“Do not loiter in front of a shop. Keeping walking up and down in front of the shop.” Delia studied the list of rules in her hand. “Do not walk in groups of more than two or three. Do not get excited and shout on the street. “ Do not, do not. There were more rules for strikes, it seemed, than there were for living in Mrs. Bloomberg’s boarding house.
The union had given her a sheet of regulations and a white sash with the letters WTUL for Women’s Trade Union League to wear over her coat. With these, she was supposed to organize a picket line. “Do not sit upon the stairs,” she read the rules out loud for the benefit of the girls.
Just when she thought she was free of rules there were always more. But they needed the rules, David told her. “Without rules they will not respect us. The bosses will call us rioters and say we disturb the peace.”
What is wrong with disturbing the peace, she wanted to ask. But she knew the answer. The last time she had disturbed the peace she had gone straight to Blackwell’s Island.
This was what the strike came down to: walking to one end of the block, turning around and walking back to the other. Over and over from early morning to long after dusk. Walking until your feet turned to ice, your fingers became still, and your cheeks numb with cold.
“Do not loiter,” she gave the girl ahead of her a gentle nudge.
“What is loiter?” the girl asked.
“It means the police will say you are standing on the street like streetwalker looking for men.”
“That is meshuga, crazy!” The girl whirled around to face Delia. She placed her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders back. “Anyone can see I am decent girl.” The other girls murmured in agreement.
“The police can say whatever they please and the judges will listen,” Delia reminded them. Her job, as she saw it, was to keep the girls off Blackwell’s Island. She would not want that to happen to anyone. It was not easy. Police could arrest you for any reason or none at all. To sit upon the factory steps was trespassing. To drop so much as a handkerchief was the defilement of public streets. To sing, laugh, or call out to anyone was disorderly conduct. And to top it all off, should you protest against anything the police did, you would be resisting arrest, even if they had no reason to arrest you in the first place...
With so many rules how could they rise like lions, Delia grumbled. Sometimes she just wanted to crumple the list and toss it into the nearest ash can. Why should they be so tame? She knew the answer. Blackwell's Island again.
“The union counts on you.” Lilly linked her arm through Delia’s. “Do not sit or stand.” Lilly knew the rules too. “Keep walking at a steady pace." They must have walked the entire length of America by now, Lilly declared, just pacing up and down the same city block hour after hour every day.
"Yes, the Union counted on her, Delia reminded herself. It counted on her to do the right thing. “Do not stop anyone on the street,” she continued from her list. “If you wish to speak to a strikebreaker walking into the shop, walk alongside her. Do not put your hand on the person you are speaking to. Do not touch her sleeve or button. That may be construed as a technical assault.”
“Technical assault?” One of the girls stopped in her tracks. “What is such a thing? I have never heard of it.”
“It means you could be arrested for touching someone,” Delia explained.
“Well that’s the limit!”
The line of girls stopped walking all together and crowded around her, indignant. How could you not touch someone if you wanted to make her to listen, they demanded. Many greenhorns didn’t understand any other approach. There was no other way to keep them from entering shops to work except by taking them by the shoulders and turning them around. “They take our jobs, our pay, bread from our families,” one girl declared.
“Why should we be kind to them just because they are new?” another chimed in. The oldest rivalry had broken out again, the competition between the recent arrivals and those who had come before them.
Delia heard these complaints over and over. It seemed that the strikers reserved their greatest anger not for the streetwalkers or even the bosses, but for those who should have been closest to them—the girls fresh off the boats from the old country.
“Do not curse or call anyone a scab,” Delia continued to read. Girls new to America were eager for work. As soon as they arrived on the docks men from the shops promised them good jobs. Nobody told them about the strike. They didn’t know the meaning of scab, didn’t understand why they should not cross the picket lines.
“Do not use bad language of any kind. Plead, persuade, but do not threaten.” Delia tried to set a good example, herself. All day, she talked until her throat went dry, telling the greenhorns that the striking girls wanted to work too. “But we only want to work fifty-two hours week, not eighty. And we want to be paid by the hour, not by the piece.” Girls should be paid for all the hours they spent in the shop, she said, not just for the time their hands were busy. If deliveries were late and the bosses made them sit without work, then they should be paid to sit and wait. And if there was too much work, the boss could not lock the door to make them stay late. Most of all, they wanted a closed shop, one in which everybody joined the union, so the bosses would never again turn union girls against non-union girls.
Shyly, when they were sure the bosses weren’t looking, the greenhorns began to stop and listen. In hushed, timid tones, they asked questions of their own. Sometimes about the union, but about a hundred other things as well. Is it true that you can find a husband in America without a matchmaker, they wanted to know. Why does everyone work on the Sabbath here? Where is this place they call Coney Island and how do you get there? Where did you buy your hat? Your jacket? Your high-heeled boots?
The more Delia talked to them, the more they turned to her. The new comers had endless questions and even more troubles troubles. They wept on Delia’s shoulder because they were alone, or because their parents were sick, their brothers and sisters hungry. They cried because their fiancés back home had betrayed them, their new landlords cheated them, and the foreman in the shop was always creeping up behind them. Most had never thought of using a needle when a man got too close.
So Delia forced herself to be patient. In addition to telling them about the strike, she gave advice on boots, landlords, hats, Coney Island, late night cafes, the stores with the best bargains, and the bakeries with the cheapest bread.
“I am their mama, papa, older sister, rebbetzim, nursemaid, and union leader all rolled into one,” she told Lilly, half-exasperated and half-proud that so many should come to her for help.
And it wasn’t only the greenhorns who depended on her. Wealthy reformers, too, turned to her. Because Delia had lived with Olivia she was not as timid around the rich as some of the other girls. When the ladies from the Women's Trade Union League came to show their support, she would show them around the union hall in the evenings, always making sure they saw the blackboard where the organizers wrote the names of all the shops that had settled with the striking workers. City Coats, Klein’s, New Ladies Waists, and Fifth Avenue Dresses had all signed contracts with the union, she told them.
Every day it seemed another boss came creeping up the stairs, shamefaced, hat in hand. He was busted, he moaned. The scabs had no idea what they were doing. He would lose everything, if the strikers didn’t come back to work. Whoops of joy rang out every time another name went up. Most of the shops that reopened were small ones that employed a hundred people or less, but the girls weren’t worried. They were sure the big shops wouldn’t be far behind. Victory was near, they assured their visitors.
After a tour of the union hall, the rich women often took the girls riding around the Lower East Side in their chauffeur driven motor cars which bore banners declaring “We Demand the Fifty Two Hour Week,” and “Votes for Women.” The cars bumped on the rutted streets worse than horse-carts and got stuck turning every other corner. Every time the driver swerved to avoid a trolley the passengers in the car were thrown all fermisht, topsy-turvey, with one’s feet landing on the other’s neck. Still, the girls agreed that riding in a real motor car was vunderbar, like riding in a dream.
The rich women also organized a march to city hall to protest the treatment of the strikers by the courts and the police. Photographs of them in their mink coats, standing side-by-side with the girls, appeared in all the English speaking papers--The Call, The Sun, The Herald and The Times. The reporters called them “The Mink Brigade.”
Delia knew these women liked her. They often invited her uptown to speak at meetings in their home’s and clubs. She wasn’t quite sure, however, how much she liked them. It wasn’t the motorcars or mink coats that bothered her. It was the expressions on their faces. She noticed that whenever she got up to speak the wealthy women would always take out their handkerchiefs ready to dab their eyes as soon as she opened her mouth. It wasn’t difficult to move them to tears.
She would talk about the girls who arrived on the picket lines hungry, but would not take the two dollars a week that the union offered to those in need. The hungry girls said it was only for those who were starving, and those who were starving would not take it because it should go only to those who lay in the very hand of death itself. And those who lay in the hand of death said it was only for those whose families went without. Parents went hungry so the children could eat, and the children saved the bread from the lunches at the settlement house to bring home to their parents.
But nobody, no one, Delia repeated, said the girls should give in. They were the farbrente meydlehk, the fervent girls of the Lower East Side. Work, however, was only part of the story, she continued. And she would tell the rich ladies about how they had once stood against the landlords and refused to pay rent until the landlords agreed to the tenants’ demands. At that point the handkerchiefs would go back in the silk purses. The ladies would look confused, then distant. It was one thing, Delia began to realize, for them to stand with girls who worked until their fingers bled, it was quite another to stand with those who had refused to pay rent. They wept when they heard how the girls were kicked and beaten by the police, but they did not weep when Delia told them how the workers had fought those that tried to evict them. And if she mentioned the anarchists and socialists the expressions on their faces grew even more confused. She knew now that if she talked about socialists she would not be invited back to speak twice.
Maybe she didn’t understand the rich at all, she sighed. Perhaps Pamela could explain them to her. Pamela came to walk their picket line every day she could escape from her mama’s watchful eye. She didn’t come in a motorcar, but on the trolley in her well-worn jacket and familiar hat, her arms laden with whatever she could filch from the big kitchen at home.
Today she arrived with two fancy ribboned boxes, one filled tiny sandwiches that she called canapés and the other with iced cakes called petit fours.
“It’s really not much,” Pamela apologized as the girls gathered around her. “There were so many for Mama’s luncheon. The cook begged me to take them because she was afraid it was afraid it all might go to waste.” She always acted as if they were doing her a favor by eating what she brought, as if afraid they might think it only charity. Lilly teased her by nibbling the treats with a solemn, critical expression. “You must tell your cook to add another schmear of the chopped liver to the sandwiches next time”
“Yes.” Pamela bit into tiny sandwich. “I believe you are right. The fois gras is a bit too thin.” She and Lilly ate just as if they were two ladies in an uptown parlor instead of two picketers outside a factory on a freezing cold street.
“But these!” Lilly sampled a cake. “Are batempt.”
“Bah-tempt-e,” Pamela repeated. She sprinkled her conversation with Yiddish phrases, not minding when Delia or Lilly corrected her. She was never happier, she swore, than when she was on the Lower East Side. For what seemed the hundredth time, she asked Delia about getting a room at Madame. Bloomberg’s. “Just a bed would be enough, I don’t mind sharing a room, really I don’t,” she said. “I simply cannot live at home any longer.”
“I’ll see what she says,” Delia replied She wasn’t sure how well Pamela would really get along in rooming house with twenty or more other girls. Maybe it was as hard for a rich girl to be free as a poor one, she reflected. Pamela had no money of her own. Everything came from her father’s pocket. She had never had a job. “It is not so easy,” Delia tried to tell her. “It is not so easy to be free.”
“Keep walking.” Lilly propelled them along. “Do not stand. Do not sit.”
Keep walking for the strike. Keep walking for the union. Hour after hour. Day after day. Week after week.
On the opposite side of the street seven or eight young men in dark clothes lounged against the wall, well out of the wind, watching the girls. The bosses called these men their ‘private police.’ Actually, they weren’t police at all, just thugs hired to rough the girls up whenever they stopped walking, spoke to anyone too long, or simply for no reason at all. In many ways they were worse than the real police. Because these thugs couldn’t actually arrest anyone, they had to settle for kicking their victims nearly senseless. The girls soon learned that the best thing to do if they knocked you down was simply to stay down, curling your knees towards your head. If you did not move or cry out, the private police might leave after a few well-placed blows. They tried lining their coats with newspapers and old rags to soften the impact. Nothing made much difference, though. By now everyone had a collection of livid bruises to show for her hours on the picket line.
Many girls had refused to return after the first time they were kicked. These were the gentle, obedient daughters and sisters who had never felt a blow in their entire lives, who had never been ‘knocked about.’ Delia would plead with them to come back to the picket lines. “It is nothing,” she would say over and over, while they sobbed hysterically “I too, have marks, here and here and here.” She would point to her ribs, her shoulders, breast, belly and back and thighs. No part of her body was free of black, blue, brown or purple welts. Some days her ribs ached with every breath she drew. “I know what it is like to feel that you will never again stand on your feet.”
Some of them would only run home for good. And in her heart, Delia couldn’t blame them. Before Blackwell’s Island she might have felt the same way.
But there were also girls who who did return, day after day. Estelle, so elegant and slim she made you think of a flower on a long stem, could get knocked down a dozen times and still pick herself up, dusting her coat off with ladylike care as if being beaten was only the merest inconvenience. As the thugs swaggered away, she would curse them in a calm, even voice, telling them that they would never father children and how they would suffer the despicable diseases that turned men into eunuchs before they finally died in misery and shame. Delia knew enough Italian to understand and was grateful that the men, who were mostly Poles and Irish, didn’t.
And Reenie, who had known nothing but kicks and blows all her life, would drop and roll herself into a little ball, tight as a stone, whenever the men approached. Not a peep would escape her. She would remain motionless until they were gone. And just when Delia feared she might really be dead, she would spring to her feet, taunting the thugs triumphantly. They were nothing compared to her stepfather, she shouted. “Nothing, nothing, nothing,” she kicked the air with diabolical glee and cursed in every language she could speak. Reenie had no reason to join the strike, she didn’t work and had no idea what the union stood for, yet she refused to leave
“She just needs someone to look after her, poor thing,” Pamela said. So far Reenie had resisted Pamela’s attempts to reform her manners, though she loved the little heart-shaped locket that Pamela had brought back from the goldsmiths of Switzerland.
As they paced up and down the street, Delia kept one eye trained on the men. She knew they wouldn’t dare try anything as long Pamela was on their picket line. Pamela might dress as plainly as she pleased but she couldn’t hide her name. Last week, one of them had made the mistake of giving “Miss MacKenzie” a good whack. Word must have come down to them from the real police for since then they all had kept a respectful distance on their own side of the street.
That incident and the lump it left on her forehead had almost put an end to Pamela’s visits to the Lower East Side. Every minute, her mama was threatening to send her back to the finishing schools of Europe, she complained. It actually angered her that she could not get ‘knocked about’ like the other girls. “That is why I must leave home,” she repeated. “Why I need to be free.”
“Well that’s the limit!” Delia heard someone shout.
“The absolute limit.”
A commotion had broken out at the end of the block.
“If one of them even touches a machine, I swear I will never go back to work again no matter what contract the bosses sign.” One of the picketers stamped her foot for emphasis.
“We will burn the chairs they sit on. Every single one.”
A group of strikers had formed an angry circle around a few girls who were trying to enter the shop. Delia elbowed her way through the crowd. Four girls huddled together in the center. Not fancy enough to be streetwalkers, nor plain enough to be greenhorns, they dressed like Delia and her friends, like American girls. But they had dark skin. For a minute Delia thought she recognized the girl she had met on Blackwell’s Island and she started to smile. But she was mistaken. These girls stared back at her blankly, without a glimmer of friendship.
Delia glanced towards the thugs, who lounged back against the buildings on the other side of the street. They seemed to have little interest in helping these particular strike-breakers through the picket lines.
“I’d rather see the bosses hire the whores than this.” Someone spat.
“We mean no trouble.” Delia tried to clear a space. “We just do not want you to take our jobs, that’s all.”
“Your jobs?” One of the girls spoke. She was taller than the rest, nearly as tall as Estelle. “Who says they’re yours?” If this girl was frightened she wasn’t going to show it.
“You don’t even speak English,” her friend added.
“I am speaking English now,” Delia pointed out.
“Call that English?” She laughed. “You hear anyone speaking English around here?”
“Don’t sound like English to me,” the first one said. They spoke to one another, ignoring Delia.
No one had ever criticized Delia’s English in her own neighborhood. If anyone had done so in a meeting or in the shop, she would have let loose a volley of curses and a few sharp elbows. She took a deep breath. “Our union says these are our jobs. They are for girls who belong to the union.”
“Oh. I see.” The tall girl’s voice was filled with mockery. “Your union. And can I join your union?”
Delia looked around at her friends. Their mouths were set and grim. “It is Local 25 of the Ladies Garment Workers Union.” She took out her little stack of union cards, written in Yiddish, Italian and English and held them out. “ We meet at Cooper Union.”
The tall girl took one of the cards between the tips of two fingers, studied it a moment and then dropped it into the little velvet bag that hung from her wrist. Delia gave cards to the other three girls. One of them crumpled hers up and flung it to the pavement. “Your jobs? And who do you think worked in this city before you all got here?” She ground her heel on the card for good measure.
A stone hit the tall girl on the shoulder.
“Leave them be!” To everyone’s surprise Estelle thrust herself between the two groups, holding them apart.
For a moment the two tall girls stood toe to toe. Something passed between them, a nod, a gesture. If they were Jews they would have been saying ‘Nu?’
Hands clenched, feet shifted. No one wanted to be the first to back down. “Scab.” Someone spat.
“Let them take care of their own.” Estelle was not really part of any group, yet they all respected her. Grudgingly, the strikers drew back to let the four girls pass.
The tall one paused before she entered the shop. “Ciao,” she called softy over her shoulder.
“Ciao,” Estelle answered. “Sorella.” Sister.
“You know her?” Delia demanded.
Estelle evaded the question. “They have their dancehalls too.”
“You have been to those places?”
“People can mix in some places and not others.’
Why? Delia wanted to ask. But she knew she would sound like a child. Of course Estelle was right. There were things that everyone just knew. You could sit next to someone at work sharing the same songs and the same complaints, but never see the inside of her home or sit and eat at her table. You could meet in the dancehalls, yet not speak on the street. You could go to someone’s wedding, but not her funeral. People might share their joy, but in the end, everyone clung to their own sorrows. Your grief is not as deep as ours, each side said to the other. Your tears will never be as bitter, nor your pain so sharp.
Those were the things that everyone knew without saying, that everyone agreed on, she thought as she sat alone at night in a nearly empty cafe. Like the way everyone agreed about half-breeds, the mixed up ones. But she would not for a minute believe that Olivia’s children were less than any others. Even little Reenie might have been able to learn things, if someone had ever had the time to teach her. What everyone knew was not necessarily true.
She stopped writing for a minute to read over the letter she was trying to finish. True to her word she had written to Olivia about the strike. Pamela supplied her with ink, stamps and envelopes and she wrote once a week to the address in Geneva, Switzerland, that Olivia had given her. Six letters had gone out so far. She had yet to receive a reply, though that didn’t bother her. She knew Olivia often moved from place to place and perhaps the letters simply had not reached her.
At first Delia hadn’t been sure what to say. Describing the strike to one who was not there to see it seemed almost more difficult than being on strike itself. It was fun, of course, to write about the way the girls had all poured out of the factories all at once, stopping traffic on the street. And she knew Olivia would amused by her stories of the ladies who could weep so easily over low wages but sit dry eyed as she talked about high rents. Other events, however, caused Delia to put her pen down and bury her head in her hands in frustration.
Olivia had often talked about the general strike as if once the girls had all walked out together the world would be a different place. And for a while that had seemed true. But, what, after all, had changed? The bosses might sign contracts with the union they were still bosses just like the landlords still collected the rent.
Delia gazed out the window, watching people tramp by. It had just started to snow again. Everyone clutched their bundles and hunkered against the thick flurries, not lifting their eyes to meet hers though she sat only a foot away. Where was this freedom she had been looking for all her life, she wondered. It was so easy to believe that one thing might make you free, if you just knew what that one thing was. But she had discovered that you had to do a hundred things if you wanted to be free, and even then, you could never be certain. How could she explain that in writing?
The waitress came back to refill her cup. The tea tasted bitter tonight, Delia thought as she laid a penny on the table, bitter like so many other things. The union had no more money to bail out those who were arrested. That was the latest word from the strike leaders. The League ladies from uptown had said the girls were being led astray by the socialists and the socialists countered that rich Americans had no place in their fight. A big argument had ensued after which the ladies had simply closed their purses.
The snow was falling heavier now. Everyone was in a hurry to get home. To to eat a bite and sleep a bit. Those whose shops had reopened needed to go back to work tomorrow. Each day the same. Did they still care about the strike at all, she wondered. What had started out so grand was fast dwindling down to nothing.
What was it that she had written so long ago? “There is a great park in this city but when do we have time to sit beneath the trees?” The city was filled with so many wonderful things but workers had so little opportunity to enjoy them. The strike wasn’t just about wages or hours, it was about life. We are not machines, she thought. We are people and we want a bit of leisure too.
“Pardon me, miss, is this yours?” A man picked a quarter off the floor and held it out to her.
She looked at it longingly. “No.” There were others who needed it more than she. “I think someone else dropped it.” She gestured towards the elderly couple dozing at a back table.
“A thousand pardons.” His hand closed over the quarter. He opened it again. The quarter had disappeared. “I seem to have lost...”
She stared at his empty palm, mesmerized. It couldn’t be. She would have known him in an instant. This man was completely different. She couldn’t say in what way he was different, he just was. He was older, his mustache was flecked with gray, two long creases framed his mouth, his shoulders appeared slightly stooped in his worn checked jacket.
Very lightly, so swiftly she could hardly feel it, he touched her hair right above her ear.
“Henry Mendelsohn?” She might have walked past him on the street a hundred times without seeing him.
The quarter reappeared. “We have met?” He tilted his head, quizzically.
“A long time ago.”
“Ah.” A little of the charm she remembered so well surfaced. “How could I ever forget such a lovely face?”
It was not her face he had found so lovely back then, but Rachel’s, though she didn’t point this out to him. It was obvious that that day, which she had held so dear for so long, had vanished from his memory entirely. Perhaps it had disappeared even before it was even over. After all, what were a few hours in life of a gentleman of leisure? Yet now that she actually saw him standing before her, she couldn’t hold it against him. She was glad to see Henry Mendelsohn at last, if only because it meant she could finally stop dreaming about him.
Seating himself with a flourish, he called for two cups of coffee. No doubt he was a regular patron, for the waitress didn’t blink when he pulled the quarter from her nose.
“I see you are still a gentleman of leisure.”
He shook his head. It was not so easy to live a life of leisure these days. He had spent several summers at the resorts of the Catskills and Pocono Mountains, he told her. In the winters he had traveled as far north as Boston and all the way south to the city of Baltimore. But the strikes had spread far and wide, and people no longer had money for leisure. So he had returned to New York and become a peddler, selling whatever he could: shoelaces, pie plates, packages of dried noodles, tortoise shell combs, and children’s tin drums and tambourines. Soon everywhere he went he was pursued by angry housewives telling him that the shoelaces they had bought only yesterday had snapped, the pie plates had cracked, the noodles were made of sawdust and melted in the soup, the combs lost their teeth, and the drums and tambourines created such a racket no one could think. To escape them, he had tried stitching coats in a factory, but he couldn’t succeed at that either. “I cannot sit still,” he sighed dramatically. “Something gets into me and the next instant I’m out the door. How is it possible to work and still be free?”
“That is why we strike,” she replied, “To work and still be free.” She finished the letter to Olivia, folded it up and slipped it in the envelope. “That is why. Exactly.”
He scratched his ear. The quarter, which he had just given the waitress, was back in his hand.
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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