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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
'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 little 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
'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 to
gether, 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
One evening, coming home from work, so tired and exhausted, I found a letter from home with very sad news.