The jail cell was a little bigger than the back of the truck and no less cramped. There was only one bench. It was occupied by four streetwalkers who refused to move. Delia leaned against the wall. No one could sit down upon the floor. The bucket in the corner in which the girls relieved themselves had already tipped over twice. After the first few hours, the matron had given out cheese sandwiches. But someone said the bread had been buttered with pork fat, so the Jewish girls refused to eat. One of the streetwalkers, however, had surprised them by offering to trade a few packets of chewing gum for the uneaten sandwiches so no one starved and an uneasy truce had settled between the two groups.
Shortly after they had arrived, an older woman with a Bible in her hand had come to the cell and asked if the prisoners wanted anyone notified. Several girls gave the names of parents or friends. Delia brushed her off. Her family had enough problems and if she notified one of her friends in the union it would only cause more trouble. She didn’t want anyone else to end up in jail. She had no one, she told the woman.. “No one?” The woman gazed at her with watery blue eyes. It made Delia cringe with shame, as if she had placed herself among the streetwalkers. “Wait,” she called as the woman left. “I have a friend, Pamela MacKenzie, an American.”
“Pamela MacKenzie?” The woman frowned doubtfully.
“Her father is friends with the chief of police,” Delia added and immediately wished she hadn’t when she heard snide laughter from the girls on the bench. She gave the Bible woman the address of a fine brownstone up on Park Avenue. Pamela had returned from abroad only last week. She had promised Delia she would do whatever she could to help “the girls.” Well, now was her chance. Delia wasn’t sure exactly what Pamela could do, but she knew Pamela was sincere. Someone she could count on.
That had been hours ago. “So where is your friend, the chief of police?” One of the girls on the bench mocked. “He coming to bail you out?” ...
The voice sounded vaguely familiar. Delia thought for a moment of Pickles and took a sidewise glance. No, this girl was blond and pasty-faced, instead of red-haired and freckled. “I never said my friend was the chief of police.” She didn’t want to make trouble now. “I only meant--”
At that moment, the Irish matron arrived with her clanking set of keys. “So why didn’t you say you knew such important people? Here I’ll be losing my job, if I don’t treat you nice.” She smiled at Delia as she opened the cell and stood aside as the factory girls filed out to the courtroom.
“Delia!” Pamela rushed up and hugged her. Pamela wore a velvet coat with a fur collar and a green satin dress, the very clothes she swore never touched. She began to fuss with her coat. “I had just returned home from a party when your message arrived. I couldn’t help it. My mama made go out.” The judge came in and everyone hushed. “Oh, I wish I could get arrested.” Pamela whispered. “Just once.”
Meshuga, Delia told herself. Crazy. Sending for Pamela was all a mistake. Pamela was just rich girl after all, one who though strikes were held just for fun.
Pamela, however, surprised her, once more. She knew judges the way Delia knew socialists. Her parents were acquainted with many fine judges, she whispered. She had been among them all her life. “Just wait and see.”
“Your honor.” Pamela rose to her feet. “I’m Miss MacKenzie. Pamela MacKenzie.” She paused to let her name sink in. The judge nodded. He had heard of Mr. MacKenzie. “I have come to pay the fines for these girls,” Pamela told him.
“You have, eh?” The judge had the patient face of an elderly scholar. He looked at Pamela in her fine coat. Her face flushed pink with the boldness of her statement.
“Please,” she added.
“Well then, my dear, sit down, while I call the defendants to the stand.”
The girls had no idea what he meant.
“That means you,” he looked towards the girls who nodded back, ready to please this dignified man. He asked them if they had been well treated and they replied that they had, except for the food, which was not kosher.
He shook his head sympathetically and said he was sorry that his prison did not agree with everyone. Then he asked them if they were sorry for what they had done on the street. Now they were confused. “We did nothing wrong. It was the police.”
“You are charged with disturbing the peace,” he explained. “Do you know what that means?” Without waiting for an answer he continued. “You girls are members of a labor union.” They nodded again. “Your union tells you to strike against your employers.” He had a fine deep voice for making speeches. “But you do not just strike against your employers, you strike against the natural order of the world. You strike against society. You strike against your own families. You strike against God himself who decreed that man must work by the sweat of his brow.” His gavel fell with a thud that made them jump. “You strike against God.”
God? What on earth did God have to do with their union or their strikes? The rabbis say nothing against the strikes, the girls murmured among themselves. Even the rabbis' wives, the meddling rebbetzins, who scolded about everything, were on the girls’ side. Nor did the Catholic priests forbid the Italian girls to join the walk outs, as far as anyone knew.
“Whose God does he talk about?” Delia turned to Pamela who was seated behind her. “Who is this American god, who says we cannot strike?”
“He is Episcopalian, I think,” Pamela replied. “Just plead guilty and I will pay the fine.”
“Let his God come to the Lower East Side.”
“Just plead guilty,” Pamela repeated anxiously.
The judge called for silence. One by one the girls went before him. “How do you plead,” he asked.
“Guilty.” Some spat out the word as if it had a bad taste. Others wept with shame. And one or two said nothing, till everything was explained to them all over again.
“You must say you are guilty, so I can set you free,” Pamela whispered. “If you insist you are innocent, he will keep you here.”
At each “Guilty.” The judge replied “Ten days or ten dollars.” Again and again Pamela pulled bills from her tiny purse, which began to seem as if it held an entire bank vault inside.
“So?” The judge peered at Delia over his glasses.
“Guilty,” she said tonelessly. What difference did it make in this courtroom ruled by an American god who said right was wrong and wrong was right?
The judge smiled approvingly. “Ten days or--” A young man stepped forward, whispered something in his ear and handed him a sheaf of papers.
Delia stood there waiting. She looked at Pamela, puzzled. Pamela only lifted her hands, palm up “Nu?” to indicate that she didn’t know what was going on either.
The judge motioned Delia closer to the bench. “You are an anarchist are you not Miss Brenner?”
“Nu? I mean, what?”
“Miss Brenner. The truth.”
“No,” Delia denied it emphatically. “A socialist. But not an anarchist. Who says I am an anarchist?”
He ignored her question. “You lived with the woman known as Olivia Moreno, did you not?”
“Miss Brenner, answer the question.”
“Yes, for a about a year. Then she left. She went back home.”
Had she said the wrong thing, Delia wondered. Had she betrayed her friend? Was it possible to betray someone without even knowing you did so? “To see her children,” she added.
“So she told you. Madame Morneo is an anarchist, is she not?”
“Yes, in some ways, but she knows socialists and reformers, too. All kinds of people.”
“All kinds of people?”
Once more Delia wasn’t sure what her words really meant.
“And you yourself supplied money to an anarchist gang?”
“No!” At last something she could deny absolutely. “I did no such thing.”
“But you once brought a large sum of money to Carlo Giacomo, a known anarchist. Eighteen dollars, I believe.”
“Carlo?” She sounded slow and stupid and hated herself for it.
“Miss Brenner, please, the truth.”
“Yes. No.” Every truth she told was twisted into a lie. “I brought the money to his sister. She was sick. It was her pay.”
“And she will testify to that?”
“Of course not. She’s dead.” Who had told him these things? And to whom had she told these things?
“So you have no idea how the money was spent?”
“Of course not.”
“So you say.”
The traitor. Aaron had seen her taken by the police. He had been writing down what she told him all along. He had sent this information to punish her for pushing him away. For refusing to be the sweetheart of a traitor. She wished now that the broken piece of brick in her fist had been a knife, the blade plunging deeper and deeper into him.
“So you see, Miss Brenner,” the judge’s voice became kind again, almost fatherly. “You are quite a dangerous person. You associate with known anarchists. You raise money on their behalf. According to what I read in this file, you threaten and blackmail your employer into adding to your funds. You agitate against landlords and deface their property. You tell tenants not to pay their rent. You publish your views against work, against the gainful employment of honest girls, in the Forward, a known socialist paper.” He waited for some kind of reply.
“No, yes. Yes, no.” Delia had no idea what to say. Everything he said was like the truth turned into lies.
“You have no fixed abode. You travel from place to place. Three months here, one year there. You trespass on public lands, sleeping promiscuously among young men in tents. What kind of life is that for a young lady?” Her whole life was summed up in a way that made her look like the worst criminal on the streets of New York. Everything she had said or done for the past eight years was held against her. And she had never tried to do anything but what she had believed to be right.
The judge gazed down upon her at her with exaggerated sadness. Delia hoped that he was more amused than angry. Perhaps this whole thing was a joke of sorts. She tried to smile.
“You’re proud of this?’ He wasn’t smiling.
Delia panicked. “I’m not ashamed.” The vehemence in her voice surprised even herself. It was true, though. She wasn’t ashamed. Not of any of it. She knew she’d do it all again if she had to. What choice did she ever have? Couldn’t he understand that?
“You feel no shame?”
“No.” She looked straight at him. “No.” She repeated. She did not
“Well then,” he gave his gavel a light tap. “Matron, take Miss Brenner back to her cell, please.”
Delia stood, rooted to the spot. The matron gave her arm a hard squeeze.
“My father,” Pamela rushed up to the judge. “My father knows--.”
“Does your father know you are here, Miss MacKenzie?”
Pamela fell silent.
“Or your mother?”
“No.” Pamela had obviously slipped out without her parent’s knowledge.
“And does your father know you are using his money to bail out socialists and rioters?”
“They are not--”
So Pamela knew how to steal too, Delia thought. She could see Pamela reaching into the hidden place where her father kept his secret stash, the way she herself had robbed Ben. She wanted Pamela to look towards her so she could show that she understood. But Pamela hung her head, as if expecting to be sent to the cell herself.
The judge motioned to an officer. “I think Miss MacKenzie would like to go home now.”
Of course, Delia thought. I am the one going to the prison cell. The rich cannot live like the poor even when they want to. Pamela was politely escorted out one door while Delia was marched towards another.
The cell was nearly empty. Only the blond streetwalker remained, sleeping on the bench. Delia pushed the girl’s feet aside and sat down, leaning wearily against the wall. The girl shifted irritably and looked at her. “Oh yeah,” she mumbled. “You’re the one who knows the chief of police.”
Delia was sick of the phrase. “Leave me be.” Everything seemed to come tumbling down upon her at once--exhaustion, loneliness, betrayal and most of all the way the judge’s words, spoken in such a pleasant voice, had had twisted her life into nothing but lies. Harsh, ugly sobs tore loose from deep within her belly. “May his tongue turn into a block of wood and choke him.” She smacked the wall with the flat of her hand.
“Hey, cut it out.” The girl shook her roughly. “You’ll have the matron coming with bucket of ice water and I’m not about to let my new skirt get drenched. So they’re sending you to the workhouse out on Blackwell’s island, are they? It’s not so bad. You just gotta do what you’re told and keep your mouth shut for a week or two that’s all.”
Workhouse? So that was why she had been sent back to prison. “I’ll throw myself into the river,” she wept. “I swear I will.”
“Oh jeez, don’t you know nothin?” The girl shoved a handkerchief at her.
So she knew nothing. Delia blew her nose. She hadn’t cried since that night she had slept in the back of Meir’s shop. Well she had survived that, hadn’t she? She wiped her nose again. Sauerkraut. The handkerchief smelled faintly of sauerkraut. She stared at the girl, who sat up and stared back, their faces only a few inches apart. Delia could see where the thick white powder had worn off revealing pale, blotchy freckles and the darker reddish line at the roots of the yellow hair. It was Pickles, after all.
She’s trying to look like Rachel, Delia realized with a shock. Pickles wants to look like Rachel. That’s why she’s dyed her hair yellow.
“Pickles,” she blurted out. Pickles might be an enemy but at least she was one Delia knew.
“Pickles? Ain’t no one called me Pickles in a hundred years.”
Pickles had a real name, of course, but Delia had no idea what it was. Sarah? Hannah? Tamar?
“Yeah.” Pickles eyed her up and down. “I remember you now. From back when I worked in Meir’s old place. And you wanna know something? Sometimes I wish I was a kid again, sitting at a sewing machine. Sometimes I wish I had never left the damned shop.”
Delia looked at her hands, pricked by needles so often, she no longer felt the jabs. “Don’t you know nothin’?”
Tension hovered between them. Delia remembered the night she had tired to sleep in the stairwell. Maybe Pickles remembered too. “You was always reading,” Pickles said.
Pickles squinted and twisted her mouth into a half-smile. “Yeah. You read all the love letters. “ To Delia’s surprise Pickles spoke as if they were old friends. As if the trouble between them had happened a long time ago when they were no more than children. Actually it had, Delia realized. And she had had so many troubles since then, Pickles hardly seemed the worst of her enemies anymore.
After taking a quick look around to make sure the matron was no where in sight, Pickles fished a bottle out of a pocket in the folds of her skit. She unscrewed the cap, took a long swig and held it out to Delia. Delia started to say no, than changed her mind. She raised the bottle to her lips. Slowly, slowly she let the burning liquid trickle down her throat. For an instant she felt she was going to be sick, but she fought the demon down and handed the bottle back.
Pickles had been watching, her eyes narrowed shrewdly. She grunted and took another swig. They sat passing the bottle back and forth in silence for a while.
“I’m sorry about that Italian girl,” Pickles said. “That’s when all my bad luck really started.”
“The one Meir was always looking at. Lucy.”
“Lucy.” Delia felt as if she were having this conversation in a dream. “Who told you about Lucy?”
“She came to me herself. Estelle couldn’t help her, she said. Or maybe Estelle wouldn’t. So I said I would.”
“You hated each other. Why would she come to you for anything?” She tried to picture Lucy and Pickles on the street talking, their heads bent together, chatting like friends. It didn’t seem possible.
“You know girls,” Pickles yawned. “You hate someone. But you’re all jammed in together. In the shop, in the tenements, on the street. So when you need help you go to someone you know. Even an enemy you know is better than a stranger you don’t. Who else are you going to talk to? I told her for two dollars I’d give her the name of a woman we all called the midwife.”
“Midwife?” Delia echoed dumbly. “What would she need a midwife for?”
Pickles examined bottle ruefully. “You really know nothing. There was a boy. They had been in love, she said. He wanted to marry her. But she didn’t want him anymore. And she didn’t want his baby. She said she didn’t want to end up like her sister-in-law Maria. She wanted to be free. I thought she was crazy. But I gave her the address a woman over on Jackson Street. Someone who could take care of her problem. I asked two dollars for it. Maybe I should have given it to her for free. She was just another girl in trouble. I don’t know why I asked her to pay me, but I did.”
There are things to bring your spell on when it’s late. That’s what Delia had heard. Bitter roots and iodine. But what happened when the potions didn’t work? Where did you go then?
“You’re lying,” Delia protested. “Lucy would never do such a thing.”
“It’s true.” Pickles didn’t take offense. She drained the contents of the bottle lay back down on the bench. “No reason to lie about it. When I heard Lucy was sick after the operation, I got frightened and tried to give the money back. I felt it was covered in blood. Tainted, cursed by the evil eye. When I got to her flat, her brother’s wife threw me out. “Putta,” she called me. “Putta.”
Putta. The Italian word for prostitute. Putta. Delia remembered Maria spitting the name at her. Pickles must have been there before her and she never knew it. Maybe Maria had assumed that Delia was just another streetwalker. Delia looked at Pickles, with her dyed hair and fancy clothes. No, there was no way she resembled Pickles. Even in her disheveled state with blood crusting over on her cheek, she was sure no one would mistake her for a streetwalker. You knew what kind of person a girl was just by looking at her. Or did you? Delia touched the raw scrape. The judge had just turned her own life upside down and inside out, making her into someone even she wouldn’t recognize. What kind of girl was she now? A mouzik, a troublemaker? Or something far worse?
And what of Lilly, she wondered. Lilly had married herself to Isaac, lying with him on the cold ground of Morningside Heights. No chuppa, no rabbi, no broken glass underfoot. What kind of Jewish girl did that? My sister, Delia thought. That’s what kind of girl did it. Lilly would always be a sister to her no matter what she did or how far apart they were.
“I went to see Lucy,” she told Pickles. “Maria tried to stop me but Carlos was there and let me in. Lucy didn’t tell me about…I mean she didn’t tell me why she got sick. She never said a word.”
“Nobody talks about it unless they have too. “ Pickles replied. “Carlos must have found out about the two dollars though. He came to my room to get the money back after she died. By then I had already spent it. Mouziks.” She grunted. “Anarchists, socialists. No matter what they call themselves, I call them trouble. I should have stayed out of it. Let them take care of their own.” Pickles rolled towards the wall and pulled her jacked closer around herself. After a while she drifted off to sleep.
Delia wished she could sleep, too, but her thoughts would not let her. She had no word for what Lucy had done, either in English or Yiddish. There was a word for death, but not for that. There was a name for every illness or calamity that might befall one, but not for that. At least not one she had ever heard spoken aloud. Pickles was right, no one talked about it. Women only whispered about it among themselves in a secret code.
If she had known the truth, known why Lucy was sick, would she have gone to Mr. Meir’s office for Lucy’s pay? Would she have walked out of the shop that day, taking the rest of the girls with her? Would she have gone to Lucy’s flat alone with eighteen dollars in her pocket? Or taken the lace Lucy had given her and touched with her own hands? It was easy to say yes now. But back then she might have felt differently. Would she just have said Lucy was dead to her and kept on working? Would she have turned her back on her friend? That’s what usually happened when girl did something like that. It was worse than death. She brought nothing but shame on herself and her family.
Delia lay down at the other end of the bench. Maybe by going to Lucy’s flat she had set in motion a whole series of things would lead her to the prison house on Blackwell’s Island tomorrow. Nu? What of it? She wasn’t sorry. And for once she wasn’t ashamed of what she had done. Not any of it. She might say ‘guilty’ to the judge, but she didn’t believe it. She didn’t regret anything and that was the truth.
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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