The next morning Delia stood on the corner watching the minute hand jump on the great clock outside the Lanshaffen Benevolent Association. It was a quarter to eight now.
After the meeting, the girls had been up nearly all night talking in the cafes. They would go to the shop as if it were any ordinary day, they decided. Then at eight o’clock, a signal would be given and the machines would stop. In every shop everyone would stop sewing, everyone would put on her hat and coat, everyone would walk out the door. Together. It was as simple and complicated as that.
Suppose someone forgot to give the signal, Josie asked. Or the other girls changed their minds? Maybe in the morning a strike would not seem like such a good idea, after all.
“All it takes is one girl,” Delia had reminded them. She remembered the day she had pushed her crate out into the middle of the aisle when she was working at Meir’s old shop. “If one shows courage others will follow.”
“A dollar says they won’t do it.”
Delia looked over and saw two young men leaning against the wall.
“I don’t know. They sure acted fired up last night.”
“That was last night.” The first speaker lit a cigar. “I don’t think even one girl out of hundred really meant she’d strike. Not with winter coming in. Hell, if even a hundred walk out today, you’ll get your dollar.”..
“How can you gamble on us as if we are a...a game?” Delia didn’t know whether to be angry or amused. “What do you think this is? Coney Island?”
“A thousand apologies, miss.” He spoke with the same flowery language so many young men used. It meant nothing, she knew.
“There will be more than a hundred on the street today.” She decided to be stern. “There will be a thousand. Five thousand.”
“Ah.” He didn’t sound humbled.
How many girls worked in the factories of New York, she wondered. Had anyone every bothered to count them? The minute hand of the clock crept closer to eight. “Ten thousand,” she added. That sounded good.
“Listen to her!” He nudged his friend “A real firebrand. They say a girl gave a speech like that last night. Was it you?”
“Me?” He was teasing her of course, but she felt flattered just the same.
“I will double your bet.” She smiled, just a little. “Two dollars.” She didn’t have two whole dollars to her name. “Two dollars if there are more than a hundred girls in the streets.”
Just like that. A minute before they had never seen each other, now they were laughing together like old friends. Before she had time to wonder how it had happened, the clock began to chime.
The young man kept talking, but she was no longer paying attention. Something was different. She couldn’t see it, but she felt it. Something had stopped. The steady rumble and hum of machinery that always seemed so much part of the street had fallen silent. Everything looked the same, but it felt like midnight had fallen in the middle of the morning. One by one the factories, large and small, became quiet.
Everybody on the street stopped too--peddlers, delivery boys, housewives shopping, children scavenging for rags in the alleys.
“A dollar says they’ll start up again.” The young man was not going to give up so easily.
Factory doors opened. Girls stepped out in two and threes, peering around uncertainly. Some looked almost as if they wanted to go back in, but others behind them pushed them out.
Then they began to pour from the buildings, pulling one another by the hand. Girls by the dozens, by the hundreds. Within fifteen minutes they had overflowed the sidewalks and filled the streets. Traffic stopped. Trolleys clanged while conductors shouted helplessly. Carts became trapped. Nothing moved but the girls. Linking arms, four or five abreast, they started walking up Broadway towards Union Square.
The young man shrugged and handed Delia her two dollars. She smiled at him triumphantly and the way he looked back made her flush. “If you would like to meet at a café,” he said. “I know of one—“
Delia didn’t have time to listen. The march was moving on without her. She didn’t have time for handsome young men who had nothing do to but take their leisure today. “If you want to do something for me, go to the union all and pick up some flyers to hand out,” she told him and dashed off the join the crowd.
At every block, their ranks grew. “Unzere vunderbare farbrente meydlehk!” an old man called from a tenement window. Our wonderful, fervent girls. “Unzere vunderbare farbrente meydlehk!” The cry traveled with them as the girls surged up the street. Our wonderful girls. The firebrands of the Lower East side.
When they reached the Carnegie Library, Delia climbed to the top of the library steps to get a good view. Everywhere she looked there were girls. Arm and arm, hand in hand. Girls in stylish hats, and girls with only babushkas to cover their heads. Some looked like young ladies and others were just children, so young they still had braids hanging down to their waists. But they were all wonderful, fervent and fearless.
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew,
Ye are many, they are few.
She repeated the poem, her voice lost in the growing din of songs and cheers.
Lions in the street, that’s what they were. Fargrente medylehk. Each and every one of
them, strong and fierce and proud.
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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