“So? Read.” Lilly peered over Delia’s shoulder.
“No.” Delia folded up her newspaper so she could sit on it. “I told you, I only read on breaks now.”
“What is with you?” Lilly fumed. “You’re getting bad as Rachel. We never have fun these days.”
Delia hesitated. The better she tried to behave the more she argued. With Mama, with Helga, and now with Lilly, who had always been her friend. Why did everything seem to lead to a fight?
Nearly two months had passed since the day of the lockout. The shop had reopened the next morning as mysteriously as it had closed. No one knew the reason. Maybe there wasn’t any reason, the girls grumbled. The boss just wanted them to be miserable, and that was reason enough.
Delia tried to keep her mouth shut. She was doing her best not to be so noticeable, not to be a troublemaker. She got in early, picked up extra work, and went straight home at night. But Lilly was right. They had no fun any more. Whatever happened to “lee-sure?”
“All right.” She relented. “I’ll read one letter. A short one.” She scanned the pages, expecting the squeak of the foreman’s rubber-soled shoes in the doorway at any moment.
“Here’s one from a woman who says her husband just left her and she has five sick children to feed.”
“And someone else is stuck on Ellis Island because no one came to meet her and now she’s going to be sent back.”
“That happens all the time.”
Delia kept looking. David Levine had been right. It wasn’t easy to have your letter printed in the Forward, especially if your life wasn’t a terribly hard one compared to others. The editors probably hadn’t given her words a second glance. “Here’s one from a girl who says she has two fiancés. One in the old country and one here and neither suspects a thing.”
“That one! Read it.”
She thought she heard the door creak. “On break.”
“Then give it to me,” Lilly said. “I can read to myself. Some. And whatever words I don’t understand I’ll ask Rachel.”
With a quick glance over her shoulder, Delia handed the Forward over. Then she settled down to work, pumping hard on the treadle of her machine. The wheel grated and stuck fast. Cautiously, she poured a few drops from her oil can into the rusty crank. In summer the oil ran thin and loose. If you weren’t careful it would splash all over your hands and clothes, spreading to everything you touched. Before you knew it, you’d have grease in your hair, up your nose, even beneath your petticoat, trapping fleas and mites, till you went crazy with itching. She ground her foot down on the treadle again. She wanted to grab the machine and shake it. If only she could buy one of her own, like some of the older girls. They carried their precious Singer sewing machines to work every day, nestled in big wicker baskets like high-quality brood hens. Delia and the other girls had to rent machines from the shop. Thirty cents from your paycheck every week. Everyone agreed that the machines owned by the shop were possessed by dybbuks or just plain ‘lousy.’ “Lousy as three bums in a flophouse,” as Jake would say. That described this machine exactly, she pressed her lips together grimly. She’d have to work twice as hard today just to keep up.
The foreman, Gregor, and his helper were already passing out the morning’s stint.
“That’s her?” one of them muttered. “That’s the one he told us about?”
“Yup. That’s the girl.”
A big stack of cloth landed at her feet. Than another and another, till the pile reached level with her chin. Their arms now empty, the men walked off...
“Wait!” Delia jumped up. “You can’t!” She had wished for a big stint, but not like this. She would never finish this stint even if she worked like a demon for forty days and as many nights.
Gregor came back and leaned on the pile, grinning at her. “Well sweetheart.”
Sweetheart! Her jaw hung open. If only Lucy were here, she’ know what to say. ‘Sweetheart yourself!’ she’d shoot back. But she wasn’t here and Delia could only stand there, her face going red.
“I hear you’re the spirit of youth.” Gregor started to chortle.
His partner, a Ukrainian with no name, joined in. “Yoot,” he said. “Da spirita yoot.”
“Ain’t we just crushing the spirit of youth.” They laughed all the way out.
What in the world was ‘the spirit of youth’? She stared after them. The girls stared too. First at the men, then at Delia. They looked at her like she had pleurisy or consumption, the way you look at someone who’s going to die no matter what you do. Then they looked away. They all had more than enough to keep their hands busy. No one would help her today.
Delia sat back down, sick. She was almost afraid to touch the pile of cloth. What had she done? After the lockout seven women had been sacked, four from the third floor and three Romanian cousins on the second. Somebody said the Romanians had been caught stealing scraps of cloth. It was hard to know what was true. Two girls from Delia’s floor had also been dismissed. One of them a kid of seven who was always late and never spoke to anyone, not a word, ever. The other was Flora who was married and going to have a baby, so she really didn’t count as sacked. She was a good worker, the older girls said and could get another job as soon as she found a wet nurse.
Delia kept sewing. The machine squealed, moving with little, slow jerks. Tears cascaded silently and effortlessly down her cheeks. She had that thought she was safe. No one had turned her away at the gate or called her out into the hall in the middle of the day, telling her to take her hat because she wouldn’t be back.
Her old enemy Pickles was gone, so that made it a little easier not to be a troublemaker. Pickles hadn’t been sacked exactly. She just never came back after the lockout. But Lucy was gone too, that made everything much harder. Without Lucy, Delia noticed, people were quieter. The Italian and Jewish girls didn’t mix as much. Each group kept to their own side of the room. No body wanted to help anyone else anymore. Everyone was afraid.
Delia looked at the mountain of cloth by her side. Her hands dropped as if she had stones tied to her wrists. She couldn’t move. ‘Like dancing,’ that’s what Lucy had said. ‘Get a rhythm going.’ Delia’s feet felt heavy as flat-irons. She was drowning, not dancing. Why didn’t Mr. Meir just sack her? Even that would have been easier to swallow. But no, he must hate her especially, for no reason that she knew. And he was going to make her work to keep her job like a slave on the pyramids of Egypt while everybody watched.
“It’s you!” Lilly screamed. “Delia, it’s you! The spirit of youth.”
“What?” Why did Lilly make everyone look at her again? “Are you crazy now too?” At that moment she could have just killed her friend with the very scissors in her hand.
“No, look and see.”
Delia snatched the paper from Lilly.
“I saw it first,” Lilly was breathless. “But I asked Rachel just to make sure.”
“The Spirit of Youth.” A two-inch headline stretched across the top of the page, and in small type below, the question: “Is our City Crushing the Spirit of Youth? “
“We have received the following letter from a young lady who says she is a working girl’, the editors began. Down the left hand side of the page they had printed Delia’s letter in a single long column with her name at the bottom. There were several other letters, too. A representative of the Young Men’s Hebrew Union wrote that they should establish branches for ‘our sisters and daughters.’ Someone else pledged to raise money for a gymnasium. A settlement house social worker insisted that girls needed ‘wholesome entertainment's’ such as lectures, readings, and night-school seminars, not dancehalls and amusement parks.
“What is wrong with the dance halls?” Lilly frowned.
“I say nothing against dancing.” Delia started to read her letter again, not quite certain it was the same one she’d written.
“Then tell them to keep the ballrooms open. Especially Landsmen’s. That’s where Rachel will have her wedding reception.”
Delia remembered how she felt when she’d written the letter, terrified she might wake her mother, stopping every few words, not sure what to say. Now, in black and white type, it sounded as if she were shouting on a street corner, pulling at everyone’s sleeve. “There are children playing in Central Park this very minute. For one day I could sit on the grass beneath the trees. But I was a stranger there. Isn’t Central Park part of the United States? Have I not the right to be there too?” Have I not the right? Did she really say that and mean it?
“You see, you see,” Lilly hectored Delia. “Taking your leisure is a good thing. Now it makes you a famous person. Everyone should do it.”
They made Delia read the letter out loud twice while Lilly guarded the door and Estelle translated for the Italian girls almost as well as Lucy would have
When Delia got back to her machine, the pile of work looked much smaller. Some of the faster workers--Rachel, Naomi, and Theresa--had each taken an armload away. Estelle came over for some too.
Estelle lived on the same block as Lucy and knew her well. She had kept her distance from Delia, though, as if she didn’t quite approve of Lucy mixing with the Jewish girls. Until this moment, Delia hadn’t known she could count on her as a friend.
“Lucy?” she asked Estelle. “Have you seen her?”
“She has run off with a boy she met on the Boardwalk,” Estelle replied without expression. “She has gone away to live on Staten Island.”
“No! She wouldn’t.”
Estelle paused, then leaned closer. “That’s what she wants you to think.”
“You saw her?”
“No. I tried. I went to the flat last week but Carlo wouldn’t let me in. He only wanted to know if I had brought Lucy’s pay. I told him it was his fault he didn’t have it.”
They all knew that Lucy’s brother Carlo had come to the shop to pick up her pay for the days she had worked before the lockout. He had gotten into a fight with Mr. Meir on the stairway. Everybody had heard it. Somebody said he had punched their boss in the face and Mr. Meir had threatened to call the police on his brand new telephone.
“Aren’t you making up an envelope?” Delia asked. People were always taking up collections for families that needed help. The Jewish girls did it for their own and the Italians for theirs.
“Carlo will have us all in trouble with the police.” Estelle lifted a bundle of cloth high onto her shoulder. Her narrow, serious face made it difficult to tell what she was thinking.
“But Lucy?” Delia persisted. “Why isn’t she here?”
“She is sick. A fever went to her legs. She cannot leave her bed.”
By the time the lunch bell rang, the pile of extra work had made its way back to Delia, completely finished. She carried it to the foreman’s station herself, armload by armload. The other girls went off to lunch. Delia didn’t mind the time it took to bring her work in. She took her leisure. Gregor waited impatiently. He wanted lunch too.
When she finally ran out to join the rest, Rachel was reading the Forward out loud. Her golden hair and fine voice attracted a small crowd from the street. The girls sat on the steps eating knishes or calzone. They all swore that Delia’s was the best of all the letters, and what’s more every word of it was true.
That afternoon, Gregor left another pile of work by Delia’s machine towering higher than the first. High as Lady Liberty’s torch, she joked. One girl took a piece of cloth off the top and passed it down the row. The work slipped from hand to hand so swiftly and easily that Mr. Meir himself might have stood behind them and never noticed a thing.
As the day grew warmer, the girls rolled up their sleeves and unfastened the top buttons of their blouses. The heat was almost enough to make you wish it were winter again. Pete didn’t come to sell his sodas anymore. He could make more money out on the street. They had to rely on the communal water tap in the hallway, though it emitted only a muddy trickle.
For the hundredth time, someone complained about the new lights. After the lockout, the old gas jets had been replaced by electric bulbs. They dangled from the ceiling, way up high and cast a dim, shallow beam. Sometimes they hissed and crackled making timid girls scream. Mr. Meir had come around and told the girls that the lights were perfectly safe so long as they never touched the pull-cord that turned them on and off. What he didn’t tell them was that their pay envelopes would be short another nickel each week to pay for the electricity. It didn’t matter if you sat right under a light or in the darkest corner of the room. Sometimes a bulb fizzled and went black. It might not be replaced for a week, but everyone paid just the same.
“That’s the limit,” everyone echoed automatically. The limit. Paying for light most of them couldn’t even use.
They heard shuffling in the back of the room and hushed, sure it was Gregor. But it was only a group of four girls from the second floor, who had slipped down just to see Delia.
“What should we do?” They looked at her respectfully, as if she were what people called ‘a person,’ someone worth listening to.
“Do about...?” Her letter had given her some kind of authority in the eyes of the other girls, Delia realized. She wasn’t sure how she could use it, though.
“Everything.” The girls stated flatly. The people sacked for no reason, the dirty water, broken windows, lousy machines, poor lights. And now the hooks.
“That really is the limit!” Everyone stopped working “Paying just to hang up your hat.”
After the lights had been installed, new hooks had appeared along the back corridor. Actually, most of them weren’t new, just the old iron ones painted to look like brass. But an extra three cents came out of their pay each week for these “improvements,” too. First the girls had ignored the hooks and piled their things on the floor at their feet. Then Mr. Meir had brought a fire inspector in who told the girls that their coats and hats were a fire danger. Now only their stints of cloth and oil cans were allowed on the floor and you would be fined for anything else.
“What should we do?” Everyone fell silent and looked at Delia.
“We...we could walk out.” There had been walkouts before to protest conditions. She remembered one a long time back, when her mother was still working upstairs. Word had gone round that their pay would be late that week, so they had all shut off their machines and gone out into the street on a bitter cold winter day. Mama too. But Delia knew her mama didn’t want to hear about a walkout now. “We should have a meeting first,” she added.
The girls from the second floor talked among themselves and agreed that this was a good idea, but finding a time and place for a meeting would be hard. It couldn’t be anywhere near the shop or the boss would know something was up. It would have to be at night. And it would take a long time to translate everything for everybody.
“So it’s not so easy.” They turned back to Delia again.
She didn’t know how to reply. She was almost more worried about what her mama might think than she was about the boss. “We could try,” she said.
The second floor girls couldn’t stay much longer. One of them told Delia that she had bought a copy of the Forward and was going to clip the “Spirit of Youth” out and tack it to the wall above her bed. She rented a room with two other girls and they were always putting up things for one another to read. Her roommates also worked in shirtwaist factories and they would come to a meeting, too.
At quarter past six, Delia’s towering pile of work was finished again, thanks mostly to Rachel, Rosa, Theresa and Estelle. Mr. Meir stood at the foreman’s station along with Gregor, something he usually did only on payday. He pretended not to look at Delia, but she could feel his eyes on her whenever she came near. Gregor turned all her work inside out examining every seam. Because the best girls on the floor had helped her, the stitches were flawless. All he could do was grunt and tick off her name on the list.
As the big door swung shut behind her, she let out a whoop of laughter. Her friends were waiting for her.
No more shall I work in the factory
To greasy up my clothes.
No more shall I work in the factory
With splinters in my toes.
It was an old song, and a sad one. But they didn’t sing it sad. They sang it out happy and proud:
Oh pity me my darling,
Pity me I say,
Pity me my darling,
And carry me away
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