Publication Date: January 3, 2018
The tenement steps were still dark as the teenage girl descended from her fourth-floor apartment. She held on to the shaky banister, quickly measuring the uneven steps. In the last four years, she had climbed down them so many mornings that she could have done it with her eyes closed. She knew each sag, each crack.
Elsa tried to tell herself this morning was no different from all those others, but she couldn’t shake the knowledge that if she failed today, everything would change.
As she opened the front door, a faint gray light entered the dusty building. The crisp air of early autumn bathed her face. There were no electric street lamps here on 3rd Street, but she could see the glow from Second Avenue. She headed that way. Despite the darkness, the Lower East Side was quickly coming to life.
Physically exhausted but mentally alert, she pressed on into the city. She was accustomed to weariness—it had become her way of life.
At sixteen, Elsa knew most people took her for an adult. With her brown hair, fair face and broad shoulders, she blended easily into a crowd. Much as she might long for her sister Sonja’s slender frame and delicate face, she had begun to appreciate the strength that helped her cope through these times. It was good that Sonja’s factory days had come to an end.
The events of this week had pushed Elsa’s strength to its limit. These were supposed to be days of joy. Now it was up to her to save her family from another disaster.
The windows on Second Avenue began to show signs of life. Shadows moved around inside unlit apartments. Dawn still came early enough to prepare for the day by natural light. In another week or two, precious cents would need to be spent to dress by gaslight.
Elsa hurried down the sidewalks of the Bowery as the city awakened. The morning sun shot between the buildings to her left, casting a long shadow beneath the elevated railway.
Two boys pushed a cart loaded with lettuce and cabbage heads, as an eager dog danced between its wheels. Soon a second cart appeared, and before Elsa had walked another block, ten or more carts were in position for business along both sides of the street. Shop windows started opening below painted signs or embroidered banners in both English and Yiddish. Merchants in loose trousers and suspenders, most wearing yarmulkes on their heads, appeared in the shop doors. Young boys ran across the street in front of Elsa, their shoulders loaded with fabrics, bound for one of the many family-owned clothing factories that dotted the neighborhood. Soon the horseless carriages began to click-clack down the rough street, carrying the “swells” from uptown.
Elsa’s gaze was drawn from the street-front shops to the tenement windows above, where small clothiers would soon begin work in their apartments. She couldn’t help wondering whether those family operations would offer an easier life than the shirtwaist factory where she and her mother spent their days. But these smaller shops maintained tight ethnic distinctions. While many of the clothiers had emigrated from Germany, they all spoke Yiddish. A German-speaking girl like her was as foreign as a native-born American.
How could they have known they would emigrate just as the majority of the city’s Germans were leaving lower Manhattan?
Elsa arrived at the police headquarters on Centre Street just as it opened. The ornate building looked alarmingly out of place amid the humble shops and tenements. She wondered whether that was intentional—an attempt to intimidate outsiders like herself. She refused to be deterred. Her family depended on her. Everything she had worked for could crumble if she let timidity get the better of her now. She marched up the steps between two snarling stone lions and into the police station.
An hour later, she walked out with her mother.
“Was hast du zu ihnen gesagt?” her mother asked.
“I told them the truth,” Elsa replied in English. She knew her mother could understand her, even though she spoke little English herself. “I told them your daughter’s wedding is Sunday. They did not have the heart to keep you in. Then I told them something that probably is not true . . .” She looked pointedly at her mother.
“I promised you would not do it again. Look at this!” Elsa held up the release form she had signed in the station. “Nina Schuller. Arrested for disturbing the peace.” She slapped the single page. ”You have a record now, mother.”
Nina threw up her hands. Elsa couldn’t help but laugh, even though she was still upset with her mother for landing in jail overnight. She folded up the page and stuffed it into her skirt pocket.
“Come.” Elsa urged her mother forward. ”We must take the train. After what happened yesterday we cannot be late.”
About Gregory Erich Phillips