When this general strike would take place, however, still seemed a long ways away. No one could say for certain what day it would happen or or even how they should organize such a thing. Delia left the campgrounds on Washington Heights, feeling as if she was going from the top of the world down back down to the bottom again with no idea what might happen when she got there. She couldn’t bring herself to go back to Cherry Street right away, so she stopped at Mrs. Bloomberg’s rooming house, hoping against hope that Mrs. Bloomberg would take her back in. After all, Mrs. Bloomberg was a reformer, Delia reasoned, as she stood on the front stoop, clutching her much-tattered blanket in her arms. And what else were reformers for, except to help those who needed it?
Much to Delia’s relief her former landlady welcomed her, if not with open arms, then at least, with a courteous nod and then a surprising invitation to a cup of tea. Over the summer, Delia learned, Mrs. Bloomberg had become an ardent supporter of the union and the girls who were in it. All was forgiven, or rather she had found another outlet for her righteous indignation and couldn’t wait to share it with Delia.
“Did you see this?” Mrs. Bloomberg waved a copy of the Forward in Delia’s face, as they sat in the kitchen over tea and apple cake. “They use streetwalkers to break the strikes. Common prostitutes hired to sew clothes for decent women.”
Delia had read the article too. When girls walked out of the shops these days the bosses would invite all kinds of people to work in their place, including streetwalkers. The Forward showed a sketch of them, lifting their skirts to their knees, showing off their silk stockings as they paraded past the strikers.
“Just imagine,” Mrs. Bloomberg tightened the ribbon at her collar. “All over New York, all over America, a lady might walk into a fine department store, A.J. Stewart’s or Misters Lord and Taylor, and not know if the blouse the salesgirl holds out to her was made by the hands of a...a prostitute!” Mrs. Bloomberg trembled all over. “It makes me sick, positively sick, to think that anything I put on my body might have been touched by one of....of...those women.”
Mrs. Bloomberg was obviously more upset by the idea of streetwalkers in the shops than she was about the conditions in the shops themselves, but Delia didn’t argue. She knew the streetwalkers probably didn’t do a thing. The bosses just hired them to humiliate the union. They only sat at the machines pretending to sew or they spent the day jeering from the windows at the real workers who were out on the streets. She didn’t explain that to Mrs. Bloomberg, though.
“If the bosses will do stoop that,” she said. “They’ll stoop to anything.”
“Exactly. That’s why they must be stopped,” Mrs. Bloomberg smacked her cup down so hard the saucer shook. “Completely defeated. ”...
Two new girls were now living in Delia’s old room, Mrs. Bloomberg explained. But they wouldn’t mind sharing with a third, money being so tight these days. They were asking for another girl, just the other day.
Both girls were out when Mrs. Bloomberg opened the door. Delia felt strange, seeing someone else’s things in the room she and Lilly had shared. New pictures were taped on the walls, different hats hung from the hooks, strange boots were lined up next to the beds. She and Mrs. Bloomberg fetched a metal cot from the attic and set it up in the small space by the window. They also found a little two-drawer chest for her things. Everything in the room fit like a puzzle. It was indeed big enough for three if you didn’t mind climbing over each other to get in and out.
After Mrs. Bloomberg left, Delia went to the washroom. She took a long look at her face in the mirror and let her hair fall loose. Over the summer it had grown long and wild. It was getting hard to plait or twist it into a knot atop her head. Maybe she should let it hang down her back like Leah’s, with only a ribbon to hold it at the nap of her neck. That was a new style. But Leah’s hair was smooth and straight. Delia’s sprang free every time she tried to comb it neatly. She studied herself carefully. Her nose was peeling, her skin had become a darker shade of brown than she had ever seen it. With her hair undone she didn’t look like a proper young lady. No she didn’t look like a lady at all. Nervously, she started to make a braid, than let it unravel.
Then she did something she had never done before. She undressed completely, right down to her skin and looked at herself. Looked at every part of herself. She had never seen herself naked before. The mirror above the sink wasn’t large enough to see everything at once, so she used the stepladder that was kept in the washroom for fixing things. If she stood at the top she could see her legs from her feet almost to her hips, another step down and there was her belly, one more and she was just a body, all belly and ribs and breasts without legs or neck. Some parts of her were white, others brown and others covered with soft, black tendrils of hair. With each movement, she wanted to turn away ashamed, but she forced herself to look. Why should she feel shame? She didn’t feel it at the public bath when she slipped in and out of the common pool. No one did. But here alone in Mrs. Bloomberg’s washroom with the gleaming tiled walls and the bright electric light overhead, her heart pounded as if she was seeing something forbidden.
Was it more shameful to look at yourself than have others look at you? She thought of Olivia sitting so casually in the tin tub in the kitchen while Delia made tea. Olivia would keep scrubbing herself while they talked of some meeting or book, just as if she were completely dressed. It didn’t make you forget she was naked, but it made it seem less important somehow. Over the summer, Delia had sometimes joined Lilly and the others bathing in the river. They kept their underclothes on, letting the water soak through. You could see the flesh beneath the thin folds of cloth, clear as day. Yet with everyone outside together, with all the Irish and German families and their squealing children splashing each other, it didn’t seem shameful at all. She turned and tried to peer over her shoulder to see her back, bracing one foot on the stepladder for balance, like a statue.
When Delia had finally asked Leah what she did at the life drawing class at the Art Students League, Leah had said they drew from the model. Delia didn’t know what that meant, so Leah explained it was drawing naked people--she called them 'nudes.” Delia was astounded. What kind of people were these art students? Then Leah had backed down and assured her that the models didn’t pose completely naked, they draped themselves with sheets like the ancient Romans and Greeks.
Now Delia wondered about that. She wondered what it would be like to be in the center of a room filled with people, all of them studying her as she stood just the way she did now, without a stitch on. The very idea should have been enough to make her grab her chemise, but she didn’t. She stepped down to the floor and examined her face again. Bessie always told her that she looked like her father. ‘Jacob Brenner’s face, exactly,’ Bessie would insist.
She stepped back up onto the ladder. She might have her father’s face, but she couldn’t have his body. Was that her mama’s body she saw in the mirror now? Hadn’t her mama always been a thin woman with stooped shoulders in shapeless old smocks? She remembered sitting on her parents’ bed watching her mama get dressed one night when she was only two or three years old. Maybe it was a special evening. Her mama had worn a fancy corset with pink ribbons laced tightly up the back. When Mama had bent over to fasten her stockings, the corset had slipped down a little and Delia could see her mother’s breasts pressed together so firm and round there was no space between them.
She studied herself for a long time. Would she change anything if she could? Would she want to be taller or slimmer like some girls? Or maybe heavier? She knew there were girls who padded their underclothes with roles of cotton to give themselves more shape. She turned sideways. No, she would never have to do that. Not at all.
She started to draw water for a bath. She hadn’t signed up to use the tub. She didn’t care. When the tub was full, she lowered herself into the warm water, satisfied. There was nothing about herself she would change, she decided. At least not on the outside. Inside her head was another matter. Everything there changed all the time, whether she wanted it to or not.
After she had dried herself, she put on her one set of clean clothes, washed her dirty ones out, and went up to the roof to hang them from the line. It was past six in the evening and the sun was melting at the edge of the horizon into a cloud of grime. On the streets below she could see small groups of workers straggling home from the shops that had closed early. Delia missed the campground. She missed the open air, the grass and trees. Where was Lilly at this moment, she wondered? Had she been able to reach the Wild West so soon? Now Lilly was the one who would spend her life among the grass and trees. With a pang, Delia wondered if she should have gone with Lilly. In every direction, all could see now was a jagged forest of tenements and factories. But this was her place, she reminded herself. The Lower East Side was her chosen land because she had chosen to be here.
When she came back down from the roof, she found her new roommates had returned. “Where do you work?” they asked. ‘Where do you work?’ even before they even wanted to know her name. “I used to work for Meir’s.” she said hastily. Of course these girls put work first. They had not been sitting around a campfire talking about the fate of the world. They had no time for such things, and now neither did she. She had been locked out Meir’s along with all the other workers, she explained, and so had joined the encampment with her friends.
At that, the older of the two girls, Molly, pressed her lips together, her eyes narrow with suspicion. She had heard about those outdoor campgrounds. Girls and men slept side by side. That’s what she had heard. “Anything must happen in an atmosphere like that,” she said.
“No it didn’t,” Delia responded. She kept Lilly’s story to herself. “We studied and organized and did outdoor exercise, that’s all”
The younger girl, Josephine, had nothing against the campers. She would have gone herself, she said wistfully, but at the last minute someone had told her the Triangle was hiring again. Delia knew about the Triangle didn’t she? Delia nodded. The Triangle was a big shop, one where there had been many walkouts and strikes.
“Maybe you can work there too,” Josie looked at Molly for approval.
Molly scrutinized Delia, her lips still pursed. “You have good hands?” she asked.
“Of course,” Delia stretched out her fingers. They were sunburned, rough and strong, “I was an operator at Meir’s.” Not quite true, but everyone knew bosses kept girls ‘learners’ for years just to save costs.
“If you are experienced, there will be no problem.”
Delia hesitated, “I belong to the union.”
“There will be no problem,” Molly repeated.
“She means the bosses have decided to recognize our union.” Josie added eagerly. “We have a union just for our shop. They have signed a contract.”
“We need a contract for all the shops, not just one,” Delia pointed out.
“Do you want the work or not?” Molly demanded. “There are many girls looking for just such a job this minute,” she added as if Delia didn’t know.
“I didn’t mean to make a speech,” Delia apologized. She did not want to make an enemy of someone she hardly knew. She needed the job. “Of course I will work.”
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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