Delia stood at the bottom of the front stoop. Outside, the building looked the same. She wondered for a moment if Mister Bust-Your-Arm still lived on the first floor. Probably not. On Cherry Street people moved in and out all the time.
Once inside, she noted with joy that there was a door between the two flats on every landing with the word “Toilet” written on it in big, black letters, both in Yiddish and English. At last, a toilet on every floor.
On the third floor landing the toilet door opened and a woman came staggering out with a slop pail hanging from her arm. She saw Delia. “Don’t bother,” she grumbled. “They never work. These toilets make nothing but a mess. Even the old outhouses in the courtyard were better than this.”
“Nu?” Delia shook her head. It would take another strike and a strike after that to set every wrong right.
The door to the flat was slightly ajar. Delia raised her hand to knock than stopped. She wasn’t a stranger here. This was her family. She eased the door open slowly and stepped in. The flat felt empty. A half-finished shirt was tossed on a chair as if Mama had just gone out for a minute. Delia sat down. The table was new, she noticed that right off. All four legs were set evenly on the floor. It didn’t wobble when she leaned on it and the top wasn’t covered with nicks and scrapes from a dozen pairs of scissors. She had never seen the fancy braided rug before, either, nor the half-dozen painted china cups neatly displayed in the open cupboard. Her eyes kept wandering around. The copper pot on the stove was shiny. The curtains were starched and fresh. ..
Envy rose like bile in her throat. It was not her money that had bought all these fine things, she knew, but Ben’s. Ben had become a boss. That was the secret plan he had been working on for so long. Ben had bought Meir’s old shop. That was why he had gone to see Pamela’s father. Delia had never felt so betrayed. “He just pretended to help the union to get us on his side,” she had complained to Jake. “But he only wanted money. Always money. That’s the way he is,”
No, Jake had told her, Ben didn’t get the money from Pamela’s father. Mr. MacKenzie had offered, but Ben would not take it. A couple of the older men Ben gambled with had decided to front him the cash.
That sounded even worse, Delia fumed. What kind of gamblers would lend so much to boy who wasn’t even twenty? “He’ll be sweating the girls day and night just to keep up with his payments. Saturdays and all day Sunday, too. Union or no union.”
“Give him a chance,” Jake had said. “He signed a contract with your local. He’s trying.”
Delia didn’t want to hear it. She was sure Ben only wanted to shame her in front of her friends.
“Delia?” Mama stood in the doorway.
“I...” Delia rose. Now was the moment for them to fall into each other’s arms, but they couldn’t seem to do it. “The door was open...so I came in...I...”
“Of course. Would...would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, please.” Delia sat down. Her mama spoke to her as if she was a guest, a lady visitor. And she answered like one.
“I just left Helga at the Henry Street Settlement. The nurse there helps her. They give her useful things to do. She is learning how to make baskets, so her hand will get clever again. Gertie and Sid go to school now. Gertie has already caught up with her class. But Sid? I don’t know.” Mama poured Delia’s tea into one of the painted china cups and handed it to her on a saucer.
Delia balanced the saucer delicately. Her mama said nothing about the strike or the union. “The teachers at P.S 150 are very good.” She blew on the tea then set it on the table to cool. “They will help him.”
“I hope so.” Her mother set her own tea down and picked up a shirt.
Delia sat with her hands folded in her lap a moment. Then she picked up a shirt, threaded a needle, and started sewing too. She knew her mama was watching closely. The needle flew in and out. She made buttonholes expertly now, whipping off the stitches in neat even rows.
“They say,” her mother paused and took a sip of tea. “They say, that when the men knocked the girls down, you were the first one to your feet.”
Delia studied her mothers face. Her mama hadn’t heard it from anyone. She had been there watching all along. Delia knew it. Just like she had been at the theater, though she would never say that either and Delia wouldn’t ask her.
“Oh,” Delia tried to sound indifferent. “Not always the first. But sometimes before all the others.”
“Yes. Sometimes.” Mama’s expression had not changed, yet it seemed as if she were smiling as she bent over her work. “I hear the shops are hiring again.”
Delia nodded. “The Triangle down on Washington Street will pay a good hand eighteen dollars a week.”
They kept on sewing.
“But...” Delia took a deep breath. She might not be going back to the Triangle. She might no be working in the shops at all. That’s what she had come to tell her mama.
The day after the Gala at the People’s Theater, she had gone to the meeting hall to give the union the strange and wonderful ring. David was there with Joseph Barondess, the head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Clara Lemlich, the young woman who had called for the strike at the big meeting. As soon as she walked in, they all fell silent. For an instant she thought something was wrong.
“Miss Brenner.” David introduced her to the other two.
“The international correspondent, I’ve been told.” Mr. Barondess shook her hand.
Delia blushed. She hadn’t told anyone that her letters to Olivia had been published in the London Guardian. But Olivia had many friends in New York, and people had no doubt found out about it anyway.
“And our public speaker.” Clara embraced her impulsively. She barely came up to Delia’s chin, this tiny woman with the big voice, this firebrand, who had leapt to the stage at the General Meeting and made the workers leap to their feet. Now she stood by Delia like a friend, and Delia her equal.
“We were just talking about you,” David said
Over the next half hour she heard the names of places that sounded as exotic as any she might find abroad. Schenectedy, Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo. Pittsbugh, Cinncinatti, Chicago and St. Louis. These were the cities where the garment workers had just started to organize, David told her. They needed girls like her, Clara added. Girls who could talk to the workers and also to those the people who might support them.
“A train leaves for Buffalo at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” David explained. “A rally is scheduled for Mechanics Hall. Someone from the union in New York’s upper state will meet you at the station.
They spoke as if every detail had already been decided.
“Schenectady? Albany? Poughkeepsie?” Mama repeated the names slowly. Odessa, Moscow and St. Petersburg, she knew. But these American cities only a few hours from the Lower East Side might as well have been up on the moon.
“And there is Paterson, New Jersey,” Delia continued. “Camden and Newark. The workers need organizers there too.”
“You would go alone?” Mama asked. “So far? Alone?”
“Yes.” Delia had asked that same question herself.
The union couldn’t send two people together, Mr. Barondess had told her. It was too costly. As it was, they could barely pay Delia enough to cover her train fare and a little extra. She could stay overnight with union supporters, he said. A different place practically every week, sometimes two or three times a week.
Delia was stunned. Up to that point she had assumed she would go back to the Triangle. Yes, she was an international correspondent and a public speaker now. But she had never really thought she could do those things for a job, that they could be work for which you were paid. When all was said and done, she was still a good hand. She had never earned her living any other way than by sewing. There had been many days when she had hated walking into the shop. Yet now she was surprised to realize that she had actually been looking forward to it. Most of the girls from Madam Bloomberg’s would be at the Triangle, including Lilly. The union was strong and wages were good. Of course there were many things the bosses had not yet agreed to, fire safety inspections for one, and paying overtime to those who worked more than fifty-two hours. But the bosses had been brought to reason before. The union could make them listen.
Now in the space of a few moments everything in her life had turned upside down again.
David, Clara and Mr. Barondess were watching her, puzzled and expectant. “I...I have talk with my mama..” was all she could say. For the first time in a long time she wanted to talk to her mama. Not to ask permission. But to give herself time to think. And, if necessary, to say good-by.
Joseph Barondess was understanding. “We know you must speak to your family first. But don’t wait too long. By tomorrow we need your answer.”
“So,” she concluded, snapping off her thread and putting down the shirt. “They want me to speak in Buffalo. It is by a lake called Erie in Upper State.”
Her mother stopped sewing and gazed out the window. “When we first came to America, I thought we would be free.”
There it was again. That word. Everyone wanted it, though no one could ever explain exactly what it was no matter how hard they tried. “Even the Americans in America are not always free,” Delia replied.
“For fourteen years I was an operator. I had the best hands in the shop. Now what do I do?” Mama gestured with contempt towards the pile of shirts. “Work that’s only fit for a child or someone like Helga.”
Delia looked at her mama’s hands. The backs were scored with lines and the knuckles a little swollen, but the fingers were still long and strong. Hadn’t those hands done enough work for a lifetime? Delia was overwhelmed by feelings of tenderness and love. She felt no bitterness towards her mama anymore. After all, it was because of her mama that she had stood up, that she had not let herself be beaten to her knees.
“But I have decided I will go to the Triangle instead.” She spoke firmly. “They know me. They will hire me. I will earn enough for us to get our own place. Our own flat.” Her old vow came back to her. Four years ago, she had stood in the back room and sworn that she and her mother should leave this place. Now at last they could. “You can rest. You won’t have to work.”
“Not work?” Mama stared at her. “And why shouldn’t I work? You think now that you make speeches you can tell me what to do? You want that I should sit all day with my hands in my lap like an old woman?”
“No. I didn’t mean it that way. I only meant--” Delia wanted to scream with despair. A moment before she had been ready to open her heart to her mother, now they were fighting again. Always an argument no matter what she said. “I only thought--”
“I didn’t mean to speak that way either.” Her mother interrupted hastily. “I only meant,” she shifted her hands up and down in the air, as if weighing an invisible burden or maybe a gift. “I only meant that sewing is not the only work a girl can do in this country. Perhaps there are other things. And I am not so old after all. If the blacklist is gone, perhaps the shops will hire me. Nu? Maybe I will go to the Triangle Factory myself.” She held her hands out to Delia. “This work that the union has asked you do, don’t turn your back on it so easily. Think on it will you?”
“I will,” Delia replied. But she knew now she didn’t have to. Her mind was settled for good.
On her way out she found Ben sitting on the front stoop smoking a cigarette. He nodded curtly as she passed.
“Thank-you,” she said stiffly. She owed him that much. He had helped her when she was locked away on Blackwell’s Island, whether that had been his intention or not. “You went to Pamela’s father for me. Thank-you.”
“It was nothing.”
Delia started to walk away, then stopped. “Does he really know the chief of police?” She had to ask.
“I have no idea.” Ben took a couple of deep puffs on his cigarette, gazing indifferently off into space. “He knows a lot of important people, that’s all. He’s all right, for a rich man.”
“Then why didn’t you let him lend you the money for Meir’s old shop?” The fact still rankled her. She couldn’t let it be.
“Because I couldn’t take the father’s money without the daughter being thrown into the bargain.” He tossed the cigarette down and ground his heel on it. “She has too many ideas, your friend Pamela. She tells me I should have a room for books where the girls can sit and read on their breaks. And a glass house on the roof to grow flowers. What will she want next? A gramophone to play music while the girls work? What the devil does she know about running a shop? She is crazy.” He lit another cigarette and puffed at it furiously. “Meshuga. Crazy.”
Delia considered what he had told her. The flowers were impossible, of course. But the books? “A reading room may not be such a bad thing,” she observed. “You could use part of the cloak hall. It would not take a lot of space. The girls need a quiet place to sit.”
He stared at her, incredulous. “And what next? I should turn my shop into a public library? I’ve signed a contract with your union. Isn’t that enough?” He began to sound a little plaintive. “Pamela wants too much. I told her so myself. I’m better off with her gone.”
But Pamela’s not gone, Delia thought, though she did not say so out loud. Her friend was no longer meek and timid. Pamela would be back on the Lower East Side every day with her pamphlets and plans, trying to turn Ben’s shop into a model factory and Ben himself into a model boss.
He rested his elbows on his knees, his shoulders hunched forward, as if the weight of his debt was already pressing upon his back. In another year he would be shouting at some poor girl “I am here when you are not, and if you don’t get the spirit of work right now you will be locked out for good.” He seemed to have grown older, even as they talked. She could see the lines etched around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes. Delia almost felt sorry for him. He was only trying to do what was best for his family in his own way.
“If you break your contract with the union I will be the first one outside the door with a picket sign,” she told him. “No matter how far away I am, I will be back the instant I hear. I swear on it.” It was her way of saying she understood.
“Nu?” He flicked the ashes off the end of his cigarette and smiled. “Then I will be expecting you.” It was his way of saying he understood too.
”Forward,” a boy on the corner called out. “Get yer daily Forward here.” Delia gave him two pennies. “Here you go miss.” With a single swift motion, he folded it up for her and pocketed the coins. She took it and tucked it under her arm.
For a moment she idled there on the corner, watching people hurry by. It was getting late and she had a train to catch tomorrow. She had no reason to rush, she told herself. There would be plenty of time for that. Tomorrow. She headed towards East Broadway. Maybe she would go to the Forward building and see if she could find Jake picking up the latest edition with his newsboys. If he wasn’t there she could sit on the wall and wait for him. Tomorrow she would have a hundred things to do and a hundred people to see. But right now she was alone. And at least for tonight, she was free.
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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