Working Girl


GIRLS WANTED to count tobacco coupons. No previous experience necessary. Apply FLORODORA TAG COMPANY, No. — Seventh Avenue. $4.

MOTHER said very little about it. But I knew she had been clinging grimly, desperately, — and, I knew also, hopelessly, — to the dream of seeing me through high school.

None of us, indeed, discussed the matter at all. This was n’t because as a family we were in the slightest degree inarticulate. On the contrary; when we three sisters, or even two of us, were at home there was never a moment’s letup in the chatter. And Mother for her part loved gossip as dearly as any of her neighbors in what then was still Irish Harlem.

But chatter and gossip were purely for entertainment — in fact, our basic, staple form of that necessity. The serious issues of life were invariably met and dealt with wholly without speech. Life’s inevitables were so clear and familiar that they never had to be mentioned. It never even went as far as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; at every important point there simply was just one thing to do, so you did it.

And nobody had to explain what that one thing was to a thirteen-yearold girl whose elder sister was a stenographer at twelve dollars a week; whose second sister was a milliner’s apprentice; and whose widowed mother was stoically watching $2000 of insurance money dwindle steadily toward zero.

‘Social security,’ even as a phrase, had n’t yet been coined; and, if it had, we should n’t have understood it. The only social security we knew was the possession of some kind of job. But among our inevitables was also a conviction, which in that vanished world actually had foundation, that when you needed a job you could find one, if you made an honest try.

So it was that the day after I finished grammar school I bought a copy of the World and set to work on the ‘HELP WANTED - FEMALE’ columns. What I found was the advertisement copied at the head of this article.

Nobody had to explain to me, either, what ‘$4’ meant. To add ‘a week’ would have been a wholly needless expense.

Next morning, with a tearfully hovering mother giving anxious little lastminute jerks and pats to a newly letdown skirt and newly put-up braids, I left our top-floor flat in West 115 th Street, ran down four flights of carpeted, gas-lighted stairs, and scurried toward Eighth Avenue, half a block away, and the 116th Street elevated station.

It was the first time in my life that I ever rode alone on the L. My cheeks were still hot, and my eyes, I don’t doubt, saucer-like, when at last I reached Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street.

I was just six months past thirteen — a gawky youngster. I had on button shoes that came well up over my ankles, and a skirt (with a ‘Heatherbloom’ petticoat under it) that hung accurately even with my shoe tops.

My black winter coat came to just below my hips; or at least to just below where my hips would have been had I possessed any. It looked — at any distance over fifty yards — quite a lot like fur; it was really ‘caracul cloth.’ It had a high, snug collar, and sleeves with sharply pointed shoulders. It was hourglass-shaped at the waist, but such skirt as it had flared out determinedly.

Under it I wore a black sateen shirtwaist with a high stock, around which was carefully wound a broad black ribbon tied with a bow under the left side of my chin. And on my head, pinned to two coils of braided and rolled-up yellow hair, was a broad, black, flat, straight-brimmed sailor hat.

Huddled under my coat, where, I fervently prayed, no one would notice it, was a little paper bundle of sandwiches and an orange — my lunch. For if I got the job I might have to go right to work, and restaurant lunches were not bought out of four dollars a week. Well did I know that the most tremendous and deep-cutting social distinction among working girls was between those who carried their lunches and those who bought them.

The Florodora Tag Company was on the east side of Seventh Avenue just south of 23rd Street. It was merely a name concealing the issuing depot of the coupon-premium department of the American Tobacco Company, whose offices were two blocks east, on Fifth Avenue.

The Florodora office had been created simply by throwing two adjoining small retail stores into one. The door which had been that of the left-hand shop was for customers, the right-hand one for employees. Along the line where the partition had been was a high wooden counter, with a brass netting above it which reached to the ceiling and contained a row of little wickets. On high stools behind some of these wickets sat girls of about my own age.

In the middle of the floor was a railed-in information desk. The young woman behind it listened in bored indifference to my timorous inquiry, and sent me out to reënter by the employees’ door. Once through this, I found myself in the rear of the high counter, the row of stools, and the girls perched upon them.

Directly before me, however, was a plain flat-topped desk; and behind this desk, with his feet upon it, lolled a red-faced man in a derby hat, who calmly looked me over. From that instant I hated him with all my narrow young puritanically trained Irish heart — which I think now was probably unjust.

My examination took scarcely thirty seconds.

‘What’s your name? Where do you live? How old are you?’ I knew the answer I was expected to give to this last; such knowledge was breathed in with the air of Harlem streets. ‘Sixteen.’ That this was a lie, Mr. Benson was certainly as well aware as I; but the law required him to exact it. There were no working papers in those days.

He motioned with his head to a gentle-faced, plainly dressed woman who had come forward from the rear of the room and was standing a little behind his shoulder.

‘Put her to work.’

I had my first job. I was shown where to hang my coat and hat and stow my luncheon package. In another thirty seconds I was perched on a stool behind one of the previously vacant wickets; my only instructions were to watch the girl beside me and learn what she was doing and how she did it.

By early afternoon I had already started, slowly and fumblingly at first, counting the endless, grimy masses of coupons; and within a week I had settled down so thoroughly into the life of a ‘working girl’ that school days and hopscotch on the sidewalk seemed remote as a dream.


On the whole, I liked it. The thrill of being an earner, I found, was a lasting one; and at home my status had improved, literally overnight, in a tremendous and gratifying fashion.

Instead of seeing my sisters off and then helping Mother until time for school, I too could march forth with them right after breakfast, and scramble like any grown-up young woman for a seat on the L. The luncheon package, to be sure, was a daily humiliation, but one that I was grimly determined should not continue long. And though, instead of being foot-loose at three, I did n’t get home now until after six, it was worth it to know that little-girl chores and errands were behind me for good and all.

Better still, my evenings and Sundays took on a new importance and value. I began to take my first small and timid steps in the social life of 115th Street; to refuse to accept contemptuous dismissal as ‘the kid’; and to assert my claim to some, at least, of the privileges of young ladyhood. It must be distinctly understood that in 115th Street you lost no social prestige by ‘going out to work’; on the contrary, you gained it, however humble your ‘business job’ might be.

And the social life of 115th Street was as real — in fact, probably in many ways more genuinely and more whole-heartedly enjoyed by its participants than its counterpart on Fifth Avenue.

To begin with, I never have had one tenth as much fun and excitement from any motor ride that ever came my way as we used to get out of street-car excursions. Each Sunday afternoon from May to October, if the weather was fine, found my next oldest sister and myself hurrying out as soon as the dinner dishes were done — sailor hats bobbing, petticoats rustling, cheeks aflame; the final touch of Sunday-best smartness furnished by a bunch of tulle tied in a rosette under each left ear, where it produced an effect somewhat similar to the tail light of a rabbit.

Almost invariably we would be caught up within a few steps of our front door by groups of other girls, neighbors and former school chums, all hastening in the same direction and with the same purpose in mind. And this was our thrilling enterprise: —

Arrived at the corner of 116th Street and Eighth Avenue, you stood on the corner and waited for a downtown Eighth Avenue open car. If the first that came along had its front seat — the one just behind the motorman — already occupied, you waited until one came along that had n’t. Then you mounted breathlessly, with giggles and squeals, and, with mighty clangings of the gong, careered away — down the whole stretch of Central Park West, through Columbus Circle, and on and on, all the way to 23rd Street. (We never quite dared to prolong the ride still farther, as we could easily have done, by venturing to the remote, strange, and perilous territory of 14th Street.)

As 23rd Street drew near, you demanded transfers from the conductor, who handed them out with a wink; for he too knew the game. You presented these to the conductor of the 23rd Street cross-town car. That was a short ride; the real fun began again when, once more securing transfers, you descended at Fourth Avenue and embarked upon an uptown open Madison Avenue car — again refusing to be content with anything but the front seat.

There was no park view on the Madison Avenue line, but to offset this there was first the thrill of bowling, at the hair-raising speed of fifteen miles an hour, through the cool, dim, and echoing old tunnel from 33rd to 42nd Street, — with the motorman beating out a solo on his gong purely for our delectation, — and then that of whisking around the corners, first into 42nd Street and then into Madison Avenue, past the huge red-brick pile of the old Grand Central Station and the wonderful new Hotel Manhattan.

There were some glorious hills, too, on Madison Avenue before, all too soon, we reached 116th Street. Transfers again; and the 116th Street crosstown car took you back to your starting point — where yet another set of transfers, requested as demurely as any of their predecessors, permitted you to embark upon a second round.

Those of us possessing sufficient impudence (of whom I was one) not infrequently succeeded in accomplishing the circuit three times in the same Sunday afternoon — a ride of something over thirty miles — at the total cost of one nickel plus eleven successive free transfers.

More thrilling still were those redletter Sundays when Tom Whitney, whose father had a ‘very fine job’ with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, or some other young man equally well able to pass Mother’s rigid and rather terrifying inspection, shyly proposed an excursion, and took you all the way to South Ferry on the Eighth Avenue car, there to bestow upon you the ultimate in Sunday treats — a round trip to Staten Island on the ferryboat.

But that was too much to hope for more than once or twice in a season. To be sure, in those days you were allowed to stay right on the boat at the Staten Island terminal, and so enjoy the round trip — half an hour down the bay and half an hour back — for a nickel apiece. But your escort must not only pay that, but full fare for two each way on the streetcar; and when you add another nickel apiece for icecream sodas, plainly the entertainment of a lady soon ran into money.

Whatever the excursion for the day might be, it must be completed by sundown Sunday evening. For nobody who was anybody in Irish Harlem would ever run the slightest risk of missing the Sunday evening promenade on Seventh Avenue.

The earliest promenaders began to appear not long after four; and it was well on toward nine before the final stragglers departed. But our particular ‘set’ waited until after supper, and reached the avenue at about halfpast seven. By that time the function — and a function it was, no less! — was sure to be in the fullest swing.

At that hour on any fine Sunday evening from early spring until late in the fall there was only one place to look for the beauty and the chivalry of Harlem. That one place was the west sidewalk of Seventh Avenue, from 110th to 125th Street. Why it must always be the west side only was then and still is a mystery to me. The fact remains that so it was. Even families living on the east side of the avenue must needs cross over to join in the ceremony.

The western sidewalk was packed from doorsteps to curb with people in their Sunday best — each family in its own compact group; all moving in the same direction at the same unhurried pace; all complying meticulously with the same unwritten rules.

Even in joining the procession you must observe due formality. You waited politely, occasionally bowing and smiling to acquaintances as they passed, at the corner of your own street. Presently a group of your own nearer friends came by and, by gesture and by pausing to make room, invited you to join them. With more bows and smiles, and properly dignified greetings, you swung into line and moved forward with them.

Conversation, in the course of the promenade, was far from the carefree chatter that went on among the groups of your own age, in your home or your friends’. It was deliberate, even intermittent, low-voiced and restrained, and leaned heavily upon the two topics of the weather and the current state of the respective promenaders’ health.

But the real interest of the ceremony began with the northward journey. The southward stream, into which you first insinuated yourself, flowed along the inner half of the sidewalk to 110th Street; but there you swung around, almost in ordered ranks, and found yourself now close to the outer edge of the sidewalk.

And here, along the curb, at the street corners, around the lamp posts, the young men were congregated — young men in derby hats, or in ‘straws’ with extraordinarily low flat crowns and far-extending brims and occasionally a gay-colored hatband; young men in remarkably tight-fitting suits of ready-made blue serge whose lapels were so short they barely permitted a glimpse of a gorgeous puffed-out silk necktie with a ‘ diamond ’ horseshoe pin; young men very much on their good behavior, who gazed upon you solemnly, in silence, and whose very existence you for your part were extremely careful to ignore.

Once in a very long while, perhaps, some unusually daring youth who had been permitted by a girl’s family to claim her acquaintance might step forward with lifted hat and engage her in a few moments’ conversation; but the slow-moving, densely packed procession soon took her away. To have joined her in the promenade would have been tantamount to publishing the banns then and there, or at the very least would have been public announcement that they were ‘keeping steady company.’

As it was, not even the briefest greeting escaped the watchful eyes of the matrons in the apartment-house windows overhead who lined the entire fifteen blocks like sentinels, each comfortably ensconced in her chosen observation post, her elbow cushion on the ledge. No landlord with an apartment overlooking that stretch of sidewalk need ever fear having it vacant on his hands.


Those Sunday evenings were the climax of our social life outside the home. I do not believe a single boy or girl of my acquaintance in those days had so much as seen the inside of a theatre. We found our fun inside our homes, too, and much of it was musical. I am sure there was not a family in our block so poor as to lack its piano, or so small as to lack at least one daughter who had ‘taken lessons’ and could thump with a right good will. Nor did ever an evening pass, the year round, when there could not be heard in our apartment house, coming from at least one and usually from several flats at once, sundry young voices, barytone, tenor, contralto, and soprano, dealing lustily and not untunefully, in solo and in chorus, with ‘She Lives in a Mansion of Aching Hearts,’ ‘Ring Down the Curtain,’ ‘My Mother Was a Lady,’ and even such slightly daring ditties as ‘She’s My Filipino Baby.’

But for the real heads of Harlem households the one great social hour of the day was signaled by the janitor’s ring for the garbage.

It was then that every dumb-waiter door in the building opened spontaneously and simultaneously; and then that, leaning on the sills, waiting comfortably for their respective turns and for their pails to be returned, everybody chatted comfortably with everybody else — Mrs. McGuire and Mrs. Keogh, Mrs. McGowan and Mrs. Donovan, and so on down, floor by floor, with greetings and questions and answers flying up, down, and across the narrow, echoing shaft.

What we were doing, as I realize now, was conforming, in all ways that the city would permit us, to the pattern of village life. I could in time think of a hundred quaint instances of this. We did not even lack the village blacksmith; the favorite resort of the school children in the afternoons was Hines’s blacksmith shop. I myself must have stopped scores of times to ‘look in at the open door’ and watch, fascinated, while young Jimmy Hines helped his father fit new shoes to a team of huge Percherons.

But the village pattern faded out imperceptibly into the pattern of the city; the Hines family lived in a huge red brick apartment house on the corner of 115th Street and Eighth Avenue, two flights up, above the saloon; the elder Hines was our local district leader, and young Jimmy, our sometime schoolmate, was destined to succeed him and become a power in the inner circles of Tammany Hall.

And as far as I myself was concerned, though half my life might be that of a ‘simple village maiden,’ as soon as I went to work I became, like every other Harlem working girl, a denizen of two worlds. And the 23rd Street world of my job supplied a wholly different array of pleasures and problems from those I knew at home.

The equipment for coupon counting consisted of a big basket under the counter into which we tossed the counted bundles of coupons; a premium book in which we verified the customer’s right to the premiums for which he asked; a pad of premium order slips and a pencil.

Only one day was needed for the discovery that a certain percentage of the customers could be depended upon to ask, innocently or otherwise, for more, or more expensive, premiums than their coupons entitled them to claim; and that a small but definite percentage of this group would take your refusal with a very ill grace, and even attempt to bully you.

The first few times this happened were trying and even terrifying, but brought a further discovery — that the hated Mr. Benson had had ample experience with such problems, and that the machinery for disposing of the belligerent objector was prompt and efficient. After that the occasional disputes became welcome breaks in the monotony. And within three or four days you knew the premium book by heart, and needed it only to show to the customer when arguments did arise.

Easy and simple as the work was, it gradually developed two trials, a big one and a little one.

The big one was the unbelievably filthy, ragged, and foul-smelling condition of practically all the coupons I had to handle and count, and the almost equally unwashed and malodorous state of the people who presented them. But my disgust, it might as well be confessed, was not based wholly on sanitary grounds. It had its snobbish side.

The greater part of it was honest revulsion against uncleanliness. Our mother had always, however narrow our straits or difficult our circumstances, clung fiercely to her own standard of decency in living. She would work until four o’clock in the morning if necessary, and then get up at halfpast six to get breakfast, if thereby she might be sure that her home was always meticulously clean and her three daughters not only neat but as dainty as her hard-worked fingers could keep them. I still remember vividly the shock with which I realized that large numbers of human beings actually did n’t mind being dirty.

But my resentment at the uncouth creatures who crowded up to my wicket was not all because of the dirt they compelled me to share. We had our social as well as our sanitary standards. We lived in a ‘railroad flat’; but every one of us would have been insulted had you called it a tenement. In the school days I had just left behind me, we had played hopscotch and skipped rope on the sidewalks; but not for anything would we have danced on them to hurdy-gurdy music, the way tenement children did.

Not only had I absorbed all the customs and taboos of 115th Street; I was old enough to remember a still earlier childhood in old Newburgh, up the Hudson, where we had been people of assured social position, and both my father and my grandfather had been men of substance and standing in the community. And at thirteen it was a bitter thing that my father’s daughter could find no better occupation than counting coupons for ‘a lot of dirty kikes and guineas’ (they did n’t become ‘ wops ’ for another seven or eight years).

My second trial had to do with the social life of the office — that is to say, its real life, as distinguished from the mere work that went on in it. It was concerned with my boss’s attitude; or rather with what I had from that first day assumed to be his attitude, and the effect produced thereby upon a thirteen-year-old mind thoroughly inculcated with an elaborate pattern of ideas regarding the respect and deference due one of my sex from the vastly inferior male.

As already told, my highly sensitized gorge began to rise from that first moment when Mr. Benson sat calmly, his feet on the desk, his hat on his head, and coolly inspected me. It went, day by day, steadily higher as I learned that I must work under his constant scrutiny.

My grievance, moreover, received reënforcement as I learned, in the process of getting acquainted with my fellow workers, that they all shared it, and for the same reasons.

Not one of us, of course, had the faintest comprehension of the problems, the responsibilities, or the technique of managing a mechanism in which each of us was but one small cog. All that we saw was that Mr. Benson lounged at his desk all day long, and watched every tiniest move we made. That he must be constantly alert to the manner in which each of his subordinates did her work, in order to keep the depot running smoothly; to prevent, or at least quickly clear up, disputes that jammed the even flow past the wickets and the premium counter; and to see, above all, that each transaction was promptly and properly entered so that the records would always be straight — this naturally never occurred to us.

Each one of us had come from a home in which she had been imbued with the idea that when a man stared at you it was insulting, and his intentions were probably evil (evil in what respect our mothers carefully refrained from ever specifying; but that added the impressiveness of mystery).

In retrospect, Mr. Benson seems not merely harmless, but probably a far more efficient manager, underneath his apparent easygoing indifference and good nature, than it occurred to me then to consider him. And perhaps one of the best indications of his real capacity to fill a post of the peculiar difficulties this one offered was his handling of a situation that at the time infuriated us youngsters.


It was a situation created by the most conspicuous member of the force of premium wrappers. This group of workers was of course a step above us counter girls in the office hierarchy. They were grown women; they were better paid (they earned, I think, from six to eight dollars a week); and, instead of filthy coupons, they had to handle only clean merchandise and wrapping paper. But they were a colorless lot; all, that is, except one. And this exception was unwillingly admired, envied, hated, and despised by all the rest of us.

To thirteen-year-old me she was a puzzling and gorgeously beautiful creature, at once repellent and fascinating. She possessed an hourglass waist and ‘Grecian bend’ rivaling Lillian Russell’s. In fact, so pronounced were her feminine curves and carriage that part of her mystery, for me, was in her remaining upright at all when her centre of gravity seemed so far beyond the perpendicular. This effect of insecurity was accentuated by the enormous structure of gfitteringly blond hair.

As she clicked here and there about the office upon her grotesquely high heels, my eyes, whenever I could safely take them from my work, followed her with a fearful fascination. More than once I sacrificed part of my precious lunch hour to tag unobtrusively behind her on the street, and watch how almost every man she passed turned to look after her.

Naturally, watching her as I did, it did not take me long to see that she never overlooked the frailest excuse to brush alluringly against Mr. Benson. And this, coupled with his attitude toward it, threw me into still further emotional upheavals. Convinced as I was of his depravity, I could not see how he could possibly resist her blandishments; and when he entirely ignored them, as he uniformly and invariably did, this merely meant to me and my fellow youngsters that to the other counts against him must be added that of hypocrisy.

Now, of course, I am not so sure. In fact, the possibility has occurred to me that there might have been nothing worse than considerable worldly wisdom, tact, and patience, and perhaps even a gleam of philosophy and kindliness, behind his seeming unconsciousness of anything untoward in her behavior.

But to my ferocious young intolerance the combination of ‘such goingson’ behind my back with the unending smelly procession before me gradually became too much to be endured. It was n’t the desire for more money that stirred my young ambitions; it was the hunger to escape from the hated conditions. But where could I find a way out?

Little by little, as I shyly won my way into confident ial acquaintance with the other girls, I learned the background of the office, and explored its possibilities for promotion. They were n’t remarkable. For two weeks, indeed, I substituted for the girl at the information desk during her vacation; but that soon ended, and back I went to coupon counting. And even if it had been permanent, neither that nor promotion merely to premium wrapping would have satisfied me. My whole youthfully snobbish heart was set upon escape from the dreary, dingy premium depot to a ‘nicer’ place.

Finally, as we ate our lunch together one day, the girl at the wicket next to mine casually let fall a bit of information wholly new to me, to which I listened eagerly. I had, of course, learned before this that the Florodora Tag Company was merely the name of this department of the American Tobacco Company, though why the disguise was thought necessary I have never found out. But I did learn that the company, besides using the Florodora depot to give out premiums in merchandise, would, if the coupon holder preferred, send him his premium’s cash value.

The important point about this for me was that these money premiums were paid directly from the main office, and a staff of girls was employed there to write out checks for them. All you needed, the other girl told me, was to be able to write a good clear hand at high speed. Another girl who had been employed in the Florodora depot before me had been promoted to the checkwriting department. She was now getting six dollars a week; but she had reported back what meant far more than the increased pay to me — that the check writers worked in a department entirely by themselves, with a woman supervisor; they had a big, clean, welllighted office, and, most important of all, they merely wrote the checks; they had neither to count dirty coupons nor to deliver the checks in person to the objectionable recipients.

It took me perhaps two weeks to digest this information and gather sufficient courage to ask Mr. Benson for time off in which to go over to the Fifth Avenue offices and apply for a check writer’s job. He was so firmly established in my eyes as a lewd and tyrannical villain that it rather took me aback when he not only promptly granted my request, but cordially wished me luck in my enterprise.

And, after all my qualms, the actual winning of the promotion proved absurdly simple. I told my story, wrote samples of my penmanship, and found myself on the waiting list. Two months later my turn came. I bade farewell to Florodora, and achieved the transition from Seventh Avenue to Fifth.

The most important thing about the check-writing department for me was the chum I found there. She was a girl of almost exactly my own age, as blackhaired as I was fair; her name was Celia, universally pronounced ‘Ceely.’ Within a week we were inseparable.

For some two years Ceely and I were as near to one soul in two bodies as it is possible for human beings, compelled to sleep in different homes, to be. We not only shared our lunches and our lunch-hour excursions, and every possible evening hour (alternating in exact schedule between her home and mine), but all our hopes and speculations upon the nature of life and mankind — employing that term both in its general and in its specific sense.

Our first great mutual discovery was a common ambition. Having found that promotion could be won and that its rewards were both tangible and sweet, I was already aspiring further. Ceely imparted to me what she had already learned was the next step open to us. This was the order department on the floor below. By dint of hanging around we presently won permission to practice, at lunch time and after hours, writing out orders on the huge old-fashioned Elliott-Fisher billing machines. After that it was once more only a question of waiting for the vacancies until we became full-fledged order clerks at the princely wage of eight dollars a week. What was vastly more precious to both of us was the privilege thenceforth of carrying lunch money instead of lunch.

That was a proud and happy morning on which we first rode down on the L without our telltale packages. But, having secured our twenty-five cents apiece per day, we set our joint ingenuity to work on plans for better utilization of this wealth than mere stomach filling. In a remarkably short time, though not without some painful experiments with pickles and other deceptive viands, we had worked out a standard schedule.

Its basis was the daily coöperative purchase of a quart of milk, two boxes of gingersnaps, and a bag of peaches — total cost thirty cents, or fifteen cents apiece. This left ten cents apiece for shopping.

Neither of us ever wasted a thought on the meagreness or the monotony of our luncheon fare. Our minds were too fully occupied by more thrilling things than food. As for calories, we had never heard of them; and vitamins had n’t even been invented. Ten cents a day was enough to transform us, in our lunch-hour peregrinations through the big department stores, from merely wistful pilgrims into potential customers, entitled to respect and courteous attention.

Many of the finest stores in New York of that day were within a few minutes’ walk of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street; but it was Siegel & Cooper’s huge, gaudy, and glittering building at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue, with its tall pinchbeck fountain in the centre of the big ground-floor rotunda, that drew us oftenest.

My own first purchase was consummated after three days of selfdenial, which enabled me to lay three dimes on the counter and proudly bear away a pair of clocked stockings of mercerized lisle, whose lustre faintly suggested silk. The choice, of course, was as much Ceely’s as mine, and had been arrived at only after a long series of anxious inspections and comparisons, and mutual conferences. We finally decided upon a pair of brilliant royal blue.

Once I had them, I could n’t, of course, wait until I got home; we scurried straight from the store to the office, and then and there, in the girls’ washroom, I put them on. And that afternoon and evening it rained. Rain? It poured in torrents.

That night came the tragic result. I pulled off my wet new stockings; but their essential principle remained behind. My skinny legs were of a deep rich purple hue. They retained this color for fully ten days thereafter. It is still a mystery to me how a color that in the stockings yielded so easily to a bit of rain water proved, upon the human skin, so stubbornly resistant to the most desperate scouring. Poor Ceely suffered, in sympathy, nearly as much as I. I can still remember her tragic stage whisper each morning as she joined me in the L train: ‘ Have you got it off yet?’


Fairly soon after we became order clerks, Ceely and I developed into the two fastest machine operators in the entire department; but nobody, not even we ourselves, ever found out which of us was the better. We did n’t want to know. We were content to outdistance all the others; but if either of us ever found herself, by luck or by that little extra touch of deftness one’s fingers have some days, getting ahead of the other, she unobtrusively slowed down. Day after day and week after week we finished in an exact tie in the number of orders written; nor could anyone, even the department manager, browbeat or tempt us into a real trial of speed and skill.

But, for all that, the more completely Ceely and I put our comradeship above all else, the harder we tried to merge our very personalities, the more plainly the inevitable end of that comradeship came in sight. For with every exchange of confidence the profound difference in our two characters revealed itself more clearly.

My own ambitions had been no more than whetted by my rise from coupon counter to order clerk. Once Ceely and I were safely established as the leaders in our department, I began not only looking but actively fretting for further and more spectacular worlds to conquer. And I still remember with what a painful shock I finally realized that Ceely actually did n’t want to come along.

The heights were not for Ceely, and she knew it. She was contented with her fairly comfortable little home, her fairly decent working conditions, and her fairly decent wage. Beyond that the most to which she looked forward in life — and a few years later, indeed, attained — was a small portion of romance; and, after that, marriage and a home of her own, a little one.

So, good-bye to Ceely.

But with each day in which we exchanged daydreams I was growing more impatient and more greedy. Order writing had become hopelessly humdrum; and no business career of which I could learn seemed to offer a girl anything much better, particularly a girl who had gone no farther than grammar school.

I could, of course, by now have taken a night-school course in shorthand, bookkeeping, and typing, and have become a secretary, like my calm and efficient elder sister; but nothing in what I saw or heard of such a career appealed to me. I knew far more clearly and emphatically what I did n’t want than what I did.

Once more I began hunting for my way out; and once again I found it.

Almost next door to us in 115th Street lived a girl whom we had all known slightly for several years. She was in charge of the news and theatre-ticket stand in the Hotel Belmont. I eagerly begged for more particulars; and all that I heard seemed to spell romance. This girl, only a little older than I, and with no more natural advantages, spent her days in the midst of glitter and movement. She was trusted with important responsibilities, knew by name and sight men and women whose names were in newspaper headlines. She even served some of them as customers. And I was cooped up all day long in a bare office, pounding out interminable orders for tobacco on a clumsy old billing machine.

Again, it took me a long time to pluck up courage to ask for what I wanted; and again, the moment I did so, all seemed absurdly easy.

’Why, of course,’ she said instantly. ‘You’ve got the right idea; you’ll be a star as a news-stand girl. I ’ll take you down myself to Mr. Bascom, and he’ll hire you the minute he sees you.’

Mr. Bascom (the elder, in case anyone who reads this remembers either of them) was then manager of the Tyson Company, which in those days controlled practically every news and theatre-ticket stand in New York City.

A few days later we did go down to see him; and all the way my warmhearted sponsor filled my ears with a steady flow of coaching on the intricacies of news-stand management. Much of this later stood me in excellent stead; but all of it put together fell far short (as, indeed, any verbal description must have done) of conveying the full rowdy flavor of the job.

For Mr. Bascom did hire me — not quite the minute he saw me, but in a surprisingly few minutes afterward. And, innocent that I was, I was raised to the seventh heaven when I learned that my salary was to be the princely sum of twelve dollars a week. I wondered why both Mr. Bascom and my champion dismissed that as an inconsequential detail!

Very early one morning, almost exactly three years after the one on which I had first gone forth to confront the world, I found myself, a news-stand girl assigned for training, creeping like a small and badly frightened mouse into a place the remotest like of which I had never seen before — the carved and gilded corridors of the Hotel WaldorfAstoria.

{To be concluded)