(excerpt from a work in progress)
Claire walked down Bedford Ave on a sunny spring morning, nearly skipping in her red cowboy boots. It was her first day without tights, the first warm day after the cold, dark New York winter.
The moist breeze played across her bare thighs as Claire took a deep pranayama breath. Spring!
For the first time in months, the street vendors were setting up their tables on the sidewalk: the grizzled old hippies selling records, the hunched and spectacled booksellers, the grey-haired jewelry lady hawking rings and bracelets. Even though in another few weeks she would be cursing them for blocking the sidewalk when she was trying to get to the train, Claire loved them all today.
As she walked past the corner of Bedford and Metropolitan Avenue, she paused. The used clothing guy who always set up on that corner was hanging a dress on the fence, a polka-dotted, 1940s-type dress that might be perfect for her opening that weekend.
Claire crossed the street, narrowly avoiding being run down by a skateboarder caroming down the street. Ignoring the khaki trench coat and powder-blue Members Only jacket, the yellow and orange paisley halter dress and matching white go-go boots, she reached for the dress, lifting it down from the fence.
She held her breath as she turned it over, looking for holes, stains, missing buttons, a broken zipper, torn seams. Nothing. The dress looked nearly new save for a slight yellowing of the dots.
“This is special dress,” said a stooped white-haired old woman who appeared beside her. She talked with a heavy accent. Polish, Claire thought. Her landlord was Polish and so were a number of other elderly people in the neighborhood.
When she had first moved to Brooklyn, Claire had befriended the old Polish lady who lived upstairs from her sublet in a cold-water flat that still had a bathtub in the kitchen. The old lady had been so lonely and desperate for company that she gave Claire two lamps, a vintage hat, and a collection of rusty old hangers after Claire had listened to her stories for nearly an hour one day in the hall.
They were terrible stories of being a nurse in war-torn Poland as first the Nazis and then the Russians overran Warsaw. After the war, she came to America without any money and slept on a cousin’s floor till she found out that she had been sold in marriage to a Ukrainian. At least that’s what Claire thought she said. The lesbian couple who had sublet the apartment to Claire told her the old lady was senile and to ignore her.
“Do you think so?” Claire asked, smiling and turning to the old lady. But that quickly, the woman was gone. Claire whirled around and looked for her among the stream of bearded boys and girls in flirty spring dresses heading for the L train but she didn’t see her anywhere. She shrugged.
“How much?” The heavy-set man who was still unloading clothes from the back of battered silver Honda Civic parked on the corner looked up briefly.
“Twenty dolla,” he said in a thick, old school Brooklyn accent.
“That’s a little high,” Claire said, not quite as firmly she had intended.
The man shrugged and turned back to the car. “Twenty dolla,” he said again, reaching for a blue Ikea bag in the trunk.
Claire sighed and reached into her brown leather Hobo. She’d just have to skip dinner again tonight. At least she’d be thin for the opening.
Rose turned sideways in front of the mirror and examined her reflection. She was a little chubbier than she would have liked on her wedding day, but there was no time to diet. Bob was shipping out from Baltimore to the Pacific in just four days. He had asked her to marry him when he got his orders last week. She was over the moon!
They had gone to Father Murphy who agreed to marry them right away if Bob would be baptized into the Catholic Church before the ceremony. Bob said yes, and his best friend Charlie, who had introduced them at a Halloween dance just three short months ago, had served as godfather. Loretta, Rose’s best friend, was godmother. And they would be the best man and maid of honor at the wedding.
“I wish Frank was going overseas,” complained Loretta, the day the two girls took the streetcar to look for a dress in the big department stores downtown. Rose turned her attention from the rack of dresses in woman’s department at Hutzler’s.
“You don’t mean that,” she said, shocked.
She would give anything for Bob to be IIA, like Frank. When the two friends had volunteered after Pearl Harbor, the Army took Bob right away, but said that, as a fireman at the Point, Frank was performing a critical civilian service. Frank tried to argue with them, but they told him to volunteer for air raid warden.
“Oh yes, I do,” Loretta said, sliding hangers along the rack. “If Frank was going overseas like Bob, we could have a double wedding. Instead, he’s going to keep trying to talk me into doing you know what with him when his parents are at church.”
Frank’s parents were Pentecostals and spent more time in church than all the Catholic families in the neighborhood combined. But all that churchgoing hadn’t stopped Frank from being what Loretta referred to as an “octopus”—all hands. And unlike Bob, Frank wouldn’t convert because he said it would kill his parents for him to become a Catholic.
Loretta pulled a dress off the rack. “What do you think of this one,” she asked, holding a black satin cocktail dress with cap sleeves and narrow skirt against her body.
Rose took a close look. “Too dark,” she said. But that was Loretta, thinking it was perfectly acceptable to get married in black with bare arms, as if you were going to a New Year’s Eve party.
“If I’d had more time, I could have made something,” Rose fretted, combing through the rack of dresses again. None of the ones she could afford looked elegant enough to be married in and the more formal dresses cost far more than her savings would cover.
Then, over Loretta’s shoulder, she saw the floorwalker waltzing toward her holding up a navy blue dress with white polka dots, three-quarter length sleeves and an adorable short jacket that matched the dress.
“How about this one, girls?” the woman said. “It would be perfect for an afternoon wedding, don’t you think?”
As Rose reached for the dress, the woman leaned in closer and Rose inhaled the sweet scent of Shalimar.
“I think I could persuade the manager to take a few dollars off the price,” the floorwalker whispered conspiratorially, her glasses on their long chain swaying above her ample bosom. “It’s from two seasons back.”
“I dunno. It’s kinda old-fashioned,” said Loretta. “Who wears polka dots these days?”
“I think it’s elegant,” said Rose. “Can I try it on?” she asked the floorwalker.
“Of course, dear,” the woman said. She looked disapprovingly at Loretta, as if knowing that she had just tried to persuade her best friend to get married in a sleeveless black cocktail dress.
“It looks like something that Irene Dunn might wear,” Rose whispered happily to Loretta as the floorwalker led her off to the dressing room.
The harsh light of the bare bulb hanging from the attic’s rafters didn’t reach to the corners of the room, which is why it took them so long to find the brown suitcase. It was wedged into the farthest corner, covered by a mountain of old blankets.
“Here’s a suitcase,” Heather said, shaking out yet another lawn-size green trash bag and shoveling the blankets into the bag.
She sneezed, hard. “It’s so dusty up here. Can’t we open one of these windows?”
“I don’t think so. They’ve been painted shut ever since I was a little girl,” said her mother Kathy, looking up from a box of old papers. “Your Nana must have saved every bill she ever received,” she said.
She watched as her pierced and tattooed daughter fumbled with the lock of the suitcase. She wanted to help, but was afraid that Heather would push her away, so she stayed in her corner of the attic.
Heather had volunteered to help Kathy clean out her parents’ house after her grandmother’s death that fall. Floor by floor, the two of them bagged up clothes and knickknacks for Goodwill, keeping a few mementos and burning old paperwork in the fire pit in the backyard.
Somewhere along the way, they’d started speaking to each other in actual sentences, rather than the monosyllables they had used to communicate ever since Heather had been 13. That was a surprise—perhaps one of the fruits of sobriety they talked about at Al Anon meetings. Kathy hoped so, but she knew better now than to count on anything at this point, after they’d been through years of recovery and relapse.
“Hey, come look at this,” Heather called out, bending over what looked like a square, silver picture frame.
Kathy abandoned the box of old bills she was dumping into another green trash bag and walked across the attic, careful not to bump her head on the low ceiling. Taking the heavy frame of discolored silver from Heather, she held it under the bare bulb in the middle of the attic.
“I’ve never seen this before,” she said. She studied the photo for a moment. “This is Nana for sure, but I don’t recognize the man.”
In the old photo, her mother was wearing a polka dot dress with a big white corsage and standing next to a handsome young soldier. She was smiling happily, but the tall soldier looked somber.
“Nana was very pretty,” Heather said, studying the photo over her mother’s shoulder. As a child, she had been very close to her grandmother. And even in the very worst days of her addiction, she had tried not to upset Nana by showing up at her house high or drunk. But like lots of other promises she had made to her family and to herself, she had broken that rule more than once.
“What else is in that suitcase?” her mother asked, handing Heather the frame.
Heather shrugged. “This picture was on top, wrapped in newspaper.” She kicked the yellowed papers at her feet with the toe of her heavy black boots.
Kathy reached down and picked up one of the papers. She peered at the date but wasn’t wearing her reading glasses. “What’s the date on this newspaper?” she asked Heather.
“December 12, 1946,” Heather said. “What’s that smell,” she asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Moth balls,” her mother said. “The suitcase is full of them.”
Heather reached into the trunk and pulled out an old-fashioned accordion folder. “There’s a flag in here,” she said. “It’s all folded up.
She pulled out a tightly wrapped triangle, folded so that only blue background and white stars were visible.
“That looks like the kind of folded flag they give to families who have people killed in war,” said Kathy. “But I don’t think that Nana had any family killed in the war. “ She reached for the accordion folder. While her mother began shuffling through the old papers in the folder, Heather laid the flag back in the suitcase and pulled out a tissue-wrapped square.
Carefully unwrapping the thin paper, she smiled. “Hey, it’s the dress in the picture,” she said, lifting the polka dot dress out of the package.
“I bet it would fit me,” Heather said, but her mother was too absorbed in the papers in the folder to reply, standing under the bulb and holding them at -arms’-length, trying to read them without her glasses.
Heather walked over to the full-length mirror leaning against the wall by the door, a relic of long ago games of dress-up when she and her cousins would rummage around in the attic and try on old winter clothes and boots.
Heather held the dress up against her body and thought that it would look amazing with her Docs and biker jacket. Retro punk. She cocked her head and smiled at her reflection. Today was her six-month anniversary. Maybe she would wear it to the meeting tonight.
Sadie’s back ached. She had been at her machine for only six hours but she had spent the night before at a Party meeting. Sometimes she wondered why she was still involved after all these years. But whenever she questioned her commitment to the movement, she thought of her sister, Fania, and the other girls who had died in the fire.
As she pumped the treadle and sewed a faultless side seam through the polka dot fabric, she wondered once again why she had lived and her sister and so many others had died. After 28 years, if it were still possible to believe in God after such a catastrophe, she would have asked, “Why me?”
But since she could not believe in God, she believed in the Party.
“Bubala, can you pass me that spool,” she asked the young woman to her right, an Italian with round cheeks and eyes like dark pools. The girl smiled and shook her head. No English. Sighing, Sadie reached for the white thread herself.
“Spool,” she said to the girl, holding up the thread. “Fershtay? You understand?”
“Spoola,” the girl repeated, smiling. “Tred.”
Smart. Sadie made a note to herself to invite the girl to the next Party meeting. All day long, as her fingers fed fabric into the machine, Sadie’s mind churned with plans for rallies and actions, crafting just the right arguments to persuade the women around them, and others like them, to stand up for their rights and to support other workers.
She was well-known on the Lower East Side as a fiery speaker who could rouse even the most docile women to riot. “What do the bosses give you?” she roared, standing on a crate on Delancey Street before a crowd of women who labored for a few dollars a week. “Gunisht. Nothing.”
But to those who had survived the fire, or who had sisters, mothers, daughters who perished, she used a different word, drawing it out in a long keen. “Tsoriss.” Suffering, woe. And the women responded, beating their breasts and wailing.
Sadie had been just fourteen years old at the time of the fire, an apprentice seamstress at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Square at Green Street. Her sister Fania, two years older, also worked at the factory, making the high-necked blouses prized by the fashionable women.
That Saturday morning, March 25, Fania had snatched Sadie’s hand and kissed her on the cheek before continuing up the stairs to the ninth floor. “Tonight, we celebrate, little sister,” she said, giving her hand a squeeze.
Fania had just become engaged to her childhood sweetheart, Sam Cohen. Her new diamond, small but perfect, pressed into Sadie’s palm. But by 5:00 that afternoon, Fania was dead, one of 146 girls trapped behind locked doors as fire swept through the building, fed by the mountains of fabric. The factory’s owners locked the doors so that they could check each girl’s bag at the end of the day as she left the building. They wanted to be sure the girls weren’t stealing scraps of fabric or finished shirts.
The blaze had started on the eighth floor where Sadie worked as a trimmer. When the cries of “Fire!” broke out, she had tried running up the stairs to get her sister, but the press of the crowd of escaping women forced her down the stairs. “Mach schnell!” they cried—Hurry, hurry!
She searched through the crowd for Fania on the street as the fire escape pulled away from the building, hurling dozens of girls to the pavement. She screamed and wept as girls began jumping from the ninth floor windows, their hair and dresses aflame.
Sadie identified her sister’s body by the diamond ring on her finger. At the memorial for the victims of the fire, she vowed that she would avenge Fania’s death. Sadie felt a flush of heat rise up through her body, as if she herself were on fire, remembering that memorial and the passionate call for action by the organizer Rose Schneiderman. “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in this city. Too much blood has been spilled. It is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
Rose had leapt to her feet and raised her fist in the air with the other girls. But these many years later, she was one of the few who had not married, had children, become berryers—housewives—and abandoned the struggle.
She pulled her sweater closer around her thickening body, which had once been as slim and shapely as that of the young Italian woman beside her. Oy, first she was shvitzing, then freezing, she thought, shifting on her stool. No wonder most women her age stayed home knitting rather than dragging themselves to meetings every night, listening to a bunch of megillah—speechifying. Last night, for example, a violent argument had broken out between Socialists who said that the invasion of Poland proved that Stalin could not be trusted, and Communists who said that all loyal Party members must support Russia.
As the chair throwing began, Sadie had slipped out the door. She was sick of the tummel and she didn’t want war. She remembered the last war all too clearly. She still had nightmares about young men with missing arms or legs or noses. In one of her dreams, they danced with the Triangle girls, a ghastly cotillion.
Sadie yanked the silly fabric out from under the needle. Polka dots. She smiled. If armies only dressed in polka dots, there would be no more war.
© Deborah Rudacille
Deborah Rudacille is Professor of the Practice at UMBC and co-curator of the New Mercury Nonfiction Reading Series (with John Barry). She has published three books of nonfiction, including ROOTS OF STEEL: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town. She is currently writing a play about female garment workers with Marceline White.