It was nearly noon. Delia lay back on her bed, fully dressed, staring at the ceiling, her boots propped up on Mrs. Bloomberg’s freshly laundered sheets. Lilly did the same. Nearly two months had passed since they had moved into the rooming house. There was no work today. There had been none yesterday and the day before that, and there would not be any tomorrow or the day after. All over the East Side shops had been locked out, one after the other, leaving girls, women, and even men too, with no work.
“The union does nothing,” Lilly complained. She had joined the union out of loyalty to Delia and to aggravate her father who thought that unions should be for skilled workers, not factory girls. “The union says the bosses should not lock us out. Should not punish us for organizing. But they do.”
“There is no…” Delia searched for the right word. “Guarantee.”
“Then what good is a union without a guarantee?” Lilly asked.
Delia had no answer.
In the distance a clock tolled twelve. Lilly counted each chime out loud. At the last tone faded away she began to dole out their luncheon--four crackers each with a spoonful of sour cherries. They had just paid their last six dollars in rent and taken an inventory of their personal supplies. Together they had stockpiled five tins of sardines, two boxes of salt crackers, a half-pound of sugared Italian almonds, and a jar of sour cherries in syrup. It would be enough to last at least two weeks. They promised themselves it would.
The tantalizing aroma of coffee wafted up from the kitchen. That meant that Mrs. Bloomberg was sitting at her big table reading the Forward.
“Do you think if we offered to sweep the front room with the electric broom she would give us a little sip?” Lilly asked. Sometimes Mrs. Bloomberg allowed one or two of the girls to help with the housekeeping in exchange for a slice of apple cake and cup of coffee or tea. But the front room was already immaculate, as were the stairs, the hallways, and the bathroom with its big porcelain tub...
Delia didn't like doing housework in exchange for food, anyway. It made her think too much of Birdie, the little Irish servant girl with her apron covered in soot and the bruise on the back of her neck. When she had lived with Olivia, Delia had never minded the housework. She did whatever needed to be done and Olivia did too, because they were equals. Without money, though, it was hard to feel like an equal.
The chimes rang the quarter hour. “Will you go back home?” she asked Lilly. “If we cannot find work?”
Would she? Delia knew her mama knew all about her doings even though they never spoke. Mama heard everything from Bessie and no doubt several other ladies on the East Side, too. No one’s life was hidden in this neighborhood. Mama had heard about the model rooming house with its porcelain tubs and electric brooms. And now she had heard that Delia had been locked out the shop for nearly a month. I just wanted things to be different, Delia told herself, that’s all. But where had all this difference led her?
Different is when you have no place to sleep and nothing to eat. That’s what her mama had said. Delia pressed her hands to her head. She couldn’t stop her mama’s words from ringing in her ears. “I won’t go home,” she told Lilly putting a bravery into her voice that she did not feel.
“Nor I,” Lilly said.
Lilly really was brave in her own way, Delia decided. She was always ready to laugh and dance even during the worst of times. And she was one of the few girls who dared make fun of the landlady behind her back.
“Miss Brenner, don’t you know that the place for a young lady’s boots is upon the floor?” Lilly imitated Madame Bloomberg's stern, resounding voice. “Why do they recline so upon my linen sheets?”
A muffled pfft! escaped from Delia’s lips. Suppose Mrs. Bloomberg was standing right outside their door?
“Whose stockings are those which hang from the fire escape where no stocking should be?” Lilly continued. “Who has used my personal bar of pure Ivory soap in the bath again? Is it not clear that each girl must purchase her own? And why do I hear singing upon the stairs where only silence should be?”
They both collapsed back onto their beds clutching their half-empty bellies, shaking with giggles. Madame Bloomberg seemed have more rules than all the bosses and mamas combined. Not just the ones posted on the door, but others she enforced with just a look or a word. She had made it very clear, for instance, that she did not like meetings in her house. Delia remembered her icy comments one evening about, “those who make speeches standing at the top of the stairs as if this were Washington Park,” when Delia had been talking to the other girls. She wasn’t making a speech, Delia had tried to explain. She had just started talking to Lilly on the stairs and then the next minute she looked up and a group of girls were gathered there listening.
“When we came here I thought we would be free,” Lilly grumbled.
Delia just stared up at the ceiling as if she expected to see the solution to their problems written there. She had begun to believe that whenever she started to feel free, some disaster would always happen and her happiness would come unraveling like a badly done seam. The stitching might look fine, but the minute you gave the cloth a little tug, all your work came undone and there you were right back at the beginning. She felt like she was always counting and counting--every minute and penny. Unlike Madame Bloomberg’s electric broom, freedom didn’t come with a guarantee.
“Zayt gezun, zayt gezunt. Farewell, farewell,” somebody walking down the street sang beneath their window. “Morgan for ik op. Tomorrow I depart. “
“Zayt gezun, zayt gezunt,” Delia hummed along. She knew the old-fashioned song and it fit her mood exactly. What she wouldn’t give to depart. Where to, she had no idea.
“Kh’hob shoyen oyfgeneyt a zekl. Un zihk shoyn mit ale shkheynim, I’ve sewn myself a pack. And said good-by to all my neighbors.” Other voices from the street joined the first. “Morgn vel ikh zayn shoyn vayt-vayt. Tomorrow I’ll be far, far away.”
“Far away.” Delia waited for the voices to fade off into the distance. They didn’t, however. “Zayt gezun, zayt gezunt,” the song began again.
She pushed herself up off the bed, pulled the curtains aside and leaned out the window to see who stood below. Another rule broken, she realized.
On the walk stood David Levine with a whole group of friends from the union who had been locked out of their shops. They all toted funny-looking bundles and rolled-up blankets tied to their shoulders. Several of the boys carried walking sticks of thick, knotty wood.
Lilly wedged herself in beside Delia and stared down at the group too. “Have you been evicted?” she called to them, puzzled. If they had been thrown out of their lodging places, they certainly didn’t look worried about it. Instead, they smiled and waved. Two or three started singing again. “Zayt gezun, zayt gezunt.”
“We are going to the country,” David called up. “To the end of the line.”
The end of the line? Delia and Lilly stared at each other. Like everybody in the Lower East Side, they had heard about that there was someplace at the far edges of the city where the streetcars stopped running and you could go no further. No one they knew had ever been there, however. A world beyond streetcars was nearly beyond Delia’s imagination.
“Are you sure it is in America? Lilly demanded. “This country you are going to at the end of the line?”
“Of course, America. Where else should it be?” David said. “And we have come to ask you to go with us.”
“Come! Come with us! Make up a pack and bring your blankets! Come!” The girls below waved and the boys thumped their sticks on the walk again, making such a racket Delia was afraid Mrs. Bloomberg would come running out the front door to chase them away.
“We will live in tents and won’t have to pay rent,” David explained.
Delia turned and saw that Lilly was already rolling up the woolen blanket at the foot of her bed. “We will bring everything back good as new.” Lilly slipped the linen case off her pillow. “Well, nearly good as new.”
Delia grabbed her blanket and pillowcase too. With a rush of energy she began to cram the sack with her underclothes, extra stockings and their supplies of food. She didn’t care if she was going to the end of the line or to the end of the earth itself. She was just glad to be going somewhere, and to know that she wouldn’t be going alone.
While Lilly finished securing their bundles, Delia wrote a short note to their landlady, explaining that they would bring the blankets back. That seemed easier than asking for them outright. She also pointed out that they were paid up to date in rent and owed no money. Delia wrote in her best English, adding that she had found it educational to live in such a model lodging house with electricity and a guarantee.
“Are you coming or no?” David called up to them anxiously.
“We are ready for the end of the line!” Lilly shouted down leaning so far out the window Delia was afraid she would fall.
As she folded the note and placed it upon the bed, Delia prayed that Mrs. Bloomberg had found a letter in the Forward interesting enough to make her stay put in her kitchen for the next few minutes. She simply did not want to be called upon to explain their sudden departure with a group of rowdy union organizers.
Ready at last, Delia and Lilly hitched up their stockings, tightened their belts, put on their hats, grabbed their blankets and bulging pillowcases and tip-toed down the stairs. Only when the great oak door had swung shut behind them, the brass lock clicking like a scolding tongue did they exhale. At last, they were free.
“Farewell, Farewell!” The whole group sang over and over as they strode along with their packs upon their shoulders. As they passed each block they were joined by more young people until by the time they boarded the trolley, they were over forty strong.
A contingent of workers from the cloak maker’s union had started a summer encampment where unemployed workers could live for free on a place called Morningside Heights, David told them. Everyone lived in the open air together and shared what they had with everyone else. Word had spread quickly to all the unions. Now, everyone was headed there. Workers from as far away as Yonkers and the Bronx. It was going to be a true gathering of the tribes, he said. Socialists, communists, anarchists, reformers, progressives and free-thinkers of all kinds.
Just like the Promised Land, Delia thought. A place she had always dreamed of, where everyone could live as an equal, whether their pockets were empty or full.
Getting to this marvelous place, however, was complicated. They had to change streetcar lines several times and at each transfer confusion reigned. David had two maps of the city, one in Yiddish and the other in English, and he could never seem to get both of them right side up at the same time. While he wrestled with the maps, others examined street signs or badgered passersby for directions, grabbing hold of sleeves and demanding, “End-of-the-line? End-of-the -line?” But it seemed the line must have had several ends for people pointed them a dozen different directions.
Individually each of them might have been frightened to be so far from home and surrounded by so many Americans, but together they became carefree and bold. When David finally herded them onto the right streetcar, their singing grew louder with every clang of the trolley’s bell. The Americans on board looked indignant and a little alarmed to find their streetcar overrun by noisy workers from the Lower East Side. The American women looked down, blinking nervously while their men tried to shield them, turning their backs to Delia and her friends. Taking this as a challenge, the East Siders became even more boisterous. “To strike or not to strike?” They argued exuberantly, jabbing their fingers and shaking their fists for the sheer joy of it. “To strike!” “Yes, a general strike!” Their clamor filled the aisles.
But the word ‘strike,’ whether said in English or Yiddish, did not cause these Americans to alter their stiff expressions. It is a word they don’t even know, Delia realized. They know nothing of the Lower East Side, of where we live or what we do. They act like they have never seen us before and will not turn to look at us now no matter how loud we shout. We might as well be a thousand leagues under the sea, with Mr. Jules Verne and his sailors.
At least Pamela had tried to understand. But Pamela was gone for the summer. She had been dragged “abroad’ by her mama who wanted her daughter to visit art museums in Europe not factories on the Lower East Side. Delia missed her. Pamela had never come back to work in the shop, but she had frequently appeared outside on the steps or come to visit Delia at the boarding house, bubbling over with yet another new plan for reform. First she had wanted to have a dance party at Landsmen’s Hall to raise money for Reenie and all the other street children. But Landsmen’s was temporarily closed from lack of business Delia told her, and besides, no one had money for parties these days. Next Pamela had become worried about the workers who wanted to read but who had no time to visit the library. She would get a cart and fill it with books to give away for free. And what of the book peddlers who needed to support their families, Delia asked? How would they feel about a girl who took their business away?
Still not discouraged, Pamela showed up a week later with a little envelope she waved under Delia ‘s nose. It had a picture of an enormous tomato on the front and rattled with tiny seeds. She was going to start a garden in Tompkins Park so all the women of the Lower East Side could grow their own vegetables to feed their families. Then Delia had to explain that many women had come to the Lower East Side from the old country because they did not want to dig in the dirt like farmer’s wives. If they had wanted to grow vegetables, they would tell you, they could have very well stayed back home.
Pamela never got angry at Delia’s objections. Her small, pink-cheeked face would pucker with thought and she would nod solemnly, digesting yet another lesson, before coming up with yet another idea. Delia knew Pamela had a good heart. If she could, she would have showered the children of the Lower East Side with silver dollars. But she couldn’t. Pamela’s family may have been rich, but the money was in her father’s pocket, not hers.
When Delia was a child she had assumed that the rich kept their money in a jar on the shelf like everyone else, the only difference being that they had rows and rows of shelves and hundreds of jars filled to the brim with coins. Since living with Olivia, however, she had learned differently. Rich people, Olivia informed her, kept a lot of their money in something called investments. Pamela said her father had put his money into railroads. “When I was a little girl,” she told Delia, “I thought that meant he filled freight cars with silver coins and went down to the railroad station to fill his pockets whenever one of his trains came through. But it’s not that simple,” she sighed.
Still, Pamela had sworn she’d devise a plan to wrest some of that money from her papa. Only her mama had decided she needed to be ”finished” first. She had sent Delia one hastily written letter from England in which she described “finishing” as something that involved going to a lot of tea parties, concerts, and museums and being fitted by dressmakers who all tried to stuff wads of cotton in Pamela’s bodice to make her look thin body look more “a la mode.” This last statement was surrounded by so many explanation points Delia could hardly make it out and she wondered if her friend would be an entirely different person when she returned, “finished,” at end of the summer.
While she had been thinking about Pamela, the trolley had began to slow. Outside the window, Delia could see the streets give way to warehouses and vacant lots.
“Washington Heights, Inwood Park, last stop,” the conductor called out as the trolley clanked to a halt at the edge of a railroad yard. "End of the line."
And what of herself, Delia thought. Who would she become now that she had reached the Promised Land at the end of the line?
The workers spilled out of the trolley doors, nearly dropping their packs and knocking one another over in their eagerness to see the countryside where they would be camping. A moment later an uncomfortable silence descended upon them. It certainly didn't look very green. A muddy footpath led behind the roundhouse, winding through a cluster of dilapidated storage sheds and into a small, scrubby stretch of woods where the ground was scarred here and there with the remains of cooking fires and strewn with rusted tin cans. Cautiously, they followed this path for a quarter mile or so. At the edge of the woods, it disappeared into a vast meadow overgrown with tall grass and prickly reeds.
"That way." David pointed towards the meadow's far edge. Resolutely, they pushed onward, the girls lifting their skirts above their knees, the boys thrusting their walking staffs into the earth.
“Ow!” Someone poked his own foot.
“Oh!” Feathery grass tickled the girls’ thighs.
Wasps and hornets buzzed in everyone’s face, making them swat and curse. In the distance, two huge beasts grazed placidly.
“Shalom behomeh!” Lilly called out. “Behomeh, shalom!”
“They are called cows in America, not behomeh. Behomeh are water buffalo,” David pointed out.
“Then hello cows,” Lilly shouted. “I will talk to you in English. Hello, American cows.” The cows lifted their big heads to contemplate the invaders.
“Helloooo.” They all laughed and waved. “Helloooo A-mer-i-can cows.”
The cows twitched their ears and went back to eating. Unlike American people on the streetcars, American cows did not seem to mind sharing their land with the workers from the Lower East Side.
“We will never get there by nightfall if we don’t hurry.” David was losing patience again.
“Then lead on Moses.” One of the boys brandished his walking stick. “On to the golden land!” That put everyone in a better humor. “Der Goldene Medina.” They cried out in unison. “To milk and honey and the golden land!”
It was getting late and they found it harder and harder to stay together. The rope holding their packs cut into their shoulders. Their toes and heels began to blister from walking all afternoon. Someone was always stopping to rest, readjust their pack, or shake pebbles from their boots.
“Wait!” Delia struggled to keep up. She could walk endless city blocks without tripping, but here on the open ground, her ankles buckled with every step. She felt slow and clumsy, like a behomeh, a cow. “Wait! Lilly!” Somehow Lilly had managed to outpace her and was now with those in the lead.
“Over here!” Lilly signaled to Delia and the other stragglers. “Schnell! Quick! Do you think you’re riding Der Leydikgeyer? The slow-poke express?”
On the horizon, a line of tent peaks rose along on a high ridge overlooking the river. Exhausted, they all helped one another make the climb up the hill. When they reached the summit, each and every one of them stood stock still, too stunned by the great vista before them to even sit down. Beneath a blazing sunset the dull brown waters of the Hudson had turned into a river of shimmering gold. In the bluish haze on the opposite shore, they could see the shadow of New Jersey. And beyond that, fading into deep clouds, stretched the whole rest of America. “Der goldene medina. Der land fun fraye un der heym fun held,” someone whispered. The Golden Land. The land of the free and the home of the brave
Satisfied that they had at last arrived, they settled on the ground with contented sighs. Looking around, Delia could see that while some of the tents were made of sturdy canvas and oilcloth, others were clearly fashioned from checked curtains and quilted bed covers. Laundry--both skirts and trousers—hung from a few spindly trees. As a finishing touch, someone had nailed the socialist red flag to the tallest of the tent poles.
Lilly rolled back onto the grass. “I think I am a free-thinker now that I am free,” she announced, waving her arms blissfully at the sky.
“We came here so we can be free. Free of landlords, free of bosses.” A young man in a Cossack style shirt sat down and smiled at her. “Free of spies. Free to speak without a look-out posted at the door.” His name, they learned, was Isaac and those that had arrived at the encampment earlier seemed to regard him with great respect.
He and his friends had been living at the camp for several months, he said. Every few days, someone would scrounge up a load of piecework from a few the sweatshops in the city. Then they would all labor together seated in a big circle on the ground. For a two or three hours each day they glued wooden toys, stitched collars, rolled cigars, or assembled cards of needles and pins, while someone read out loud. They even had their own klezmer band and it was perfectly all right to drop what you were doing and dance when the music pulled you in. When they were finished with the piece work, a couple of campers would take it back to the jobbers for payment and return with food, maybe a sack of fruit, a wheel of cheese, or a box of the broken cakes which bakers sold three for a penny.
At the mention of food, everybody dug into what they had brought and passed it around to everyone else, making a grand feast of dried beef, bruised apples, smoked fish, withered plums, stale bread, and damp, sugared almonds. A big tin pot of coffee had just finished boiling on a campfire in a pit lined with stones. There were more people than mugs, so everyone had to share, passing the steaming cups back and forth. That was what the camp was all about, Isaac said. It didn’t matter what you believed as long as you were willing to share whatever you had among all.
“And, “David added, “as long as you support the union.”
Delia looked from David to Isaac and back again. The two avoided one another’s eyes. “Aren’t we all for the union here,” she asked. “Who among us is not for the union?”
“We are together,” Isaac flashed a smile in her direction.
“And we are free,” Lilly added with emphasis.
Together and free. It sounded good to Delia. The one thing she had always longed for. Not to be alone. And to be 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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