"Delia! Button me up." Sid fumbled with his overalls,
Delia stopped lacing her boots to help.
"Me too." Gertie scampered over, her pinafore flapping from her shoulders.
“Stand still.” Delia said. “If you make yourself into a spinning dervish it will take all morning and I will be late.” Sid and Gertie were getting bigger every day. Soon they would be old enough for school. Not that Helga had any intention of sending them, Delia knew. In the entire three years that she and her mother had been living there, Helga had never spoken of school with anything other than scorn. She cared only for money. And there was never enough.
"Delia, listen to me do my numbers," Leah begged. "Two-times-three is six, three-times-three…"
"You don’t need numbers today." Aunt Helga took the tablet from Leah’s hand. "Today you stay home and help me." She indicated the table, already piled high with blue-striped cotton. "So many buttons to sew. Today, the man comes early to pick up the shirts. Delia, child, fix us some tea before you leave"
Tea! They’d be locking the gates of the shop before she got there.
"With honey?" Sid and Gertie wheedled.
Sid clung to her skirt, making himself heavy. "With honey, Deelie.”
"Three times three is nine, four times three is twelve" Leah chanted softly. She laid a shirt out in front of her and threaded a needle. "Five times three is…is…"
"Fifteen." Delia put the kettle on. "Three times six is eighteen, three times seven is …is...." Had she forgotten her numbers herself? “Twenty-one!” she shouted triumphantly.
"Delia!” Helga snapped. “Don’t distract us. Fifty shirts we got here to finish." She yanked her thread tight around a button. "And another fifty coming this afternoon." The baby began to cry in the back room. Helga dropped her work and ran to get him.
Delia opened her mouth to reply, then shut it again. She tried to twist her hair into a ‘figure-eight’ while she waited for the water to boil. Her curls broke loose. The steam began to hiss and spurt, scattering burning drops through the air. She grabbed Sid and jumped back.
"Four times two…" Leah kept at it under her breath.
"Leah should go to school," Delia muttered. "I’d walk her there myself even if it meant I had to run all the way to work." She shut up again. It wasn’t her place to say anything. How many times did Mama have to remind her? They might be family to Aunt Helga and her husband Avram, but they were still boarders. They’d never really live here no matter how long they stayed...
She watched Leah sitting at the table, stubbornly working her sums. Long ago she and her sister Clara used to sit at the big table in the front room doing their schoolwork every evening while her mama sewed and her papa read from the Forward. Mama would be singing and Papa would interrupt her to read out loud. “Nu, listen to what they say about the Labor Committee...” But that seemed as far away now as a land of milk and honey. Like something she had dreamed about, but never really seen. A world where everything was neat and quiet and clean.
“Delia!” Helga came back in. The baby whimpered in her arms.
Hastily, Delia filled the tin mugs. A tiny pinch of tea-leaves floated to the top of each, like a swirl of ashes.
"Honey, honey." Gertie and Sid pranced around her.
Delia scraped the edges of the jar. A fly stuck to the inside. Carefully she scooped it out. Maybe she’d have enough to buy a little half-pint come payday. Steigmeyer’s Delicatessen would sell it for three cents.
She blew on the children’s cups to cool them a little. Gertie and Sid gazed at the steam greedily.
"Delia, what are you still doing here?" Her mother staggered a little as she came in and braced herself against the table.
"You all right, Mama?" Delia knew Mama’s teeth were hurting again.
"It’s just the stairs…all those steps."
The only toilet in the entire tenement was in the courtyard, four flights below. Delia hated that. Hated it more than anything. In their old building they had a water closet out in the hall. It may have been small but at least it was there. She absolutely refused to use a chamber pot like the little children. Never! So now she sometimes got up in the middle of the night to grope her way down the stairs where rats were always scratching in the garbage that people swept out their doors. Those rats didn’t even scoot when they heard you coming, they just kept gnawing like the place belonged to them.
"You go on," her mother told her. "I’ll make sure the children don’t spill their tea." Delia winced as she watched her mother ease herself slowly onto a chair and pick up a shirt. “Go on!”
The baby began to wail again. “Colic.” Both Helga and her mother shook their heads and sighed.
Delia hurried down the stairs, buttoning her collar and fastening her belt as she went. She hoped she wouldn't run into Uncle Avram.
Her uncle worked the night shift in a print shop. During the day he slept on the couch in the alcove. He snored straight through the afternoon, even when the children cried and the women bickered. Delia hardly ever spoke to him. She had tried at first. She had thought working in a print shop, working with words all day must be the most wonderful thing. “We don’t hire no girls.” He had cut her off gruffly. That was it.
She knew Avram didn’t like them living there, but where else could she and her mother have gone? We won’t stay much longer she promised herself. She was trying to save for a new flat, but she didn’t have her mother’s hands. She’d never be promoted to operator. She broke needles, her thread tangled, her hems puckered. I must work harder, I must work harder. I will, I will, she promised herself. Of course she would. But here she was, late again.
She reached the bottom of the stairs and let the door bang loosely behind her. The top of the stoop gave her a good command of the street. Avram was nowhere in sight. Good. She let out her breath and took another look around, hoping for a glimpse of Ben. She knew her oldest cousin avoided his father as much as she did. Sometimes Ben didn’t come home for two weeks at a time. During the day he lugged his shoeshine kit around hotel lobbies and train stations. At night, he bragged, he sometimes weaseled his way into places where men gambled. He made Delia swear she wouldn’t tell Helga.
“I’ll ask Jake to keep an eye out for Ben.” Delia thought as she hustled along the sidewalk, cutting over to Catherine Street, then onto the Bowery. She navigated the streets like an expert now, dodging peddlers’ carts and grocers’ barrows, all piled high with new spring potatoes, pale green cabbages, purple turnips and thick, round leeks. Even after all these years, she still loved to look at everything and repeat the English names. On Steigmeyer’s out door counter feathery wisps of parsley nestled against horseradish roots, so black and twisted they might have been mined from Siberia itself. Fishmongers set out barrels of herring reeking in brine. Bakers stacked rounds of flat rye bread in their windows. A whiff of yeast made her mouth water.
She turned left onto Grand Street and then right onto Broadway. Nearly a mile to Ninth Street, and she didn’t want to waste a nickel on the trolley. Halfway there she passed the Carnegie Free Library, still locked at this early hour. When work got slack she could stop by in the evenings to get more books for herself or picture stories for the children. Last year she had polished off the entire Count of Monte Cristo. It was too long to read out loud at work so she had told the story to Lucy using her own words. Lucy loved it anyway. She absolutely adored the hero, Edmond Dante. On nice days they’d stroll arm in arm, up and down the block during break. “Edmond,” Lucy would sigh after every handsome man who walked by. “Edmond Dante.” Sometimes the fellow would turn around and Delia would want to sink though the pavement with shame. But Lucy would only laugh. “Edmond,” she’d call out. “Rescue me. Rescue me.” And very often the young man would, with offers to meet her on a certain corner after work or in one of the Italian pastry shops where you could sit and drink sweet, dark coffee from tiny cups for hours.
By now the avenue was jammed with people, every inch of pavement covered by rushing feet. Delia, who had stood so tall on her own front stoop, felt herself shrink to next to nothing in the crowd. A house wares cart overturned, sending crockery flying across her path. Horses reared. A woman got the hem of her skirt caught beneath a trolley wheel. She screamed. Everyone ran to help. You could see the cloth split right up to the edge of her corset. “Rescue me.” Somewhere a whistle blew. Delia picked up her pace.
There were other good stories in the library too. Some of them happened right here in America. She hadn’t much cared for the Headless Horseman but Evangeline was a wonderful, vunderbar. Enough to make you weep. “This is the forest primeval....” Delia wished she could remember the whole poem “The forest primeval...”
"Peaches, fresh, penny apiece." A grocer’s wife called out. Delia eyed the peaches longingly. They looked pinkish-green, barely ripe. "First of the season. You can have one off the top." The woman held out a small one. For a penny you could get a whole pound of bruised apples or two-dozen prunes. “Just came in from the other side of the river.”
A young man bought one and tossed it jauntily into his pocket. It would be worth a penny just to hold it, Delia thought. She felt around in her own pocket. Three nickels and four cents. She handed a penny over. She might even be able to get a half-dozen on her way home. The children would go crazy, meshuga, for peaches. Even if it was rent-day tomorrow, why shouldn’t they have peaches?
She sniffed the peach. The down tickled her nose, making her sneeze. It smelt of wet grass and willow trees. From where did she know the smell of wet grass and willow trees, she wondered. From a dream? She nestled the peach in her pocket. It wasn’t for eating right now. She was still hungry, though. Maybe she’d get a two-cent roll. She counted out her money again. She needed to pick up a spool of heavy darning thread. Her stockings were full of holes. Leah’s too. Her mother didn’t even have stockings any more. She rubbed the nickels over and over, as if they might multiply by magic. Three-times-five, she intoned silently. Fifteen. Four-times-five. Twenty. Five-times-five... But still she only had three nickels.
Why was there never enough? She worked steadily at the factory. Her mother and Helga sewed shirts at home. Avram had his job at the printers. Ben shined shoes. With so many people working there should have been more than enough. But then someone would get always sick. Avram would lose his position again. One week Helga’s boss would bring a mountain of work and the next none at all. And nobody knew what Ben did with his earnings. She’d seen him taking dice out of his pockets more than once instead of coins. So it all come down to Delia. She forgot about her roll and started to run. “Five times five....twenty-five...”
“Delia! Deelie!” Her friend Lilly came charging down the street towards her, knees pumping high, pushing everyone aside. “Delia!” Lily collided smack into her, knocking her over. “Lock-out.” Lilly gasped. “No work.”
“Lilly!” Lilly’s older sister Rachel followed behind, making a little half-run, half-walk, one hand lifting her skirt with two fingers, the other keeping her hat pressed to her head. “I told you to stop.”
Dazed, Delia staggered to her feet. “No work?” She felt as if an enormous hole, deeper than Mr. Poe’s Pit with its Pendulum had opened up before her. No work. And she had just spent a whole penny on one little peach. “Is it true?” She turned to Rachel, “Our shop? Locked out?”
“Yes.” Rachel adjusted her hat and caught her breath. “And it’s not just us. Clark’s Cloaks, Weisman’s and United Textile are locked out too.”
“There’s a big chain around the gate!” Lilly added. “Come and see.” She gave Delia a shove and they both started to run.
“Lock-out!” Lilly hollered.
“Lock-out!” Delia shouted too, as if the entire street were burning down.
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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