They left at quarter past six the next morning and walked a dozen blocks down to the corner of Washington Place and Green Street. Delia fell back into the rhythm of the street, edging around peddlers, dodging carts, wagons, and streetcars without thinking. People bushed against her, rushing in every direction. She scarcely noticed. She might stumble in the grass, but on the streets she could move as easily as a bird in the air or a fish in the sea.
Molly and Josie talked constantly as they tramped along, filling her in on the shop. The Triangle was a big factory, they repeated at every opportunity. Nearly three hundred people worked there, men as well as women. They filled the entire top three floors of a modern ten-story building.
“How do you get up there?” Delia asked. “How could anybody climb so many stairs?”
“We ride elevators,” Molly exclaimed. Hadn’t Delia ever ridden in an elevator? Where had she been working all these years?
“Of course I know about elevators,” Delia replied, embarrassed. She knew about them, but she had never ridden in one.
When they arrived Delia stopped, rooted to the spot, staring up at the Ash Building. Ten stories tall, it blocked out the sky.
All around her people walked towards the entrance chatting with each other, no different from the girls who worked at Meir’s.
“Delia,” Molly gave her a shove. “Why do you stand here? They will lock the doors.”
Delia remembered Reenie, gaping at the factory gate, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. A baby, she scolded herself. I’m acting like a greenhorn girl, who’s never seen a ten-story building before. She forced herself to move, joining crowd on the sidewalk that inched towards the entrance.
As they neared the door she could see men, women, and children squeezing into a box like a cage. “Going up.” The elevator operator swung a gate shut. Faces peered out, as if from behind prison bars. “Going up,” the elevator man hollered again and they passed out of sight.
“Come on, push up closer,” Molly hustled Delia forward. “If we don’t get on the next time it comes round we’ll be locked out till noon.”
Delia swallowed, terrified.
“It’s all right,” Josie whispered. “I never went on an elevator before until I got here. It’s awful the first time you feel the floor move beneath your feet, but after the third or fourth time you get used to it.”
It was nearly seven o’clock when the elevator descended back down to the street floor with a clank. A warning whistle blew. Starting time. Everyone surged towards the elevator. Delia would have certainly been left behind if Josie and Molly had not grabbed both her arms and literally her carried with them. She shook them off. “I don’t need a mama.”
“Mama!” a little voice cried out. A girl, about seven years old, had squeezed onto the elevator, but her mother remained on the other side. “Let my mama on!”...
The mother reached out, but the elevator operator started to pull the gate closed. “Going up!” he shouted. A thin boy pushed the gate back and wedged himself in. People almost climbed on top of each other in an effort to get on.
A clock started to chime. One...two...
“Ladies, take off your hats so more people can fit!” a young man said. “You take up half the elevator with your feathers and roses.”
“And our hats will be crushed to nothing” one of the girls called back. “I pay two dollars for this hat. Let others wait. If they are late, it is no problem of mine.”
The men grumbled, but the girls kept their hats on their heads. Even if they had wanted to remove them, the elevator was now so jammed with people they couldn’t lift their arms an inch.
“Going up.” The elevator operator shut the gate.
“My mama will be locked out,” the little girl sobbed.
“So?” a woman snapped from the back of the elevator. “You’ll see her again.”
“In paradise,” someone added bitterly, for no reason.
The child sobbed louder.
At ten past seven the doors would be locked.
Josie had been right. When the floor moved beneath her feet, Delia screamed. Fortunately the elevator made such a screeching noise as it started upward no one heard her. She would have fainted, she was sure, if she had had any room to fall. Instead she reached out and found herself clutching the hand of the girl who cried for her mama.
“Mama.” The child sobbed. Delia clasped her hand tight, though they could not even turn their heads to at one another. It was like being on a trolley heading though a tunnel, but upward. Up and up, till Delia almost feared they would shoot right through into the sky.
The floor bounced beneath her and settled with a thud. Before the gate had slid halfway open, people began to push their way out. The child’s hand was wrenched away from her in the rush.
“Come on.” Molly pulled Delia along. “We’ll put your name in the book.”
At last, this was something she understood. The elevator had let them off on the eighth floor where pattern cutters were already at work, their scissors flying across lengths of cloth spread out on long tables. The cloth was a sheer, light cotton lawn, chosen for the new spring models. All the cutters were men and they cursed loudly when the flimsy material slipped from their grasp or they made a wrong snip. A few older women worked beside them, taking the pieces and sorting them into piles to be sent to the machine operators upstairs. Delia watched as a cutter lay a piece of brown paper in the shape of a sleeve, narrow from wrist to elbow and wide above, over four layers of cloth. His shears whipped around the paper in a single motion.
“Don’t look,” Molly said. “They don’t like us to spend a lot of time down here because they’re afraid we’ll steal the samples and sell them to other shops so they can compete with us. Actually,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “some girls do. They caught this one girl with a whole dress in pieces--skirt, waist, sleeves, collars, everything--stuffed beneath her own blouse. Honestly. They took her into the forelady’s office and made her undress, right down to her skin. Everyone could hear her weeping. The police came with a lady police officer. When they brought her out her face was all red and her hair was hanging down. She had even hid pieces of the pattern in in her topknot. ‘They made me do it,’ she kept sobbing. ‘They made me.’”
“Who made her?” Delia asked. By now, they had climbed the stairs to the ninth floor, a huge room, with rows of sewing machines set end to end. Once more, Delia was stunned by the size of the shop. All of Meir’s workers would easily fit into a just single corner of this room.
“Who knows,” Molly replied. “They say there are rings of thieves in the city who go from one shop to another, just to steal new designs. The girl was going to get twenty dollars from someone at Clark’s. That’s what they said.”
Delia thought of Meir’s shop. No one would bother copying a design from there. The girls made fun of the things they sewed all the time.
“Everything we make here is the latest,” Molly continued, as if she herself owned the shop. “That’s why there is such demand. They need workers, even now, with all the union trouble.”
At the back of the room, Molly introduced Delia to the foreman, Mr. Lepchik, a stout, fair-haired young man with a pleasant face and mild voice. Delia felt sure she had seen him before. He must have felt the same way, for he seemed slightly surprised. Nevertheless, he invited her into a small office and asked her to sit, while he put her name in the ledger.
Delia look around. The big oak desk, padded chairs and neat shelves filled with leather bound books, put Mr. Meir’s old office to shame. Mr. Lepchik smiled at her genially as if they had all the time in the world to chat, though she could hear the whirr of machines starting up for the day.
“Adelaide Brenner, is it?” he smiled. “You’re an experienced operator?”
“Yes,” she nodded eagerly. “I have worked for eight years. I know all the electric machines.”
“You have your own?”
“No.” The best hands brought their own machines. “But I’m a good hand. Seams, finishing, buttonholes, setting sleeves, collars, cuffs.” She enumerated her skills. How had she learned all that, she wondered. She hated sewing, felt bored every minute she did it. Yet in spite of herself she had become good at it. When she said she was a good hand, she realized to her surprise, she wasn’t lying.
“Well, you’ll have to rent a machine from us,” he said apologetically. “Fifty cents a week. Even the union agreed we could not let the girls use them for free. Of course, a good hand will have no problem making it up in extra work.”
“Of course,” she echoed, uncertain whether the interview was over. She should be at work, yet he seemed in no hurry.
“You are a member of the union, no?” he asked casually, almost as an afterthought.
She looked at him carefully. The company was working with the union, she reminded herself. “Yes. I am.” Suddenly she knew where she had seen him before. He came to meetings sponsored by the Amalgamated Garment Workers and lectures organized by the Labor Committee. She may have even seen him standing in the back with a group of other young men when she went with Olivia to hear Pamela speak at the reform meeting.
“You are a member too!” she burst out. “I’ve seen you. At the meetings downtown and some of the ones given by the progressive ladies uptown too.”
“Yes.” His fair face became a little red. “I am a member too.” He wrote something in his ledger, and smiled. “So Miss Brenner, perhaps you should find yourself a machine.”
As she walked down to the machine at the end of the row, she noticed the girls looking her up and down.
“His new sweetheart,” one said, making sure Delia could her as she walked by.
Delia kept on walking. New girls were always given a rough time. It meant nothing, she told herself.
“Are you a member of the union?” another asked.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitating.
The girl laughed and two or three more joined in. “He likes union girls.”
Delia remained silent. Why was their bickering in a union shop? Would workers never get along? She sat down and threaded the machine, her fingers moving skillfully, even though her mind was elsewhere.
“They say they work with the union, but you’ll see,” the girl next to her muttered. “They promise us a fifty-two hour week. Then when we try to leave, they lock the doors and make us work sixty hours. And the union says nothing.”
“They want the union under the bosses’ thumb,” another girl said angrily.
Delia forced herself to remain silent. She knew being a new girl was hard. You had to work twice as fast as anyone else and agree with everybody, or disagree so politely no one would notice.
“So many shops want nothing to do with the union.” She tried to make her voice pleasant and friendly. “At least here they will talk with us.”
“Have you ever been arrested?” the first girl asked.
“I have. The last time we had a walk-out the police came. They sent me to workhouse. Blackwell’s Island.” She was a pretty girl with tendrils of dark brown hair trailing over her cheeks. “They make you undress there.” She turned her face briefly to Delia and Delia could see a large bruise on the girl’s left cheek. “The matrons make you take off everything. Everything. And put on workhouse clothes.”
“I’d never do it,” someone insisted. “I’d fight like a demon.”
“You try fighting of two prison matrons,” the girl turned back to her work again. “They are worse than the men. They hold you down if you don’t do what they say. They drop you into tubs of freezing water and hold you there until you’ll do anything. Anything not to die on Blackwell’s Island.”
“Who said anything about dying? Nobody died. You came back. Everyone came back from Blackwell’s island.”
“I am not afraid.” One voice rang out.
“I am not afraid either.”
“Nor I,” Delia echoed.
“You wait and see,” her neighbor said softly.
Delia worked with ease, each seam emerging smoothly, without any gaps or puckering on the edges. She was as good now as any of the girls back at Meir’s old shop. As good as Rosa, Bertha, or Estelle. A good hand. Something to be proud of. Yet she felt no pride. There were other things to be good at: reading, writing, speaking, drawing, running relays, riding bicycles. And no doubt much more she didn’t even know about and probably never would. One piece of cloth after another flew through her fingers.
By the time the lunch bell rang she had accumulated a stack of finished pieces beside her. At the rate she was going, she would be able to count on twelve dollars at the end of the week.
The crowd waiting at the elevator was hungry and irritable. If you were not among the first down you would barely have time to buy a sandwich or piece of pastry from one of the carts outside before break was over.
Twice she missed her chance. When she finally reached the street, two of the carts were sold out. She went to a third, but at that instant elevator’s warning bell rang. Five people stood in line ahead of her. She waited nervously. Then the second bell clanged. She turned back. It would not do to be late from lunch on the first day. Her stomach growled. That was nothing, she told herself. She had been hungry before. It was nothing to work on an empty belly. Everybody had done it at one time or another. The memory of her first day at Meir’s returned. How she had cried and collapsed with hunger, sobbing on the floor! What a baby, Delia thought, what a baby I was. What a baby. That was what you said to silence the voice in your mind that filled you with loneliness and grief. The voice that wanted you to remember things. Remember what it was like to be a little girl, to hold your mama’s hand.
She felt momentarily lost when she got back to the ninth floor. A window shutter by the fire escape flapped half-open. She peeked out and saw New York spread beneath her. It was a lovely warm day in early October. People were out sitting in Washington Park this very minute. All she wanted to do was fly, to jump right back onto the elevator and scream at the operator to carry her down. She wouldn’t be cooped up again. Why should she live like this? Why bother with so much talk of rights when you always ended up sitting at a machine doing the same thing.
“Miss, miss,” the little girl who had been crying that morning tugged her skirt. “Miss, they won’t let us do that. They see you looking out the window and you’re going to be sacked.”
Delia glanced around. People were hurrying back to their machines. She stooped down and whispered in the girl’s ear, “Do you want to see too?”
The girl bit her lip and nodded. “But only for a minute.”
Delia hoisted her up to the window. The child drew in her breath and let it out with an ‘ahh...’ like she had just taken a great thirsty gulp of lemonade.
“Thank-you.” She clung to Delia’s skirt after she was set back down.
“You’re a learner?” Delia asked.
“Yes,” the girl replied. “And I’m a member of the union too”.
Such children couldn’t be union members, Delia knew. They weren’t even supposed to be working. “And your mama?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” the girl smiled. “Both of us. We go to meetings together.”
“That is good.” Delia straightened the girl’s rumpled dress and watched as she ran back to the corner where the youngest children worked. The corner called they the ‘kindergarten.’
Her mama takes her to meetings? Delia tried to imagine walking to meetings with her mama, hand in hand, the way they had walked to Meir’s on her first day of work. The picture disappeared the instant she put her foot on the treadle and her machine started up again.
Before they all left for the day, Mr. Lepchik made a little speech to the girls. The management wanted to work with the union, he said, but we must know who you are. “I have the names of sixty union members,” he told them. “And that is fine. But we need more. Please come forward. It will help us to improve conditions here. We know you want a fifty hour week, that you no longer want to be charged for the use of needles and the machines.” Here a few girls cheered. “That you want to be paid even for the days work is slack. Management is willing to listen. Just let us know who you are.”
There was a shuffling and murmuring. A few girls went forward, then a few more. Within fifteen minutes, he had nearly a hundred names in his book.
As her first week at the Triangle neared its end, Delia began to list what she would do with her pay. Most of it she would pass on to Leah. There was her rent for Mrs. Bloomberg. And her dues for the union. But after that she might have just a little for an evening at Landsmen’s dancehall.
Aaron Lepchik would be there too. He had promised her.
She had already met him twice after work. The first time they had run into each other by accident as she walked home. They had stopped to talk and ended up in a cafe. The second time they met at the cafe by arrangement. As they lingered over seltzer and sandwiches, she told him all about her summer at the camp—Bertha’s bicycle, Isaac, the hikes, swimming and outdoor exercises. Afterwards, they had strolled through Washington Park and he told her about the excursion train he had once taken to the Pocono Mountains where he had met people from as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore. The hotel resorts had parlor games, singing and dancing parties every night. Delia should go to the Poconos, he declared. Why spend all one’s life trapped in the Lower East Side?
That was exactly how she felt, Delia nodded enthusiastically.
He was in no hurry to get home. He lived with his parents, his grandmother ,and a widowed sister with three little ones, all in four rooms. Cherry Street had been no different, she replied. She told him how her mama had thrown her out, how she had slept on the street and in the shop before going to live with Olivia. She even told him about Lucy. She rarely talked about Lucy any more, though she still thought of her. But Aaron seemed to understand. He made it easy for her to talk about herself. “Nu?” He would nod sympathetically whenever she paused, encouraging her to go on.
When they arrived on Mrs. Bloomberg’s front stoop, they both stood looking at one another shyly, as if knowing something should be done, but not sure how to do it. Finally she leaned in towards him, their cheeks grazed one another. He was a foreman, she reminded herself. But there was nothing that made him one at that moment. Very gently he brushed his fingers over her hair. A new feeling flooded her, or perhaps it was an old one. Than abruptly he broke away, ducking his head nervously, and taking a small step backward. It was all right, she wanted to tell him. But instead, they only agreed they would meet after work on Saturday evening at Landsmans Dance Hall.
On Saturday morning, payday, she arrived at the Triangle early. Three men she had not seen before stood at the freight entrance. One of them had a list in his hand. As she approached she saw the little girl she had lifted to the window walking away clinging to a woman’s hand. Both of them were sniffling back tears.
“What is happening?” She pushed her way to the head of the line. One of the men shoved her back hard. “Wait your turn, girlie.” Everybody began to push and scramble to board the elevator.
“Your name?” The man with the list demanded.
“Delia...Adelaide,” she corrected herself. “Adelaide Brenner.”
“Yes.” The man made a mark on the sheet.
Delia took this as a sign to pass.
“Not you,” the other man pushed her again, so hard she would have fallen, if the crowd had not held her up.
“We’ve been blacklisted,” someone whispered.
“No,” Delia pushed the man back. “Ask Aaron. I mean Mr. Lepchik. He will tell you that our names are all right.”
“Yeah.” The man with the list made another check mark. “I got yer names all right.”
By eight o’clock the sidewalk outside the Asch Building was packed with girls. Delia looked around. Every girl who had given her name to Aaron had been turned away from the elevator.
“Go home.” The three men chuckled. “Go home to your babies, your bubulehs.”
No one left and no one laughed.
“Move it. Step aside.” A little group of streetwalkers sauntered up to the entrance, escorted by a police officer. They all looked half-awake, some of them still combing out their hair, buttoning their blouses and hitching up their stockings right there on the pavement. The officer, who normally wouldn’t have lost an opportunity to make their lives miserable, became positively gallant, ordering the workers away and helping his charges into the elevators one by one as if he were presenting them at a ball.
“Don’t let them up,” the girls shouted.
“Go on,” he waved his stick at the elevator operator.
“I’m an independent contractor,” the operator stepped out, his arms folded. “I don’t tell you how to run the police department and you don’t tell me how to run my elevator. “
They squared off face to face.
Seizing their opportunity, the factory girls began to drag the streetwalkers out of the elevator. Each side clawed and kicked, grabbing fistfuls of hair, tearing away earrings, ripping blouses, and digging fingernails into the soft flesh between the breast and the neck.
Hearing the commotion, another police officer came running. He stopped short, grinning at the sight of so many flailing legs and flying petticoats.
“All right sweethearts,” he waded into the pack of girls, swinging his club in wide, lazy arcs.
"Get down.” Someone pulled Delia to the pavement. “Lay down.” It was Aaron.
She sprawled flat on the sidewalk. All around she could hear howls and whacks. One girl fell right on top of Delia, knocking the breath from her lungs. She was trapped. A pair thick-soled black boots stopped an inch from her nose.
“My arm!” The girl cried as she was pried from Delia’s back. “Mister, let go my arm.”
Delia was certain she would be next. Her fingers clawed the crevices of the sidewalk. A piece of brick of came loose in her hand.
But the boots were gone. “It’s all right now. Aaron helped her to her feet. “I’ll take you around the side, you’ll be safe there.”
She rubbed her cheek. Her hand came away smeared with blood. “Did you?”
“Did I what?” He glanced around furtively, trying to hustle her along.
She refused to budge. “Was it you? Did you give them our names?”
“What are you talking about? We will go to the park. No one will even know you have been here.”
“Did you put us on the blacklist?”
“Everything is not so simple as you think. Everyone is not always free to do as they please.”
“Was it you?” All she wanted was for him to say ‘no.’
“What do you want of me?” he nearly shouted, then dropped his voice to a pleading whisper. “This trouble is nothing. It happens all the time. We’ll go someplace where we can talk.”
“Traitor.” She said it without raising her voice. The bosses had planned it all along. They had made the blacklist, hired the prostitutes, paid off the police, even ordered a police van to pull up at the right moment. And Aaron had helped them. He had given them the names. “Traitor.”
He looked at her genuinely puzzled. “What do you mean? Come to the park. We can forget about this. ”
“Forget? How can you expect me to forget this?”
“And how can you expect me to lose my job because a few girls get upset over every little thing. I can’t let my family go hungry every time management has a beef with the union. You of all people should understand what it is like when your family needs you. ”
“My mama never asked me to be a traitor.” She wrenched herself free of his grip. “Traitor!” She raised her arm. The broken piece of brick in her fist grazed his nose. Blood spurted out.
“You demon!” he howled.
She stood there dazed and shaken at what she had just done. Only a few yards from her girls were being shoved into the back of the police van, the kind of truck with no windows in the back everybody called the “Black Maria.”
“Okay, you too.” Hands grabbed her from behind.
She lost her footing and fell again. Her hair came loose. Someone trampled on it. “Please!” She felt her scalp tear as she tried to stand up.
A second later she was hurled into a black hole filled with sobbing girls and stinking of cigar ashes, lilac perfume, old beer, Ivory soap, and rotten meat.
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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