Delia sat on the stone steps reading the Forward. Sitting was against the rules,of course, but the private police were taking it easy today. They leaned against the wall, smoking cigarettes and joking with one another. Perhaps because the strike was nearly over, they had decided it was no longer worth their time to beat up a bunch of girls. By the end of January most of the shops had settled with the union.
“Arbitrate.” That was the new English word on everyone’s lips. The Association of Dress and Waist Manufacturers otherwise known as the bosses, had decided to arbitrate with the union. They wanted to end the strike so people could go back to work. If you read the newspapers one way, it seemed as if the strikers had won. The bosses had agreed to the fifty-two hour week. The girls would no longer have to pay for their own needles and machines. Standard rates would be set for different kinds of sewing and some shop owners would even allow union officials to review their payroll. But if you read another way, the workers did not have quite so much to celebrate. In the new contracts, the bosses still insisted they “reserved the right to make the workers stay overtime when necessary.” They could still lock the doors to keep the workers inside and bar the windows to the fire escapes. And they would not agree to a ‘closed shop,’ that is, one where only union members were allowed to work.
“Why should all the advantages of the strike go to those who will not pay dues?” David grumbled. He had come from the union hall to encourage them to stay on the picket line. Theirs was one of the only ones left in the city now, he said. Delia had never seen him so tired and bitter. “The bosses will negotiate with the union to get people back,” he said. “But they will not respect us. They will never respect us as long as we give in.”
Why could he not accept the contracts, Delia asked? Didn’t everyone believe things would get better not worse?...
Her friend Josie had just dropped by with good news. The Triangle was open and hiring again. Wages would increase. Now a good hand could earn as much as eighteen dollars a week, a sum no one had even dreamed possible before the strike. Many of the girls from Madame Bloomberg’s had decided to apply at the Triangle. Delia could too, Josie claimed. “There is no black list this time. The bosses have promised for certain.”
Delia thought it over. It would be good to work among friends. And with the new rates, she would be able to save money at last. “But what of the traitor?” she asked doubtfully. “Will Aaron Lepchik be there too?”
“Oh you needn’t worry about Aaron,” Josie replied. “He got what was coming to him. When they found out he had given all our names to the police, they took him down to the docks, stripped off his clothes and threw him the East River.”
“The girls?” Delia gasped. “Girls did that?”
“Delia!” Josie pressed her hand to her heart. “Of course not the girls. It was the newsboys.” She dropped her voice. “That’s what I heard, the ones that sell the Forward.” Though what the newsboys had against Aaron Lepchik, she added, no one really knew.
“And did he die?”
“No. They fished him out just in time.”
Delia looked down so Josie wouldn’t see her smiling. It was good to have important friends, even if they didn’t know the chief of police. “And now?”
“He will be back at the Triangle.”
“Nu?’ They both lifted their hands palm up. Even traitors needed jobs.
“The bosses are only waiting for a chance to break us.” David remained unimpressed by the new wages at the Triangle. “If only we had held out longer.” He looked around, shaking his head in sorrow. It wasn’t much of a picket line anymore, Delia had to agree. Many of the girls had gone back to work because they had too. She looked around. Only Lilly, Pamela, Estelle and a handful of others remained.
On the corner Henry Mendelsohn was busy showing Reenie how to make a bunch of violets emerge from a handkerchief. When Delia had informed Lilly that this was indeed Henry Mendelsohn in the flesh, Lilly had plunked herself right down on the pavement and roared with astonished laughter. So that was Henry Mendelsohn? Lilly couldn’t believe it. Barely able to suppress her own laughter, Delia had hushed Lilly with as much strictness as she could muster, absolutely forbidding her to tell the poor man that he had a harem. Instead she had sent him out of harm’s way to teach Reenie a few tricks.
For once Reenie proved an apt pupil. She was extremely clever at making money disappear, though not quite so good at producing it again. She didn’t understand why she should, she protested. Her brothers must have taught her more than English, Delia realized. Little Reenie, whom everyone always felt so sorry for, had probably been picking pockets for years and doing it so well no one had suspected a thing. Delia felt more tickled than angry. Like Henry Mendelsohn himself, Reenie could make you forgive almost anything. No matter what she had done, whenever she appeared in her charity barrel clothes, lugging her tray of scraggly paper roses, you were glad to see her.
After Reenie abandoned Henry to count her pennies, Estelle graciously allowed him to pull nickels from her nose. Meanwhile, Pamela handed out little fried cakes she called doughnuts, which she had stolen--she insisted there was no other word for it--from her mama’s breakfast salon.
“Is there enough?” Reenie crammed one into her mouth with both hands. She eyed the box of cakes anxiously. “Enough?”
“Here.” Leah thrust a small package towards Delia. Leah had taken to coming the picket line so she could sit on the steps and sketch in her notebook. “Your mama wants you to have these.”
Carefully, Delia peeled the paper back to reveal two fresh rolls, each with an extra slice of cheese.
“No,” she tried to give them back to Leah. “They should be for Gertie and Sid.”
“She said for you to have them,” Leah repeated stubbornly.
Delia slipped the rolls into her pocket. For a brief instant she thought she caught sight of Mama herself in an old fringed shawl standing across the street on the far corner. But when she looked again, it was only the old woman who sold whisk brooms and mops from a two-wheeled cart.
Leah opened her portfolio to show Pamela her work. No fairy castles and knights on horses anymore, she now drew real people.
“This one,” Pamela pointed to sketch that showed a long line girls walking against an icy wind, their skirts whipping back and their hats tilted askew. Delia leaned over to get a better look. “It has so much energy. And that too.” In the next drawing, the girls had crumpled to the pavement while a half a dozen thugs bore down on them, swinging clubs. Pools of black ink blood trickled onto the pavement.
“That is the way it was,” Delia murmured. Leah had not been their that day, but she had heard about what happened and drawn it just as if she had seen it with her own eyes.
See, see, Delia wanted to shout and wave Leah’s drawing in the face everyone who walked by. This is the truth. This is what happened. Exactly.
Leah had also completed several portraits. There was Pamela, recognizable right down to the freckles sprinkled across her upper cheeks, Lilly with her hair swirling out in a wild halo, and Delia, her head high, gazing fiercely off at something far beyond edge of the page. Delia studied herself carefully. She wasn’t sure she really looked quite so brave
“It is you,” Pamela and Lilly repeated over and over. “It is you. Exactly.” Next Leah handed her a sketch of a handsome young man whose face seemed familiar, but whom Delia could not quite name. “That’s your friend David,” Leah said, sounding a little bit flustered. “Don’t you recognize him?”
“He’s really not so--” Delia almost said handsome, but stopped herself. Perhaps Leah could see things in people that others didn’t. “It is a very good likeness,” she corrected herself. “You should show him.”
But David, sitting at the far end of the steps, only hid his face deeper behind his paper as if he didn’t wish to be disturbed.
Leah snatched the drawing from Delia’s hand and thrust it to the bottom of the pile, blushing furiously. “I must go.” She packed up her portfolio abruptly.
Perhaps they could have an exhibit, Pamela suggested to Delia, after Leah left. The uptown ladies liked art and might pay a great deal for those pictures. “They just need to be presented in the right light,” she explained. Pamela was full of plans these days, determined that the end of the strike should not be the end of her life on the Lower East Side. Delia wondered if she had been talking to Ben, though she didn’t ask. Ben had become more mysterious than ever. Benjamin Cohen. She would hear his name every now and than on the street, as if he were person of influence. Even Jake didn’t know what he was up to. Delia made him promise to tell her as soon as he found out.
Things were definitely changing. Not in the way anyone expected, though. Change never came that way. It always seemed to bring what she least expected, Delia thought. Olivia had finally written back. Her letter was filled with advice, observations on the conditions of workers both in Europe and America, and lists of even more books and articles that Delia must read. It was precisely the kind of letter Delia expected Olivia to write-- serious, impassioned and bristling with questions. But there was the completely unexpected, too. Olivia said that she had shown parts of Delia’s letters to a friend of hers who wrote for a socialist newspaper in London called The Guardian. He had told her he would like to publish them as “On The Front Lines,” reports of the garment workers strike from their international correspondent in the New York.
Delia took the letter out of her pocket just so she could read the phrase over again. “Delia Brenner, International Correspondent.” If she had just been named czarina of all of Russia or Empress of France, she couldn't have been more amazed. Yet Olivia wrote as if suddenly finding oneself a writer in a foreign newspaper was the most natural thing in the world. She wrote too, about her children, and Delia could tell how hard she was trying to be a mama, and not quite sure how to go about it. Her children were impatient to see America and curious about everything, she said, especially their father’s people. Olivia had lived among Jews, but there was so much she still didn’t know. Someday soon, when she brought them to New York Delia would finally be able to meet Marcello and Victorine.
“What is it,” Lilly indicated the letter as she sat down beside Delia.
“Something from abroad.”
“I know all about abroad.” Lilly nodded. “That is where Rachel gets her fashions from. Just yesterday she was showing me the latest designs from abroad.”
“Rachel? I thought you two were not speaking to each other.”
“We do now. After I ran off with Isaac I was sure Rachel would disown me. She was even worse than mama when I came home, saying that I had disgraced the family for six generations at least. But then I heard how she was helping the strike by giving some of the Italian girls work they could do at home so they would not have to cross the picket lines. They said she paid them a fair wage too, just like the union called for. So I went to see her one evening at her flat and there she was, sewing at her machine like ten furies. Ida Simons has opened another store on East Broadway and she asked Rachel to manage it. Rachel’s Exclusive Ladies Shop they will call it.”
“Rachel’s own place? With her name above the door?”
“Not if her husband has any say. He does not mind her helping at someone else’s store, but he insists he will not be married a big business woman. So now they fight all the time. He tells her maybe she should wear a wig like a good Jewish woman and stay home. She shouts that she will do no such thing. And I say she will kill him with her scissors if he keeps talking religion.” Lilly finished with satisfaction. “Here she comes now, so don’t tell her I said a thing.”
You could tell Rachel was a mama now by the way she walked, slow and proud. She had grown a little stouter, but she was still stylish enough to make people look her way. She wore a coat with a wide fur collar that could easily be the envy of any uptown lady and her hair, piled beneath a wide-brimmed hat, was still a deep shining gold. Most important, she wasn’t alone. Almost a dozen other girls were with her--Rosa, Carmella, the three Marias, Beatrize, Dolores--the Italian girls who had never joined the strike before.
All winter Rachel had been quietly farming out small pieces work from Ida Simon’s to her old friends from Meir’s. Even in the worst times people needed a bit of embroidery for a wedding gown or special dress, she said. When she had gone to their homes, she didn’t just drop the work there and leave. She sat with the Italian families, rocked their crying babies as if they were her own, comforted the frightened parents, listened to their troubles and ate at their tables. Whole households lived off the work that Rachel brought them. And because she invited these girls to walk with her friend not a boss, they came with her now.
"You said once that people should look after their own," Delia reminded her quietly.
"We do," Rachael replied. "All we women who sew, who work with our hands, we look after one another."
"Well you have saved our picket line." Delia gave her a hug.
“Where is your baby Sarah?” Lilly asked her sister. “Is Ida looking after her?”
“You shouldn’t stay long,” Delia added. Though things were peaceful today, she still worried. You never knew when trouble might start or how.
But Rachel was in no hurry. Little Sarah was with her husband, she told them.
“He watches the baby while you are away?” Lilly and Delia couldn’t believe it.
“And why not?” Rachel replied. “She is his daughter too”
Lilly gave Delia a sidewise look. “Don’t get her started,” she whispered. Rachel’s fight would be even longer than the longest strike if she expected husbands to mind babies while their wives went out to run their own businesses.
With so many more girls, things became livelier.
“In the winter of nineteen-o-nine,” they sang out together.
“When we froze and bled on the picket line,
We showed the world that women could fight,
And we rose and won with women’s might.”
This was their new song about the strike, which they sang over and over, teaching it to the new girls. Even if they hadn’t won everything they wanted, they felt they had when they sang it.
Before David left, he drew Delia aside. Furtively, he took a tightly folded piece of paper from his wallet and handed it to her. It was stained and crumpled as if it had been left outdoors a long time. Slowly Delia opened it. The faint image of a horse and rider appeared.
“I found it on the fire escape outside my room when we came back from camping,” he said. “I have been meaning to return it to her but, I could never find the time and...” He looked down and shuffled his feet guiltily.
“Like magic.” One of the drawings Leah had lost that terrible afternoon she visited the man up on Grand Street had been carried by the wind to David’s fire escape. Delia glanced over at Henry Mendelsohn and Reenie. Again the unexpected had happened. For years everything might go wrong and just when you sure nothing would ever be right, something would fall into place. “Magic.”
“Of course it is not magic,” he replied testily. “I am sure there is a completely rational explanation. She must have dropped it. The wind picked it up.” He drew a breath. “I’m sorry I didn’t return it earlier. Please give it to her with my regards. It is a fine picture.” He started to walk away. She looked at his thin, proud shoulders. He had no gloves or hat, not even a scarf around his neck warm him in the icy cold.
“She spends her afternoons in the Carnegie Library.” She caught up with him just as he was about to turn the corner. “On the top floor by the windows with colored panes. She will be glad to see this again.” Refolding the drawing, she put it in his hand. “And she will be glad to see you.”
He stood a moment then headed towards Broadway. She didn’t know for certain if he would stop at the library, but she hoped that he would. Leah and David. Was it possible that they were secretly fond of one another? Of course, Leah was very young for such things, but she often seemed much older. And though David was nearly a man, he still seemed very much like a boy in some ways. What a match, Delia thought. They would never have a penny between them. Leah only wanted to draw and David to write. But they would have each other. They would not be alone.
“And who is left for me?” She looked around. Certainly not Henry Mendelsohn. She smiled at the child she once was. How could she have imagined such a thing? Maybe she should have felt angry and discouraged, but she didn’t. She had been to Blackwell’s Island and come back, hadn’t she? She knew what it was like to be hungry and bruised, even crawling naked on her knees, but she was alive. Abi meleibt. Still alive. And that was the best thing.
Tired of losing his money to Reenie, Henry had dug a tambourine out of his magician’s pack and handed it to her to keep her amused. As the afternoon faded into he had made a fire in an empty barrel and now Reenie pranced around the flames, making such a giddy racket even the strikebreakers leaving the shop for the day stopped to watch.
One of the dark-skinned girls, taking pity on Reenie’s clumsiness, was trying to show her how to play the tambourine. With a steady beat, the girl smacked the tambourine against the palms of her hands, touched it to her elbows and back to her hands again. The Italians knew how to dance with a tambourine too, and they passed it among themselves, one girl shaking it, while the others clapped and stamped their feet in rapid, complicated rhythms. Delia joined in, lifting her skirts and drumming her heels on the pavement. Her hat sailed off landing on the walk. They sang and danced, their voices blending into a chorus of a half-dozen languages. At that moment no one cared who was a striker or strikebreaker, dark or light, American, Italian, or Jew.
Was that what caused it, Delia wondered afterwards. Was it simply the sight of so many people doing nothing together but singing and dancing and taking pleasure in one another?
One minute she was whirling around while Estelle held tambourine high over everyone’s heads, rattling it till it sounded like a shower of rain against a window. The next instant she was on her knees.
“M...mmy f..father....my f..f....father....knows...” She could hear Pamela stuttering as a man shook her like a rag doll.
The private police charged in, swinging and kicking with a ferocity they hadn’t shown even in the early days of the strike. They literally picked girls up and hurled them to the ground. Heads cracked against the pavement. Everyone hunkered down. Delia’s felt something soft land on the back neck. For a second she paid no attention to it. Then she shrieked. A live coal burned into her flesh. The men had upended the barrel with the fire in it. She beat sparks away frantically. Her hair was singed. Flames sprang up around them. No one knew which way to roll. The hem of Lilly’s coat caught fire and when she jumped up to put it out, she was kicked back down.
“My hair!” Was that Rachel? Delia turned to look, and the blow to her head made the world go black. For what seemed like forever she could hear but not see. Jake and his boys were engaged in some kind of a fistfight, which had the effect of drawing of few of the thugs away from them. But not all. Her eyes cleared and she saw the last of Pamela’s cakes roll across the ground. Henry Mendelsohn’s pack had been smashed and his things scattered over the pavement too. She heard the tambourine crack beneath a boot heel. Cautiously, she lifted her head, just an inch. She saw a pair of legs in thick workman’s trousers. And beyond that, across the street, a bit of red, the color of her mama’s worn Russian shawl. It was getting too dark to tell for sure, she reminded herself and this was no time to move. The figure in the shawl stood absolutely still, staring at the fallen girls.
Delia groaned. She may have been knocked down a hundred times before, but she couldn’t stay down now. She would never let her mama see her beaten to her knees. Hadn’t Mama said that her daughter Delia let no one beat her to her knees? No matter what had happened between them she would not disappoint her mama now. If she did, mama would never let anyone hear the end of it. “There I was,” she would wail. “Standing on the street when I saw my daughter, my own daughter Delia beaten to her knees. Right there in front of me on the street.” Delia could just hear her mother’s voice ringing in her ears. Mama would go on about it forever.
There was only one thing she could do. Slowly she stood up into a half-crouch, her arms reaching for the ground, in case she was pushed back down. The man didn’t move. She stood up a little straighter. The red shawl across the street was gone. Perhaps she really had been mistaken all along. It was not Mama after all.
But it was too late now. She found herself face to face with one of the hired thugs. She froze. She had never actually seen one of them eye to eye before. And this one was not a Pole or Irishman. He was a Jew. She knew just by looking at him. “A Jew.” Her voice was louder than she had intended. “You are a Jew. And you do this? A Jew?” What kind of man would beat and kick his own people. “You...you...” She could not find a curse evil enough. “You...” One by one the girls rose to their feet. Their coats were flecked with holes where cinders had fallen. Their faces were smeared with blood and soot. Pamela looked as disheveled as Reenie with a black eye and swollen lip.
“I must go home to my child.” Rachel’s golden hair hung loose down her back, blackened at the ends. The men wouldn’t move to let her by. “I have a child waiting for me at home.” She drew herself up and squared her shoulders back. “May you hang upside down in hell. May demons beat the soles of your feet with scorpions’ tails. May the crows pluck out your eyes and put hot coals in their place. May the devil cut your tongue like salted beef, one slice at a time.” And that was only the beginning. Rachel could curse worse than Estelle. Lilly stared at her sister open-mouthed.
The men began to edge backward. Curses rained down on them. “Fun yiddish reyd ken men zikh nit opvashn in vasern.” From these words you cannot wash yourself clean even in ten waters. Delia shook her fist. Even Pamela let out a “Damn.”
Their assailants seemed to shrink, growing smaller right before the girls’ eyes. Were these same thugs who had beaten them down so often? They were no different from so many men they passed on the street every day. Working men in patched coats and mended boots. Tired men with bad teeth, bony noses, and the hollow of hunger in their cheeks. Men who had given up.
The girls watched them go. They had defended themselves against their enemy using nothing but words. And for once, they were victorious. Finally. Like lions in the streets.
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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