Outside the factory, girls milled around, some of them crying, others arguing impatiently.
"What’s it say?" A new girl pointed to the sign on the gate.
Delia shoved her way through. “Closed by Order of the Management.”
There had been lockouts before. Sometimes their shop had been closed for a morning when there wasn’t enough work to do. Then they had to sit outside on the steps and wait until the boss decided to open. But nobody could recall four shops on the Lower East Side all locked out at the same time. It wasn’t lack of work this time, the girls muttered, but something else. It was all the fault of the mouzikim, the troublemakers, the ones who stirred things up.
"Go on home girls." Mr. Meir stood at the front gates, his arms folded. “No work today.”
A policeman ambled along the sidewalk, nudging the girls aside.
"Hey mister!" Several of the girls grabbed at the officer’s sleeve. "Tell him to let us in. We know there’s plenty of work in there. We saw it yesterday."
"Move on, girlie." The officer poked one of the girls who had sat down on the steps. "No trespassing. This here is private property."
"Private property?” The words were not familiar to them.
Delia had read about private property in the Forward. “It means something that belongs to one, not all.”
“But this is our shop. We are the ones who work here."
The officer tapped his nightstick against the balustrade. Reluctantly, they stood up one by one and began to edge away.
"Oh they’ll let us back in just as soon as they figure out who the troublemakers are." Pickles spoke loudly enough to silence the general buzz. Everyone eyed her warily. “Like this mouzik.” She strutted up to Delia. “The troublemaker that reads.”
Delia squeezed her hands into fists, her arms stiff at her sides. Though they hadn’t fought in a long time, she knew Pickles had never forgiven her for the day Delia had made her fall into the barrel. “Pickles in a barrel,” the girls still snickered behind her back.
Pickles didn’t wear her hair hanging in braids anymore. Those pigtails had been so easy to reach. Now she kept it coiled atop her head in a thick spiral twist. She wore gloves too, a different color for each day of the week--yellow, orange, pink and sometimes matching belts of French satin. But she would always be Pickles. She would always stink of sauerkraut, even if she washed with scented soap. The girls said she must have been born with the smell, like a curse. Pickles. Nobody even remembered her real name.
A little crowd gathered around Delia and Pickles, most of them not coming too close.
"I only read the Forward." Delia said. “And you listen, too. You know you do.”
“And who told you to read?” Pickles demanded.
“No one told me.” Delia retorted. “I only started because Lucy asked me. Then the rest of you liked it so much I--”
“Oh, Lucy.” Pickles had grown tall. She towered over Delia. “And where is she now, that Lucy?”
Delia scanned the crowd anxiously. She spotted Lucy’s friend Estelle. They always arrived together, but today Estelle was alone.
“Ammalata,” Estelle shook her head. Lucy was sick. She wouldn’t say anything more.
Pickles grinned, fierce and sly as a famished cat. “Lucy starts it, then leaves you to get sacked.” She pursed her lips and spat. A wet glob hit Delia’s boot.
"Come on." Lilly and Rachel hooked their arms through Delia’s and propelled her away from the shop. “Don’t even bother arguing with such a person.” Rachel sniffed.
“Leave the fershtinkiner be,” Lilly added. “I wouldn’t wipe my feet on her fancy clothes.”
Delia couldn’t resist getting in the last word. “Did you find your satin belt lying in the gutter-drains on Allen Street?” she called over her shoulder. Everyone knew where the streetwalkers lived. And everyone pretended not to. Those were the girls you passed as if they were invisible all the while noting every flower, feather, and ruffle on their fancy dress.
“You ask Lucy what she finds in the gutters on Allen Street,” Pickles taunted.
Delia slipped her hand into her pocket. Her fingers curled around the half-ripened peach--soft on the outside but hard as a stone. She spun around and let it fly. “May your tongue turn black as an eel!...
The peach bounced off Pickle’s head. A long, snaky curl sprang loose from her topknot. “May your eyes turn white as ice!” She unlooped her scissors from her belt. With two leaps of her long legs, she was hard on their heels.
"Run!" Lilly shrieked and sped ahead. Delia hesitated. She was tempted to stay and fight. The scissors flashed in Pickles’ hand.
“May your nose turn into a toad!” Delia hiked up her skirt and wove through traffic at top speed. Donkeys brayed, cartwheels screeched, trolley bells donged. Her garter came loose, her collar button snapped.
Rachel ran too, her hat flying off her head.
"May your children be born with teeth in their ears!” Pickles, shouted, right behind them.
“May you bring forth a generation of horned beetles,” Delia hollered back.
"This way." Lilly ducked into an alley, narrowly avoiding an old man balancing an immense pyramid of cloth on his shoulders. Halfway down, they found a vacant entryway and huddled against the iron-grated door. “Have we escaped?” Lilly whispered.
Delia peeked back down the alley. She could see Pickles squatting on the sidewalk trying to gather the pins that had tumbled from her topknot. Her long hair had come unraveled, sweeping the pavement around her like a cloak. People stepped right on it. She spied Delia and shook her fist. "May a spider creep down your throat as you sleep."
Rachel’s hat lay on the pavement right next to Pickles. Delia dashed out and grabbed it. “May your wedding bed become a scorpion’s nest.” She gave Pickles’ hair a little stomp for good measure and sped back to safety.
Rachel studied her hat ruefully. The crown was half torn off. It couldn’t be worn anymore.
“May...” Delia tried to think of the best curse she could. “May every bite of bread you swallow turn to stinging nettles till your belly bursts with a thousand holes like a sieve,” she hollered at Pickles.
“Delia!” Rachel looked shocked. “Where did you learn talk so rough?”
Delia blushed and clammed up. Where indeed? Not from her mama, certainly. But what didn’t she hear running up and down the stairs at Cherry Street? People left their doors hanging open all the time and she couldn’t very well stuff rags in her ears.
“Maybe it can be mended.” Lilly examined the hat too.
Delia felt her loose stocking slither down to her ankle. She scrambled to pull it back up and refasten her garter.
“Hey girlie!” A boy leaned from a window and whistled. “Show us a knee!”
“May the devil turn your hands into feet!” she shot back.
Pickles had slunk away. Except for the boy at the window, no one paid them any heed. They might be locked out, but others still had business to attend to. Men unloaded bolts of wool and cotton. Women carried bundles of muslin in their arms or atop their heads. Children scavenged the alley for scraps they might glue together to make pen wipers or bookmarks. Anything they could sell for a penny.
“How we made Pickles chase us!” Lilly preened. “Till steam flew from her ears!”
Linking arms, they strolled through Union Square. It felt strange to be walking so slow in the middle of the morning. To be out on the street with nothing to do. Was this what freedom felt like, Deli wondered?
They passed other little groups of girls locked out like themselves. Some just waited uncertainly. Others, dejected, already headed home. No, she wasn’t free, Delia reminded herself. Not with the endless shirts piling up around her mama.
On the corner a young man handed out pamphlets. Delia could see a small red socialist flag stuck in his hatband.
“They’ll probably have a meeting tonight.” She watched him, curious.
“Meetings, meetings, meetings. There are always meetings,” Rachel replied.
She was right. Everyone held meetings --socialists, communists, unionists, anarchists, free-thinkers. Meetings everywhere. Rallies, lectures, readings, debates. You could sense meetings in the air. It was like walking down the street on Friday night and being tempted by the smell from everyone’s Sabbath pot. But when did Delia have time for a taste? She had to get home and rinse out her underclothes for the next morning. Then she’d wash Gertie and Sid and get them ready for bed. She had promised she’d help Leah with her schoolwork, too. And there were always a few shirts left to finish from Mama and Helga’s workload.
One evening she had gone to an assembly of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and stood in the back with a few of the other girls. But she could hardly understand what they were saying. A man talked about charters, petitions, contracts, agendas. By the time they had opened the floor for questions, she had to leave. She felt like a starving person who had come to the table, but gone away without a bite.
“Orangia, Limone...” The Italian ice-man rolled along. He was out early today.
“Let’s get one,” Lilly said.
“I can’t.” Delia tried to sound indifferent. “I have to get home.”
“But we’ll treat. Won’t we?” Lilly looked to Rachel. “Because you were so brave about saving Rachel’s hat.”
Delia knew the price of an ice meant little to Rachel and Lilly. Their father headed a tailor’s shop and their mother did not have to work at all. The Hershfelds lived comfortably on upper Orchard Street. Rachel had made it clear that she was only working until she could find a good match and get married. Lilly could have actually stayed in school. “But I make better friends in the factory,” she had explained to Delia. “And no one makes fun of how I talk.”
Delia watched the ice-man scoop out a cone of glittering raspberry ice for Lilly. She hadn’t had a bite to eat all morning. Not even a sip of tea. She licked her lips. “Lemon,” she told him. She had to get home. With four pairs of hands the shirts would be finished well before noon.
“Let’s sit a while,” Lilly said.
Maybe she’d finish her ice first.
They perched on three upturned barrels outside a dry goods store on Broadway where they could savor their ices slowly and pass judgment on all the passers by--who was green and fresh off the boat and who had genuine New York style.
“I could make that,” Rachel indicated a skirt that swirled as the wearer walked along. It fit tight around the hips, but flared out like a flower as it reached the ground. “You need six gores, instead of four to make it turn so smooth. And that,” she nodded towards a broadcloth blouse. “To get that sleeve, you take three pleats at the shoulder. You need to cut the cloth wide an extra inch. I could make that pattern too.”
All the Jewish girls in the shop looked to Rachel the same way the Italian girls looked to Lucy. Rachel knew all the latest styles. If you were wondering what kind of trim to put on a hat or fancy braid to edge a jacket, she would recommend exactly the right thing.
“That lady has six bows on her dress,” Lilly announced with delight. “I counted.”
“And why not a seventh through her nose?” Rachel observed caustically. “Too many fancy things is worse than not enough.”
“Six is not too many.” Lilly said. “Not seven, not even eight.”
Rachel just raised her eyebrows in reply.
Delia drummed her heels idly against the barrel slats. Though she sewed for a living she never gave her own clothes a second thought. Everything she wore was handed down from Mama or Helga anyway, hemmed up and taken in.
“Are you young ladies waiting for someone?” A young man leaned against the wall next to them, his straw hat in his hand. “A fine day to take one’s leisure,” he added as if one of them had spoken. Leisure. He used an English word Delia had never heard.
“Nu?” The stranger clapped his hat back on his head only to take it off again with a sweeping bow. “Henry Mendelsohn. At your service.” He wore a yellow and black checked jacket with matching trousers and a yellow silk scarf around his neck. It was difficult to tell if he was truly elegant or perhaps just someone without much good sense.
Delia looked to Rachel for an opinion, but for once Rachel had no comments on style. She only stared straight ahead, as if she were sitting for a portrait photographer. Her hair gleamed golden as apricot jam in the sun. The gentleman, Henry Mendelsohn, bowed again to her, but she acted as if he wasn’t there. Delia could see Rachel was irritated by the man, though she wasn’t sure why. He had only bowed. Lilly claimed that her sister was prone to all kinds of strange moods and whims these days. “Mama says it’s because Rachel’s a woman now,” she had explained. “But I think it’s because of her fashion magazines.”
“Fashion magazines?” Delia read everything she could lay her hands on but somehow she had missed the fashion magazines.
“Yes,” Lilly had nodded wisely. “They have pictures of rich American ladies in their uptown houses. So now all Rachel wants is to live like she’s uptown. Nothing on the Lower East Side is good enough for her anymore.”
Delia had been a bit shocked by this conversation. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere but the Lower East Side. She stole a glance at Henry Mendelsohn. He didn’t look like he was from uptown but he didn’t look like anyone she knew on the Lower East Side either. He caught her eye and bowed to her the way he had to Rachel. For a moment she wondered if she should ignore him too. Instead she nodded back. Leisure. He had given her a new word. Surely that was worth a nod if not a smile.
“Lee-shoor.” She tried it out in her own mouth. It sounded like something special. Something rich and delicious. It made her smile in spite of her efforts to remain serious. “To take one’s leezoor.”
“To take one’s time,” Henry Mendelsohn explained. “To sit in the sun.” He waved his arm to encompass the three of them. “To take pleasure in the air, the earth, the trees.”
“We’ve been locked out,” Lilly volunteered.
“Lilly!” Rachel shot her sister a withering stare.
“Locked out?” He tilted his head quizzically.
“You know, no work.”
“Oh work.” He shrugged as if they had mentioned a trivial little thing.
“What do you do?” Lilly asked.
“I,” he made yet another bow, “am a gentleman of leisure.”
“Leezoore,” Delia and Lilly repeated. Rachel frowned, but they paid no attention.
“Are you a boss then?” Delia asked.
“I oversee naught but the birds, the grass, and the trees.”
“The trees don’t need a boss.”
“Exactly.” He smiled at Delia as if she had just scored a bull’s eye in a Coney Island game.
“Then where do you get your money?”
“Oh money.” Another little thing. “Oh that.” He reached back to scratch his ear. “Well you see--” A quarter appeared between his fingers. A bright new silver one. Delia and Lilly leaned forward. How could he have kept a quarter behind his ear? He held it out, letting them both see it clearly. “You see when it comes to money,” he placed the quarter in the center of his palm. “I--” It was gone. They gasped. Losing a quarter was no joke.
“There,” Lilly pointed to the ground. She found nothing but a scrap of tin beneath her shoe. Delia searched too.
Delia felt Henry Mendelsohn’s fingers ruffle her hair, gently probing, right above her temple, down behind her ear. She froze. Her face went hot. She didn’t move.
“Ah, here.” He lifted the quarter from her curls. It hovered only a few inches from her nose. She saw the engraved picture of Lady Liberty holding up the torch and the edge of Henry Mendelsohn’s clean, pink fingernails.
“Do it to me,” Lilly begged.
Delia rubbed her head. Oh to have money pouring from her ears. She felt over and over the spot where his fingers had touched.
“Well,” he took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. “A quarter is not so difficult, but--” He folded the handkerchief to put it back in his pocket, then examined it, bewildered. A bouquet of tightly bunched paper violets sprang from the cloth. “I seem to have acquired some flowers.” He held the violets out to Rachel. “Henry Mendelsohn at your--”
Rachel jumped up as if she just noticed she’d been sitting on hot coals. “Lilly.” She grabbed her sister’s hand like a mama with a child. “There’s our trolley. We have to go home.”
A streetcar came chugging to a halt. Rachel strode towards it, dragging Lilly behind her.
“But it’s going the wrong way, and we don’t take the streetcar home, anyway.” Lilly protested. “Rachel!” She looked at Delia helplessly. “ Delia?”
Delia watched them go, forlorn. She didn’t want to be left behind. “Wait!” She ran to catch up. She’d just take a short ride with them, she told herself, and then go right home.
She reached the trolley just as it was about to pull away. The fare box loomed in front of her. Before she could thrust her hand into her pocket, a yellow and black checked arm reached around her shoulder and dropped two nickels in. “Allow me.” A hand on her elbow magically elevated her into the aisle
“Lilly? Rachel?” She spied her friends just as the floor lurched, sending her tumbling backward, right into Henry Mendelsohn’s arms.
“Honestly!” Rachel scolded her sister. Lilly squirmed her seat. “What would Mama say to see you talking to that man?”
“He was dressed so fine.”
“Another schmazel who idles on street corners.” Rachel looked up and saw Delia with Henry behind her. Delia grimaced, trying to convey that she hadn’t invited him along. Rachel immediately turned her face to the window.
“Let’s sit together!” Lilly jumped up hauled Delia to an empty seat where two men had just risen to get off. Both gentlemen tipped their hats to the back of Rachel’s golden head.
The trolley-bell clanged and the car swayed. Delia couldn’t remember the last time she had ridden a trolley. She knelt up on the seat, trying to see everything they passed. As they traveled uptown, the blocks of small stores with goods stacked out front gave way to big emporiums with plate glass windows. Then the emporiums gave way to tall, brown brick homes with boxes of flowers on their window ledges. At one cross street, a motorcar veered so close to the trolley Delia thought they would collide. “A motor car!” Delia and Lilly were thrilled. “Look!”
Rachel shushed them, ignoring the automobile, like everyone else.
“As if it were something you could see everyday,” Lilly pouted.
“You can,” Rachel replied calmly. “Just not on the Lower East Side.”
When they weren’t staring out the window Henry Mendelsohn kept them entertained, pulling nickels and quarters from the ears of unsuspecting strangers, including the scowling conductor who said something about “pickpockets.”
“He doesn’t take money, he just makes it disappear,” Lilly explained. She was rewarded with the bouquet of violets, now rather bedraggled from being made visible and invisible so often.
“Enough!” Rachel rose. “Let us off,” she ordered the conductor. Lilly and Delia followed, obedient and mystified.
“Where are we?” Delia stood rooted to the spot where she had descended from the trolley. On one side of the street a row of brownstones extended as far as she could see. Each had a clean swept stoop and curtains in the window. On the other side stretched a park so big it looked as if you could get lost in it for days.
“Don’t you know Central Park when you see it?” Lilly said. “We come here all the time when they got dancing at the bandstand.”
“No.... yes.” Delia did know the park. Her father had brought them there once, long ago. She and her sister Clara had worn their white starched dresses. It had rained and rained until all the starch had washed out and the dresses had clung smack against their skin. Papa had laughed, calling them his little fishes as they ducked beneath the branches of a weeping willow tree. “Central Park!” She drew a deep breath and closed her eyes. She could still smell it: wet grass and willow trees.
“Delia!” Lilly called “Come on.”
Rachel had kept walking uptown, away from the Lower East Side, her head held high as if she could see something they couldn’t. Lilly trotted behind. Henry Mendelsohn walked by Rachel’s side. Or tried to. He bobbed and bowed, almost thrusting himself in front of her. Rachel just swerved around him, gathering her skirt close and striding onward.
“Rachel,” Lilly stamped her foot. “Let's go to the park. We don’t belong uptown on this side of the street where people live.”
“We don’t?” Rachel smiled.
“Perhaps you wish to pay a call on Mrs. Vanderbilt.” Henry Mendelsohn winked at her.
Rachel stared at him, as if she’d just realized he existed. “Yes indeed, I have come to pay a call.” She whirled, trying to make her skirt sweep out as much as it could, though it didn’t quite reach the pavement. Then to their continued amazement and distress, she marched straight up the nearest flight of steps...
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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS