One of Them
BY ELIZABETH HASANOVITZ
‘SAY, kid, wake up! Are you going to sleep all day?’
Sunk in despondency, I had forgotten everything: my surroundings, the hall where the Dramatic Club was meeting, the members of the club, all had vanished in my misery.
‘Are you asleep?’
I jumped up. Near me stood Clara, one of the members of the club, who had always taken a friendly interest in me. She recalled me with a start to the present. I was sitting in a dark humble hall, a low ceiling over our heads —the shelter of the Dramatic Club. Slowly and monotonously, the rehearsal had dragged along. The director, his body reeking with sweat, had repeated for the tenth time the act which failed to please him.
The object of the club was to acquaint the Yiddish public of the East Side of New York with literary dramas, to encourage a better understanding of literature than they could gain from the Yiddish theatres, which usually fed their patrons with the trash common in the theatrical world. The best dramas of Ibsen, Maeterlinck, Hauptmann, Sudermann, and other modern writers were translated into Yiddish and produced in that small hall by a few idealists who devoted all their spare time and sacrificed a great deal of their earnings for the creation of a literary folktheatre. That evening the last rehearsal for the next day’s performance had taken place.
Confused and puzzled, I had sat through the rehearsal. The poor light in the hall had brought the ceiling still lower, making me sink deeper into despair. Was the play interesting or not, the acting good or bad? Where had my enthusiasm gone? What was nagging me so dreadfully?
My mind wandered in dark confusion. Unconsciously, my hand, digging in my pocket, crumpled a small piece of paper. What was it?
Oh, the two-dollar bill! And the enlightenment came: my only two dollars — all my precious wealth! And over me swept the past nine weeks of weary, never-ending search for work. Rising each day with new hope, looking over every advertisement, running from place to place, all fruitless, until, broken with fatigue, I would return home, throw myself on my bed, and spend the rest of the day in the stupor of despair, apathetically gazing at the ceiling.
Most of the advertisements wanted skilled ‘ hands,’ others were four-dollar jobs with little chance for advancement. My self-consciousness would not allow me to work for four dollars a week. Nine long, long weeks I looked in vain for a place where I could learn some trade that would, in the end, pay me more. After a long year of struggle, here I stood, more helpless than on the day I arrived in America. ‘Why had I come to America? What had I accomplished by the historic change in my life?’
From the dark brooding that made me unconscious of my surroundings, I was recalled by Clara’s kindly voice. The lights were all out, the people all gone.
‘I hope you don’t mind if I walk home with you?’
I looked up at her as if I saw her for the first time — a face full of wrinkles, a cut on the lower lip, big inflamed eyes, looked at me smilingly; a face which I had never liked before looked much pleasanter to me now.
‘Why, yes, I shall be glad,’ I said.
We climbed down the dark creaking staircase, tracing our way along Orchard Street, the small dirty thoroughfare crowded with push-carts and people. The noise of the elevated trains on Allen Street was deafening, but above the din was a greater noise than usual. Bells were ringing, whistles blowing, the air was full of merriment and joy. Young people, holding feather-dusters dipped in some ill-smelling white powder or in charcoal, smeared the faces of the people as they passed by.
‘New Year’s Eve! New Year’s Eve!’ Clara joyfully exclaimed, infected by the merriment around her. To me it was annoying. Could not the people enjoy themselves more intelligently? On New Year’s Eve, in Russia, the peasants usually get drunk and often break the windows of the Yiddish dwellings. Here the young folks were running round screaming like wild animals, tormenting the passer-by.
‘You’re moody to-night. Cheer up, kid; your boats are not all sunk, are they?’
Clara was amazed to see me in such a mood, for by nature, I was a very joyous person, and among friends I made myself very merry, often being the ringleader in all the fun and merriment, so that my sufferings for the last nine weeks were not known to any one.
‘I think they are, Clara,’ I answered, clutching my only two-dollar bill, which so painfully reminded me of my situation.
Her efforts to start a conversation were not successful. I was too tired and discouraged to speak, and silently we reached my door. After wishing each other good-night and a Happy New Year, I climbed the dark, dirty stairway to the fourth floor and opened the door into a cold, unfriendly room. An old couch, two chairs,’ a broken white table, and an old, once-white dresser furnished the small room. The only window faced a narrow court that never allowed the sunlight to break in.
My room-mate was absent. I lighted the gas. Lonely and homesick, I paced back and forth from one corner to another, my mind painfully wandering far away to my home, now clad in silver white.
H—r—ough; h—r—ough; h—r—ough; h—r—ough!
Oh, those sickening sounds from my snoring neighbors, coming from the windows crowded around the narrow airshaft! They played on my weakened nerves and drove me almost to distraction. For two months that snoring discord so near my room disturbed my peace, irritated my nerves, and kept me awake through the nights.
The city clock slowly struck twelve. The New Year had come. More bells ringing, cheerful voices greeting: ‘Happy New Year! Happy New Year!’ came faintly above the other sounds to my room. What had the past year brought to me, and what will the New Year bring? Like a curse, the wishes rang in my ears.
Everything began to mingle before me. All the experiences of the past year chased through my brain: my home, Russia with its persecutions, my departure, my journey, my arrival, first experiences in a factory in Canada, my arrival in New York, five weeks of work in a factory in New York, and then the nine weeks of searching for work. The memories crowded my brain and benumbed me with their hopelessness.
Home, home! How I wanted to be there, in that spacious living-room with four windows all opening on the street; at that long table with the elder children seated round it, each busy doing his or her own work; mother seated near the brick oven, bending over a boxful of goose feathers, separating the down, preparing pillows for her daughters’ future homes; all awaiting my father’s return, who after the hard day’s work in his school gave private lessons in the evening, in order to keep up his ‘small’ family. The younger children, playing joyfully on the floor, delighting to play tricks on us, called from time to time, ‘There’s father!’ and laughed gleefully when they succeeded in making us raise our heads, in vain, to greet our self-sacrificing breadwinner.
Home! To be back in the warm home under mother’s devoted caresses; to be at home, sitting with father like a true comrade, discussing with him new plans and methods for the success of our school, where I was his assistant for more than two years!
My father was a Hebrew teacher. As only a small proportion of Jews gained admission into the Russian educational institutions, Russian was taught secretly in the Hebrew schools. The Hebrew teachers were not allowed to teach Russian in their schools without a special license, which they could seldom obtain. I taught Russian in my father’s school. My own small school of sixteen girls was also without a license.
My education I received from private teachers because I had never been able to get a chance to enter a Russian school. Jews are permitted to form only five per cent of the total enrollment of pupils in public and high schools, and a decreasing percentage in the higher institutions. Once, when I was ready to pass my examination, my application was rejected: the list of possible applicants was full. Another time, the examination was made so difficult that out of sixty girls only fourteen passed — nine Russian and five Yiddish; the rest, all Yiddish, failed. Questions absolutely out of the course were put to us. The majority of us knew the prescribed course thoroughly because we were aware of the difficulties the government created for Jewish scholars and were prepared for them. Still, we failed.
Those long years of struggle for an education! At fourteen, I already gave lessons to beginners, so as to earn the money to pay for my books and teachers, that I might be less a burden to my father. His highest ambition was to see me get my teacher’s certificate, so that we could open up a licensed school and stop paying graft to the chief of police, who threatened us continually. Many a time he and his guards would disturb us in the middle of the day, interrupting our work and frightening the children, who feared the uniforms as if they concealed devils. Each visit of that kind meant a precious twenty-fivedollar bill. My father had paid fines several times for my school because I was under age; and even with a license, I could not teach until I was twentyone, so that my father bore all the responsibility.
With my second failure to obtain a certificate, all our hopes, cherished for so many years, began to vanish slowly. The chief of police assailed us more frequently; we were less and less able to fill up his bottomless pocket. After each visit, days of misery followed. Many and many a time my father and I sat through the night, thinking and thinking how to better our present condition, what future to provide for the children. But nothing could be done. Members of the universe, people with brains and ambition, we were not citizens, we were children of the cursed Pale, with our rights limited, the districts in which we could live and the trades and professions we could follow, all prescribed for us. What would become of us? What could we expect? Fight for liberty? For equal rights? The persecution was so terrible—for one free word one found a home in prison.
‘O father, it is suicidal!’ I would often say.
He sat downcast, as if guilty in having given life to children whose fate like his was to exist within the Pale, be in the hands of the government dogs, fear the least drunken moujik who, influenced by the priests, would so often make a sudden attack on the property and sometimes the lives of the Yiddish people. They say that they considered it a virtue to rob and kill the enemies of Christ.
Freedom I wanted. ‘Father,’I once said, when our family was seated around the table ready for the Sabbath meal, ‘father, I have been thinking of myself and of you all, thinking hard for the last three weeks. What will become of me and of all of us if we remain in this hole? The future appears so dark, so dark to me, I have been thinking and I have decided that — that — I — shall go — to America.’
Thunderstruck by my last words, they all looked at me. The first to break the silence was my mother.
‘ Are you mad ? A young girl — alone — a far country!’
She trembled, tears flowed from her eyes; she felt insulted that I should think of leaving home.
Father sat silent, his head hidden in his hands. The youngsters were crying with mother.
‘Never let me hear that nonsense again.’
' But, mother, I shall go finally. I do not want to sacrifice my life. I don’t want to be condemned to eternal limitations! I want to be free. I shall go to America, to a free country, where everybody gets free education. Imagine, free education! I shall work to earn my living and study in the free evening schools; and when I have firm ground under my feet, I shall help you all. Think of the children going to free schools, growing up free citizens!’
My mother would not listen, nor would my father. Except for my younger brother, I had no one’s approval. But my determination was strong and my fight began.
For many days, my mother’s tears would not dry. She would tearfully picture to me all the hardships in a far country.
‘No matter how bitter life is here, still there is no place like home. There will be no one to look after you there. I shall live in constant anxiety. I shall not sleep nights thinking that you may not have a warm place to sleep, that you may not have a meal in time, nor your laundry washed, nor your clothes mended.’
Poor mother! Her sensitive heart perceived beforehand all the misery that life prepared for me when I found myself on the other side of the globe.
‘But, mother, I am no more a baby; I have passed eighteen and am big enough to take care of myself, whereever I am.’
‘Think of mother and me! What will become of us? Do you know what it means to part with a child? In sorrow or in gladness we must all be together,’ father wou!d say.
Not succeeding in persuading me to remain, he declared that he would not give me a passport, and without one I could not leave Russia.
Weeks passed. I failed to get their consent. As a last resource I tried declaring a hunger-strike.
When, after three days of hunger, tired and weakened, I still refused to eat, father brought me a passport.
Then preparations began. Sewing and packing all dipped in mother’s tears. Then the day of my departure, that forever memorable day! Mother fainting, the children crying, father madly walking back and forth across the living-room, the house full of neighbors who had come to say good-bye. My pupils, all in line, with flowers, were there to say farewell.
When I was already on the stagecoach, my father jumped up, clutched me in his arms and bit rather than kissed my cheeks. That last scream from my mother’s wounded heart still rings in my ears; a scream from a heart torn, it may be forever, from its dearest and best beloved!
I left all behind me with regret, and yet with no regret. Oh, the weary days in the train! Each third-class coach was divided into sections, with eight hard benches, four upper and four lower; each bench planned for two passengers to sit, but no place to sleep. During those three days, until we reached the seaport, we slept sitting or leaning on our baggage. The great unwashed mass who had occupied those benches before us, sleeping in their clothes and often in their kojucks,1 had left insects behind them which made our lives miserable. My clothes were full of them when I arrived at Libau. I immediately sought out a bath-house and cleansed myself from the parasites; but the emigration houses where we stopped were equally infested. Emigrants are treated worse than prisoners, not only in Russia, but in England. We were driven from one bad place to another still worse. In London our baggage was opened, our clothes thrown carelessly together with those of the other passengers, to be disinfected by steam, then replaced in our trunks, all rolled up and wet. Everything was so mussed that I had not even a shirtwaist fit to wear on the voyage. The food in the emigration houses was not fit for animals; but we were only emigrants.
On the steamer, we traveled steerage to Canada, together with unwashed Russian peasants, and Germans only a little cleaner. We — only two of us, a girl friend and myself—were lost among them like little wrens among a flock of crows.
It was impossible to sit with them at the table; not used to forks and knives, they would dip their hands into the platter and grab all the food. We begged the interpreter to bring us some food to our rooms, but he said it was against the rules. For two days, I took nothing but a glass of tea.
We dreaded to eat with them, and spent most of our time on deck. On the third day, I became seasick and did not leave my berth for four days. Our appeals to the interpreter for food in our room were always met with the laconic reply, ‘Them orders is orders. You cannot get anything in your rooms.’ I would have starved had not a gentle Englishman from the third class brought me an -orange occasionally. With his help we tipped the interpreter and waiter, and then ‘Them orders is orders,’ was forgotten; we had our food in our room.
On the seventh day, I recovered, and spent the remaining seven days on deck or in the third class with the English people — they were all British in the third class — who arranged concerts there each evening.
Some hours before our arrival at Quebec, we were held up by quarantine officers. A man in the steerage had contracted typhoid fever, and all passengers in the steerage and third class were kept in quarantine for another two weeks. We were held prisoners and fed with meat filled with worms.
That also I left behind me, and took my first step on the other side of the globe full of hope and ready to stand against anything and everything.
From Canada, where I had been fairly prosperous, I ran because of its provincial mental atmosphere. My restless mind sought something to inspire me, to interest me, to absorb me. My second stop, Chicago, was also unsatisfactory, and I decided to try the much-feared New York.
‘New York, the devil’s nest!’ How people warned me against it, trying to keep me back! ‘A girl with no trade, no relations, will soon get lost. Youth fades there so quickly,’ they would say.
If my people could not keep me from coming to America, strangers surely could not keep me from going to New York. So in the last week of September, 1912, I arrived in New York, with eight dollars in my pocket and just one address, given me by the SocialistTerritorialist party — that of their New York headquarters.
In truth, I was full of fear all the way to New York — a girl all alone in the great city, not knowing the language.
‘Nonsense, I am old enough to take care of myself.’ I tried to quiet my own fears as I had tried to quiet mother’s.
When I stepped out of the train at the Grand Central Station, not then completed, a few middle-aged ladies, travelers’ guides from the Y.W.C.A., stopped me, asking if I wanted assistance; but I looked at them, not knowing them, with distrust. I went out on the street carrying my heavy suitcase, and made my way through the various porters who offered their assistance. Seeing my suspicious look, they showed me their badges so as to reassure me; but I went to a policeman, who put me on a street car, and I found the office on Delaney Street, where a few members of the staff received me kindly.
Luckily, 1 soon found a job in Brooklyn in a knitting-mill. I was to sew pockets on sweaters, the same work I had done in Canada. It was the height of the season. Ten dollars a week was considered good money. I found a room on Eighth Street, also a room-mate. I managed to live on five dollars a week — one dollar for my share of the roomrent, three dollars for food, and one for general expenses. The other five I began to save. I wanted to save enough money for a ticket for my brother, so that he might come, and together we might bring the rest of the family.
All went smoothly. I joined the previously mentioned Dramatic Club, satisfying one of my first ambitions — to act. Lectures, readings, all were open to me. The only thing that bothered me was my shop. It was so different from those in which I had worked before. The atmosphere seemed so common and vulgar. In Canada, I had worked with girls whose language I had not understood, while here I worked with Yiddish girls. Their frankness in manner and speech would often make me blush, and I became the object of their teasing. The forewoman, an old shrivelled scold, would open her mouth ornamented with a set of golden teeth.
‘Looks as if you was only yesterday out of short skirts. Hm! hm! Still waters run deep ’; and she would follow me with such a hateful look. She saw the foreman paying respectful attention to me and envied me.
I had no time to take any notice of her spiteful remarks. Nothing existed but the pursuits to which I gave my evenings. From my entrance into the shop in the morning, I waited for the clock to strike six, when I left the shop and all in it behind me. Eating my dinner in haste, I would hurry to the Dramatic Club, or some place where I could have companionship with people who had similar interests.
Five weeks passed, five happy weeks. I had already twenty-five dollars saved.
‘ I shall soon be able to buy a ticket and send for my brother,’ was my constant thought.
But Fate decided differently. On the Monday of my sixth week, when I came into the shop, my forewoman came over to me and announced, ‘It has got slow; there will be no work for you. But what do you care for work!' she added laughingly. She left me with no further explanation.
I went over to the foreman to ask for a reason. He explained to me that work had turned slow; the boss kept only the quickest and cheapest hands, and the forewoman was the one to select them. So I unexpectedly lost my job.
What was I to do now? With my lunch, two rolls and some butter, in my hands, I returned home. New York with its slack season, New York and starvation, stared me in the face.
I refused to be discouraged. I came to New York with eight dollars in my pocket. Now I had twenty-five. Was I not better off now? Had I not prepared myself to face the worst, to fight patiently? With a wealth of twentyfive dollars I should not have to starve. I quickly sat down to plan my expenditure, including my food menu for the following weeks.
Car fare 60 cents
|Car fare||60 cents|
Plus $1.00 for room rent, $2.52 per week, subject to change as soon as I find work.
The next thing was, what should I look for? I knew no trade, the season for sweaters would not begin for some time. I bought a paper and looked through the advertisements. It was too late to go to look for a job that day, so I spent the day at home, reading. My room-mate, a young Russian of twenty-five, worked on dresses at that time. She earnestly advised me to learn that trade, because the workers were beginning seriously to organize themselves into a union, and expected to better their condition the next season.
The next day, I began to look for work. Day in, day out, I would go out and measure the city from north to south, from east to west, in search of work. I did not fail to apply at one of the advertised places, but in vain. I could find no job at dresses, because in the slack time no learners were taken on. In general, learners were seldom taken in that trade. I tried straw hats. The papers were full of advertisements for workers in that industry, but I would have to pay twenty-five dollars and work a month without pay. Flowers, corsets, box-making, everything was tried. As time passed, my courage lessened with each vanishing dollar.
Now, on New Year’s Eve, more than a year had passed. Without language and without relations, I had fought my battles bitterly, and here I stood with only two dollars. Two dollars between me and starvation!
After a restless night, I did not open my eyes until late in the morning, when my room-mate woke me up.
‘A friend is asking for you, Lisa,’ she said; and in walked Clara with her familiar ‘Hello, kiddo! get up quick; we must be at the club at eleven.’
In a few minutes, I was dressed and we went off. I could not understand what made her come for me. She had never visited me before.
‘Are you out of work for a long time?’
I told her all about my trouble in finding a job for the last few weeks, omitting to mention about my only two dollars, all that was left to me for the indefinite future.
At the club, the members were all there. Those who were not acting were watching the others rehearse. Clara played the part of mother in the play being rehearsed. She usually played the mother’s part in all the performances of the club, and was very good in her portrayals. Impatiently I waited until it was over, when again Clara clung to me, insisting that I should go home and have dinner with her. I suspected that she might have guessed my present situation, and refused; but she insisted, so that in the end I went with her.
On the street, she bought a newspaper, quickly opened it and glanced through it, then exclaimed delightedly,
‘ Listen here — over fifty thousand girls in the ladies’ garment trade, ready to walk out of the shops at the first call of their unions, and strike for better conditions.’ Then, closing the paper, she went on, ‘I am ten years in the trade, and believe me, I had the time of my life working in those sweatshops! For years we had tried to organize ourselves, but we were only a few in the field. It was hard to get the workers to understand the conditions in which they worked. Our last general strike, that was called in 1909, was lost; and mind you, the girls who worked in the worst sweat-shops did not go out; they were scabbing on us.’
‘What means a sweat-shop, Clara?’ I interrupted her.
‘ Why, don’t you know? ’ She looked at me in surprise. ‘The shops in which they work, sometimes, from fifty-six to sixty hours a week, in dark dirty places for terribly small wages, and treated awful! Those are the sweat-shops. Very often I used to be thrown out from shops just because I tried to agitate the girls against such conditions. And now at last we are getting them all down, even the underwear and the kimono-makers, those who were the worst paid and worst treated — who were often compelled to pay for the use of their machines, for needles, electric power, and also for machine-oil.’
On she went, telling of the fights they had gone through: of the strikes; how the bosses hired gangsters to protect scabs; how she once caught a scab, and not being able to persuade her to stop scabbing, she beat her up so that she was afraid to go to work the next day.
‘I assure you I had n’t the heart to do it, but I could n’t stand it any longer. We were striking for several weeks and many of our girls were nearly starved. Some were severely beaten up by the gangsters, and when that girl after hearing our pleas laughed in our faces, I lost control. But after I was so sorry, that for days I walked round like one who committed a crime,’ she concluded in her simple language.
I studied her as she spoke. Her face, bearing all the imprints of long hard work, was in strong contrast to her heart, so childishly young, so enthusiastic, so full of life; ready to forgive the world for all the wrongs done to her, just for a bit of joy.
The club was her only solace. A child of poor Galicia, having hardly any education, working since ten years of age, she zealously strove for education in the evenings after work. The soul-hunger for beauty, for art, for good literature brought her to the club, to which she willingly sacrificed her time and her money to keep it up, to build a temple of art which might help educate those who were as brutally deprived of education as she had been. It was in that work that she found expression for her beautiful desires and a rest from the monotonous prosaic life she lived amid the sordid surroundings of the crowded East Side. My admiration for her grew more and more as we continued to walk.
Into a dark hall on Avenue B Clara led me. On the third floor we stopped. The door was opened to us by Clara’s mother, a tired-out, elderly woman of fifty. She seemed to have expected me, for the table was set for the two of us; the rest of the family, having had their dinners, were all gone.
From the attention paid to me by Clara’s mother I understood that Clara must have spoken to her about me. The thought that Clara possibly invited me suspecting that I was in need, insulted me. I sat awkwardly at the table and choked myself with each mouthful.
After dinner, we went into a parlor furnished with some second-hand chairs. A few art postals hung on the walls, and two cheap statuettes of Beethoven and Mozart adorned the imitation marble mantelpiece. Our conversation again turned on the coming strike.
‘I think the best plan for you is to learn the dressmaking. It will take you some time to learn and you could n’t make much money while learning, but at least you’ll have a trade in the end. Without a trade you will very often not find work even in the season.'
I agreed with her, but how was I to find a place to learn?
‘Now let’s see. Mr. N.’ — she mentioned the name of a member of our club—‘keeps a small dress shop. I’m sure that he’ll take you in when I speak to him.’
‘Is he really a manufacturer?’ I exclaimed, a ray of hope creeping into my heart. ‘Why, I’m sure he’ll take me in.’
I was a little surprised to have a real ‘boss’ a member of our club.
The very same evening we spoke to Mr. N., and oh, wonder of wonders! he told me to come the next morning. At six o’clock I was up already, impatiently waiting for the clock to strike eight.
At the door of the shop I met a gentleman somewhat resembling my Mr. N., but older. He asked me whom I wished to see.
‘ I am to see Mr. N. He told me to come this morning; he — he wants to give me a job — on dresses.’
I trembled, much discouraged by his surprised, displeased look.
‘You mean my brother? Well, I don’t think we need any help. The season has not yet begun.’
Like one who has suddenly had cold water poured over her, I was chilled by his last words.
‘You see, Mr. N., I am only to learn the trade, so that it does not matter whether it is busy or not. I may learn something till the season starts and be able to earn some money then.’
My appealing voice seemed to have impressed him. He opened the door and told me to come in and wait for his brother. It was a very light, clean little shop, with two rows of tables, — ten machines on each one, — one long cutting-table, and one table with a pressing-board.
A little after eight two girls with dark complexions walked in, and looked at me with curiosity.
A little later Mr. N. appeared. Greeting me familiarly, he introduced me to his brother and two sisters, who already sat by their machines, increasing their speed by singing a merry Russian song.
“We are here our own family; there are two more of our intimate friends working with us, two Italian finishers and one presser — that is our staff. I am doing the cutting, my brother the designing, and so we are all working hard for our living,’ he concluded smilingly. And bringing a bundle over to me, he asked his younger sister to instruct me.
‘Do you speak Russian?’ she asked, as she bent across me to show me what to do.
‘Why, yes, I do,’ I answered.
She began in fluent but ungrammatical Russian to cross-question me: where I came from, who I was, what I did, how I liked this and that — not giving me a chance to answer any of her questions; telling me all she could about herself; chattering all day without stopping. About the work, she would speak with high authority, assuring me that it would take me months to become a skilled worker.
‘Do you know, Louis, this little girl speaks Russian!’ my instructor said to the older brother.
‘Does she?’ he answered, looking approvingly at me; and coming over to our table, he spoke to me as if paying more respect to me for knowing Russian.
‘I am going to the opera to-night,’ my instructor announced, as she ripped apart the yoke of a waist that I had used for a collar. ‘ You don’t even ask with whom I am going,’ she continued, not receiving any reply from me. ‘My gentleman friend is a musician, you know, and we often go to the opera. How do you like opera?’
‘Very much,’ I replied, trying to cut our conversation down, for she gave me very little chance to work.
‘ What about your gentleman friend? Does he like opera?’
‘Heavens! will she never stop?’ I wondered. ‘You do like to know a lot of things all in one day,’ I replied softly, so as not to displease her.
She went over to her machine and spoke to me no more that day.
On the thirteenth day of my apprenticeship, the long-expected strike broke out. The very small staff in our shop, so closely related to the ‘boss,’ did not stop work. My employer tried to convince me that it would be very foolish of me to join the strikers when I was only a stranger in the trade.
I did not know what to do. Indeed, I knew very little about the American labor movement in general, and less about this particular industry. Should the employees in my shop walk out, there would be no doubts for me; but they did not. Being in the first stage of apprenticeship, not knowing the people or the real conditions existing in the trade, I thought that I could be of no help to them, so I stayed in the shop and learned to work. Still, each bundle that went through my hands caused me terrible sufferings. It seemed as if the goods looked up at me reproachingly. They seemed to say, ‘So many girls fighting for a better chance, for more freedom, for a better life! Leave us untouched in the baskets.’
‘But I am not injuring them, I am only learning,’ I tried to quiet my conscience. ‘ I am learning in order to help them when I have a right to stand in their ranks and demand the same, to fight for a better life, for freedom. Oh, that better life — who has struggled for it more than I, all these past years? Who has sacrificed more than I, for freedom that I have not yet realized?’
In the evenings, when I walked home, I tried to slip through the pickets so that they should not notice me; for they would not believe that I was only a learner and that my heart and soul were with them. With delight and envy I watched those brave young children in the picket-line, not fearing the policemen who would chase them from one place to another, nor the gangsters hired by the bosses, who would stain with blood many a young girl’s face when she dared to speak to a scab who was under their protection. How I wished to be among them!
The first two weeks of my apprenticeship did not go at all smoothly. My employer friend seemed to grow discouraged with me because I still did not seem able to distinguish a sleeve from a front, or a back from a yoke, and would make blunders by setting in a front for a sleeve.
My talkative instructor would often cry out in disgust, ‘ My, how you botch up all the work! ’
She had crowned me with a nickname the first day, and she would often tease me to tears. As she was known as the ‘gypsy,’ she called me ‘the little white angel,’ for my small growth and my white complexion. Seeing how lit tie I liked that name, even the beautiful signorinas teased me, goodheartedly.
One evening, the elder boss called me over, and in a friendly manner advised me to give up the job. He said I was an intelligent girl, but that I could never concentrate my mind on the machine — that I could never become a real worker and earn my living by it.
I opened my mouth to say something, but the words sank in my throat, my eyes filled with tears, I could not speak. He seemed to notice my depression, for he immediately changed his mind, began to comfort me, and accompanied me home and spoke to me for a long time. He took a very warm interest in our conversation.
After he left me, I went up to my room.
‘What shall I do? How much more must I concentrate my mind on the machine? I am trying hard to learn, but it seems to go so slowly! The other girls are so quick; everything from their hands comes out so smoothly. When I try to do the same thing, I start so fine but it comes out so crooked! How shall I learn? How shall I learn?’ The question kept digging, digging in my mind, filling me with despair.
I thought of my elder boss. He was so kind to me, he spoke so nicely, with so much sympathy, as no one else had done since I left home. No one till then had inquired how I was living, not even my room-mate knew how I made both ends meet. To my parents I had to lie. Each letter I wrote to them made them think that I was quite contented with the changed life. The thought that they might learn the truth made me so miserable, so miserable! Had they not objected to my leaving home?
I must be strong, I must overcome everything. But how? I feared that I was too weak, too helpless against life. I saw no hope of earning enough money to help my family as I had promised. I saw no possibilities of studying in the evenings when my mind was so worried about the daily bread. If I cannot accomplish anything, what is life for, then? Lying in bed that night I began to think of suicide.
Oh! how I wished to die that evening, to be relieved from that eternal anxiety, from painful disappointments!
‘But suicide is a selfish thing,’ I thought. ‘ If I find relief in that, what about those who survive? Will not the deed kill my parents, who have so much faith in my strength? No, no; I will not disappoint them. I will fight until I succeed. Others struggle as much as I do. I had heard of so many people who had suffered much and were successful in the end. Why should not I? I shall prove my ambitions. I must.’
With a terrible headache, I fell into a restless sleep. I spent the night in a terrible nightmare.
Early in the morning, I sat on a bench in Union Square, waiting for the clock to strike eight, for our shop never opened before that hour. Thousands of people passed the square, most of them garment-workers.
‘So many people could learn the trade, why not I? I shall learn it under any circumstances, and that quickly, too,’ I decided.
I reached the shop just as my boss, who had accompanied me home the night before, unlocked the door.
‘ Good morning. Who threw you out of bed so early?' he asked smilingly. ‘Now we shall see what we can do for you, little angel.'
‘Oh, please, Mr. N.! You, too! You must excuse me if I beg you not to call me a nickname. I am already twenty years of age, and really I think that I am too old to be teased,’I said, insulted by his last words.
He apologized. ‘Why, I did not think that you would feel badly about it. Goodness! you do not look twenty at all. I thought you were not more than sixteen or seventeen.'
His sisters came in, the power was turned on, and we sat down to work. During the next few days, I exerted myself to the utmost. My boss helped me out, and I began to feel more at my ease, as my work went on improving. Another two weeks and no more botching. I was able to put a garment together, but I was still very slow and the prices were poor. I could make only from five to six dollars a week. That money was only enough to enable me to live from hand to mouth, and I needed so many things. My shoes were worn out, my clothes too were shabby; I had nothing but the dress I had on.
Meanwhile, the strike of the garment-workers was settled. Their union recognized, the workers returned to their shops with great triumph, their prices almost doubled, their long hours reduced to fifty hours a week. We still worked under the old conditions. Our boss claimed that he could not raise the prices because his concern was small and could not turn out much work. I was so much obliged to him for the favor he had done to me that I felt I had no right to contradict or be displeased.
As I was less able to make ends meet from my scanty earnings, I began to grow discouraged again. My idea of studying in the evening had to be given up for the present, because I worked too hard all day. Besides, in the evenings I had to do my washing and mending and prepare my breakfast and lunch for the next day, as I could not afford to get my meals outside.
‘Heavens! Where is my freedom? I work in a shop, I work in the evenings; no time for anything else but work and eat. What a life this is! What will the outcome be?'
I feared that, if things continued as they were, I might be plunged into a dirty slough as many others were, and I decided to prefer death if it came, rather than allow anything to happen to me.
One evening, coming home from work, so tired and exhausted, I found a letter from home with very sad news. My family was in hardship, and although they did not ask me for anything, I knew that any financial help from me would be a great aid to them.
What was I to do? I hardly had enough for my board, but they knew nothing of my circumstances, and never would I want them to know. And when would I be able to help them? My father, deprived of my help, had to pay now in order to have some one in my place, to bribe the chief of police, and to keep up such a large family. Oh! when would it end, when would it end? If I only had the money! Money, money, how hateful you are, — but oh, how I need to have you!’
Enfolded in the dark clouds that again spread over my horizon, I began to lose ground. My head burning and my thoughts confused, I ran down the stairs to the street and carelessly wandered among the crowded pushcarts.
‘A penny, a penny a sweet potato, a penny a pickle,’ rang the loud voices of the peddlers.
Sweet potatoes, pickles, bananas on the pushcarts; a skirt, a waist, a front, a yoke, in the basket at the side of my machine; the letter from home, money — my boss — all danced before my eyes, in dark confusion.
Flowers! I stopped near a flowerstore, attracted by the American Beauties in the window. Unthinkingly, I walked in.
‘Well, madam, wedding, birthday, funeral bouquets — which do you desire?’
‘Wedding, birthday, funeral bouquets,’ I repeated absentmindedly. ‘Funeral bouquet,’ I said.
‘For how much?’
‘How much?’ I repeated. I began to count my change. ‘A dollar, twenty-five, forty-five, sixty-nine cents. For a dollar sixty-nine cents, please.’
The man looked at me in amazement.
‘We don’t sell for a dollar sixty-nine cents; a dollar fifty, if you please.’
‘Let it be a dollar fifty,’ I said carelessly.
With the bouquet in my hand, I walked home. My room-mate was away in the picketing line; her shop was still on strike. I did not expect her until late in the evening. I had plenty of time.
The flowers: the beautiful white rose, the lilies — ah! that heavy odor intoxicated me! Why did I not get an American Beauty, that I am so fond of?
An American Beauty in a funeral bouquet? Oh, yes a funeral, death — suicide — my home — my people-
My room-mate returned unexpectedly; I sent her out. Slowly I turned the gas. To help it more quickly, I soaked a handful of matches in water and drank off the sickening liquid —
When I regained consciousness I was in the hospital, doctors and nurses around me. Unfortunately, I had been brought back to life. The matches had failed to do their work. The next day Clara and my room-mate were with me — Clara, her eyes filled with tears.
‘You foolish child, to do such a silly thing! ’
I spoke to none of them; I was so tired. I wanted to be quiet, to have nobody around me, to be left alone to my own thoughts.
After four days in the hospital, I was well enough to come out.
‘Will you not come to us, where mother will take good care of you for a time?’ Clara begged me.
I refused. I wanted to be no burden to anybody. She brought her mother to the hospital. Both insisting, I at last consented. Where else was I to go, my last cent spent for the flowers?
(To be continued)
- A loose gathered overcoat lined with lambskin; a splendid hiding-place for all sorts of vermin. — THE AUTHOR,↩