to the door to demonstrate. It almost sucked the flowers right out of the window pots. It is amazing. He gave her a guarantee.”
“A guarantee.” Madame Bloomberg pronounced each syllable of the word. “In a world with so many dishonest people, you need a guarantee.” She shook hands with Delia and Lilly. That was how Americans sealed an agreement, she explained. Delia and Lilly could stay as long as they liked, provided they obeyed all the rules and paid her three dollars cash on Thursday each week. Guaranteed.
“See. What did I say? She likes us,” Lilly said as they carried their things upstairs. “Alzoi tants men in Odessa,” she sang and executed a little two step. “How they dance in Odessa.”
“And the rules?” Delia asked under her breath.
Lilly just shrugged.
Their room was long and narrow with a single tall window at one end and two beds squeezed against the length of the wall, head to head. Each bed had a wooden shelf nailed above, big enough for a few books and one or two other things.
Lilly laid back on one of the beds, her boots still firmly on her feet. “Oh you know, rules about lots of things. But it’s so hard for me to keep so much in my head at once and I don’t like to read. But if you must, you can read them yourself. They are right behind you.”
Delia turned. Sure enough, a large paper with “The Rules of the House” written in both Yiddish and English was tacked to the door .
Slowly she read the list out loud:
“Oy gevalt.” Delia whispered.
“See what I mean?” Lilly got up and stood beside Delia, staring at the list. “How should anyone remember all that?”
Delia had no idea. She felt she might break a rule just by opening her mouth. The rules didn’t say what Madame Bloomberg thought about girls who organized for the union in her model boarding house, but Delia didn’t want to ask. But perhaps she didn’t need to be so concerned. “We have guarantee,” she reminded Lilly. “A real American guarantee.”
“Then l’chaim.” Lilly brought two bottles of ginger beer and a box of sweet biscuits from her carpetbag.
They sat by the window and clinked their bottles together. “L’chiam.” Delia replied. “To our freedom. Guaranteed.”
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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