She didn’t see Jake right away, so she climbed up on a neighboring wall and waited. The Forward’s building was all lit up and busy. There was a special slot by the door where you could drop off a letter if you didn’t have a stamp to mail it. She watched the people who mounted the stairs to slip in an envelope. There were young women in shirtwaist dresses, greenhorn girls in heavy shawls, yeshiva students in long capes and yarmulkes, and clean-shaven free-thinkers, dressed American style in jackets and trousers.
A boy not much older than her shoved a whole handful of letters through the slot. He looked around quickly, took another bunch from his pocket and poked them in too. “That’s not fair,” Delia called from her perch. “They won’t have room for anybody else’s.”
“Shh!” He hustled over to silence her. “Don’t let anybody know.” He wore wire-rimmed glasses that kept slipping down his nose. His hair grew too long on top and flopped over his eyes. “I sign them all with different names. So no one can say they’re not from different people.”
“Why in the world?” she asked.
“Why? Don’t you know how hard it is to get a letter in the Forward?”
“Hard? They print lots of letters.”
“Oh yes. If you’re from the soft hearts society.”
“You know, the broken hearts club.” He snorted. “’Boo-hoo I lost my fiancee.’ ‘Boo-hoo I can’t find a fiancee.’ ‘Boo-hoo I don’t have a gown to wear to the workers’ ball.’ Why waste so much space on people who weep all over the page? Who reads it?”
“Boo-hoo yourself! We all do. The girls in my shop. We read those letters and talk about them all day long.”
“That’s what I mean. You girls are so busy with broken hearts you don’t even want to learn about your own condition. I’ll bet you don’t even know there was a lock-out in four shops today.”
“Ours was one of those locked out.” She jumped down from the wall. “And I was one of the trouble makers that got us locked out.”
He looked at her, pushing his glasses back up his nose and brushing the hair out of his eyes. “What did you do?”...
“Well,” she drew herself up and strutted a little. “Why should I tell you? I read. That’s what I do. And one of the other girls, she called me a troublemaker right in front of the boss. So we had a fight. And one of my friends is an anarchist. Or her brother is, I think...” Her voice trailed off. He kept looking, saying nothing. “So we’re going to organize. Sometime.”
“Then why don’t you come to our meetings? ” He held out his hand. “David Levine, youth secretary for the Labor Committee.”
Labor Committee? “My papa belonged to the Labor Committee. Jacob Brenner. He went to all the meetings.”
“Then you must come too. We welcome female comrades.”
She took his hand cautiously. Shaking hands, she knew, was an American custom. She wasn’t quite sure how to do it. “I’ll try. I have to ask my mama.” Her mama didn’t go to meetings. In fact, Delia didn’t hear anything about the Labor Committee at home anymore.
“We put notices in the Forward every week. Look for them.”
“Yes. I mean I’ll try.” She dropped his hand. A clock chimed in the distance. It was nearly nine thirty, too late to keep waiting for a free paper. She ran all the way to Cherry Street.
Everyone’s door hung open on the hall. Another fight was going on in the first floor flat. “May Satan suck your breath!” A smack echoed in the dark. “May your milk turn to salt water and feed only fish.”
“May your milk...? She hadn’t heard that one before. So I should stuff rags in my ears, she thought wearily.
Her flat was quiet. Everyone was probably asleep. Delia stood a minute, checking to make sure. Then she saw her mother sitting at the table sewing shirts. The lamp was so dim it hardly made a fistful of light. Mama must have heard her come in, but she didn’t look up. “There’s some sausage on the stove,” she said. “And a turnip too.”
Delia swallowed. She knew that was her mama’s supper. “I’m not hungry. I...Let’s save it for morning.” Her mother kept on sewing. “I was...I was...” How could she tell her mama about taking her leisure? Her mama, she was certain, had never heard of leisure. “We...we were locked out, ” she finished lamely.
“I know. Bessie told me.”
Of course, Bessie would have been here with the news. “The boss said there was no work for us today.”
“No work? Since when do we have no work?” Her mother gestured to the pile of unfinished shirts. “Unless you’re too busy running in the streets with that Italian girl.”
“Lucy wasn’t even there.” Delia felt indignant. How could her mother call Lucy ‘that Italian girl’ in a voice just like Pickles? “I was with the Hershfelds. Lilly and Rachel. You know them. They bought me an ice.” It was the lemon ice that had started everything. “It was a treat. Just a treat that’s all.”
“A treat? How fine of them.” Her mother snapped off her thread. “Such fine people the Hershfelds. They buy you a treat.” Fine. Her mother made the word jab like a needle.
“Well aren’t they?” Delia didn’t understand. “Mrs. Hershfeld’s your friend, isn’t she? Chava Hershfeld?”
“Oh yes, Chava Hershfeld. My friend Chava who came to weep over me like a sister when your father died. Where is she now Mrs. Hershfeld? Does she invite me to their new flat on Orchard Street to sit and have tea? Their fine new flat where they have five rooms for four people. Not even a boarder living in.” Her mother let the shirt slide to the floor. “Five rooms.” She held up her fingers so Delia could see. “Four people.” Her voice was loud enough to wake up the children.
“I’ll finish the shirts.” Delia scooped up the cloth and shook it out. “I’m not tired. Not really.” She stifled a yawn. Her body ached from all the dancing and walking, but she wouldn’t let her mama know it. “You go to sleep. I can work. Please Mama, sleep.” She would sew all night if it would make her shame go away. The whole day, which had seemed so wonderful only an hour ago, had turned to nothing in the face of her mother’s anger. While she danced in the streets her mama had worked so she could eat.
With a groan, her mother settled clumsily on the couch in the alcove. Delia picked up a needle. It took three tries before she could thread it. One day without sewing and already her hands had forgotten. She started hemming. That was easier than buttonholes and if you made a mistake it didn’t show as much. She wished she’d gotten a newspaper. At least she could read while she worked. There was still enough light and she might find a notice about the meeting.
“Mama? Mama? Wasn’t Papa a member of the Labor Committee?”
“Hush your mouth. If Helga hears the words Labor Committee, she’ll have us out on the street in an instant.”
“Didn’t the Committee send the visiting nurse when you were sick?”
“The Labor Committee can’t help me now. Or you. Why do you think I lost my job? Because I was too old? No. Bessie still works. She’s got two years on me. But I was the widow of a man on Labor Committee. That’s why I never found work after that. No boss would hire me. All because of the Labor Committee.”
“I didn’t know,” Delia whispered.
“Well now you do. And if you get mixed up in that your name will be black too. Not a single shop will take you in.”
Delia began to hem as fast as she could with big clumsy stitches. Please let the shop be open tomorrow, she prayed. And please let them take me back in. If she couldn’t get a job in a factory, there would be nothing for her but shirt after shirt, sitting here with Helga and Mama, the children crying, Leah leaving school, her own friends passing by, never calling to her or waiting on the corner. She wasn’t a troublemaker, not truly. Please, she prayed. I’ll do anything. Get there early every day. Work through break. I won’t even bring the paper any more, I’ll--- No. She couldn’t promise that. She had to have a paper. The girls depended on her to read. She’d just have to be a little more careful about it that’s all.
She bound off the hem and snapped the thread. Her needle dropped. She felt along the floor. It had probably slipped into a crevice between the boards. She’d never find it now. Even when she wanted to help, something went wrong.
Instead of the needle she found the stub of a pencil and the tablet of paper Leah had been using to practice her sums. She glanced over to the alcove. Her mother’s breathing had become raspy and irregular, the shallow snores of someone with a bad chest. Stealthily, Delia cleared a space by the light and laid the tablet down, hunching her shoulder over to hide it, in case Mama woke up. “Dear Editor,” she wrote, then stopped. She sat there a long time. “Dear Editor. I am a working girl. Some people say we are not interested in our conditions. They are wrong. But when we ask about our rights, other people call us troublemakers. They are wrong too. Always no one listens. The city is filled with so many things...” She stopped again. The lamp was burning low and the pencil lead was wearing down. It was scarcely big enough to grasp between two fingers. She thought of her papa’s fine fountain pen, but she didn’t have time to go get it. So she wrote as much as she could. She wrote about Broadway, about walking slow in the middle of the day. About the great park “that is part of America too, only some of us never get to see it.” There was music in the streets every day, “but we are always in such a hurry we feel we have no right to hear it. We are always at our machines. Or at home where we must help out too. Some of us work in other people’s houses.” She thought she should put in something about Birdie even if she didn’t call her by name. “Where girls scrub and clean and never even see the trees that are only two steps away.”
Delia felt like she was running up and down stairs knocking on doors that wouldn’t open. She knew what she wanted to say, but the ideas were shut away, sleeping. Her words couldn’t wake them up.
“So esteemed editor, how can we hope for anything better if each day is supposed to be no different from any other?” That didn’t sound quite right, but it would have to do.
She signed her name and folded the letter carefully. The lamp still had a little wick left. She picked up a shirt.
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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