The Truth Gets Out
After church, while the sauce and meatballs simmered on the stove, Lucia climbed the worn wooden stairs to the tenement roof, Zia and her cousins on her heels. Several other women from the building were already seated on old crates and rickety chairs, chattering and fanning themselves. Lucia and her family grabbed four unused crates and joined the circle, Zia next to Carmela Bandolini from her village in Italy and the girls near the younger women.
From the corner nearest the stairwell, Old Man Mecca’s pigeons, caged in a dilapidated coop, cooed their muffled song. The birds kept company with the rusty stakes that propped up tomato and pepper plants growing in a rotting crate with dirt leaking out of one side.
Lucia recoiled as the filthy birds flapped their wings, scattering feathers and droppings. She couldn’t believe that on hot and stuffy nights some families in the building actually came up here to sleep with the trash and the rats that hid under the torn tarpaper.
Lucia coughed as she breathed in the stagnant sooty air that hung above the city. Oh, how she missed the fresh air in Censano! Between the brown haze that blanketed the city and the cotton fluff that hung in the air at the factory, sometimes she could hardly catch her breath.
She moved her seat a few inches further away from the coop and took out her sewing. As she began to darn a stocking, she shrank down, hoping that the women would have something else to gossip about besides her refusal to go through with her arranged marriage. After the last few weeks, when Lucia had constantly felt eyes on her at work, in church, at the grocery store, on the street, she was ready for them to find a new target.
Sure, some of the younger girls had told her she was brave, and one or two older women said they should have done the same, but most of the neighbors agreed that she was disgraziata, that she shamed her family. An old woman called her a puttana. Signora La Cava and her friends said Zia should send the girl back to her mother or leave her at a convent. Zia told off every one of them, but still tongues wagged.
Worse, the young men on the block who had ignored her while she was betrothed now nodded and tipped their hats when she walked by. A particularly bold man even spoke to her without Zia present.
The last thing Lucia needed was attention from some man. Her mother would be furious enough without hearing that a man was pursuing her. There would be time enough for Lucia to find another husband, but not until long after her mother calmed down and the gossips moved on to someone else’s business.
Lucia finished her darning with a tight knot and bit off the thread. She reached into her basket and pulled out a bright white handkerchief and a hank of pink embroidery thread.
“Was that your bridal handkerchief?” Serafina, a lumpy busybody, said.
Lucia threaded her needle and punched it through the linen.
“I have three daughters who will be old maids soon,” said Serafina, “and I can’t find one good husband for any of them. I’m ready for grandchildren. What’s a family without babies playing on the kitchen floor while we make gravy?”
“Well, they can’t marry just anybody,” said Caterina, bouncing her first grandson on her knee. “You need to know the family first.”
“Like Lucia’s mother?” Serafina said.
Caterina shot her a dirty look and turned back to the other women. “Remember what happened to Alba Crocetti.”
Two of the older women exchanged glances and started laughing. Shoulders shaking, they put down their sewing.
“What happened?” Lucia asked.
Two others laughed louder, gnarled hands covering their rotted teeth.
“That bastardo her daughter brought home to marry had a wife and four children in Italy,” said Teresa, wiping tears from her face. “I can still hear him screaming through the wall when Alba hit him in the head with her hot frying pan. Served him right, that son of a bitch, but what a waste of good meatballs.”
Zia cleared her throat as she stood. “I have an announcement to make.”
All hands stilled.
“You’ve heard rumors and the lies spread by Signora LaCava. I now will tell you what really happened.”
All of the women, young and old, murmured and gave each other meaningful looks as they pulled their chairs closer to Zia.
Lucia’s face turned deep red. She bowed her head and picked at the hem of her flowered dress.
“Lucia was promised to Francesco Bruno. He came to our home and disgraced himself and his family. My Giovanni would not allow him to marry Lucia. She deserves better, much better.” Zia sat back down.
“Not everybody can afford to be so choosy,” said Flavia, a fat woman from the second floor who minded everybody’s business while her own daughter smoked and was out every night and her husband gambled away his wages every Friday.
“Sta se zitta, Flavia,” said Rosa. “Your daughter was twenty-six when she finally got married, and that’s only because you sent her with the priest to Italy to find a husband. Lucia is smart to wait for somebody better than that cafone Francesco.”
“Hmppf, smart or unlucky?” asked Flavia.
Lucia hunched her shoulders and dug her toe into the tarpaper roof.
“Eh, that Francesco,” said Rosa, waving her right hand. “He’s just like all the other men. What the hell are they good for, anyway?”
“Only for bringing home money,” said Caterina.
“Sí,” said Rosa, “and then they crawl on us like we owe them a reward just for providing what they should in the first place. Those pigs–va’fancullo!” She spat.
“Oh sure,” said Caterina, “and then wind up with another little ass to wipe and mouth to feed. I swear that someday I’ll tie a knot in Paolo’s salame.”
Lucia stifled her laughter as Mariana elbowed her in the side.
“Caterina!” said Zia. “My girls are listening.”
“And you don’t think that soon they won’t be singing the same song? They’ll find a man and get married, and it won’t be long before they agree with us.”
Rosa shook her finger at the girls in the circle. “Just remember to let your men think they’re king even though we all know it’s the women who hold the family together.”
“Sure,” said Caterina, “with the few dollars they give us, we have to feed and clothe everybody and turn these shitholes into clean homes. But let them think they do it all, or they’ll step all over you and keep puttane they treat like queens.”
“They all have whores anyway,” said Teresa with a disgusted wave.
Lucia’s shoulders stiffened as she glared at the older woman.
“Oh look, Lucia has something to say,” said Flavia.
Lucia took a deep breath, leaned toward Flavia and stared directly into her eyes. “Maybe your husband is a pig, but mine won’t be like that,” she said, shaking her finger in the woman’s face.
Flavia sat back in her chair, mouth agape.
The young women elbowed each other and murmured as the older ones clucked and shook their heads.
Zia put her hand on her niece’s arm. “Whoever you marry will be as good as my Giovanni.” She turned to Flavia. “Her husband will treat her right. If not, she’ll knock him on his ass, and I’ll help her.” She nodded with finality.
The women laughed and fanned the thick air away from their sweaty faces.
Raffaela Weighs In
Indian summer coated the Lower East Side in a heavy blanket of sooty stickiness that, try as she might, Lucia couldn’t wash off. On the farm, even the hottest days of September weren’t that miserable.
She leaned out of the living room window, trying to catch any breeze that might pass by. She envied the children who ran squealing through the water pouring from the hydrant Gianni the plumber from next door had opened.
“Lucia, come downstairs, quick,” Signora Lazzaro shouted up from a first floor window. “The postman left your family’s mail with me. There’s a letter from Italy.”
Lucia studied her mother’s spidery handwriting as Signora Lazzaro leaned over her shoulder. “Thank you for keeping this for me,” she said, taking a short step to get away from the old woman.
“From your mother?”
“Thank you again.” Lucia headed toward the stairs. Signora Lazzaro had probably told everybody that a letter had come. Maybe the old bat had even steamed it open and blabbed about what it said.
“You could at least tell me first,” Signora Lazzaro said, “before that big mouth across the street finds out and tells everybody.”
“I’m sure you’ll know soon enough.”
Lucia ran upstairs and into the kitchen. She almost bumped into Zia and her cousins clustered just inside the door. She ripped open the envelope, nearly tearing the thin paper inside as she pulled it out.
“What does my sister have to say?” Zia asked as Lucia quickly scanned the short letter.
“She’s furious with me.” Lucia, stunned, stood motionless.
“I bet.” Zia snatched the letter from Lucia. “Shamed the family…cost us money we couldn’t afford…Brunos won’t give us back the goat…you disobedient wretch…not my daughter.” Her face bright red, Zia crumpled the paper, threw it on the floor and spat at it. “Damn her! All she cares about is money and her pride. Sometimes she doesn’t have the sense God gave that crippled old goat.”
Zia took a deep breath. “Come here, Cara.” She wrapped her arms around Lucia. “To hell with her. You’re my daughter now.”
A few days after the letter arrived, Donatella took Lucia by the arm and pulled her into the kitchen. “Sit…” She pulled out a chair and plunked Lucia into it. “And listen.”
Lucia touched her cheek as if Donatella had slapped her.
“Enough of this drama. Your mother will get over this, and so should you.”
“Donatella, she said I’m not her daughter anymore. How could she just abandon me?”
“Don’t start that again.” Donatella handed Lucia a handkerchief. “You can’t sit and wait for her to come around. You were old enough to get married, so you’re old enough to act like a woman.”
Zia came in, juggling shopping bags and her purse. She hoisted them all onto the table and sat down next to Lucia. “So what’s going on in here? Lucia, your eyes are red again.”
“She’s still whining about the mess with Zia Raffaela,” Donatella said.
“And I’m sure you’ve helped make things better, haven’t you?” Zia said. “Leave me alone with her.”
Donatella humpfed and flounced out of the room.
“Your mother is a stubborn ass, but she’ll calm down.” Zia fanned herself with her handkerchief. “Not that I had anything to do with it, but Carmela Bandolino has already written to her sister back home telling her how bad Francesco the butcher is.” Zia sat heavily. “I’m sure other women in this neighborhood who still have family in the old village send back news too. People talk, word travels…believe me, someday my sister will wind up thanking you for saving face for your family.”
Christmas in New York
Despite the heat that rose from the steam pipes in the shop, Lucia shivered as she took off her snow-dusted coat and hung it on the hook across from her workstation. As she tied her knitted woolen scarf around her neck, Matilda, her supervisor, bustled toward her, waving a piece of paper.
“Get your things.”
Lucia felt nailed to the floor. Was she being fired? Zio would die of shame.
“Follow me.” Matilda’s heavy shoes thunked on the scarred wooden floor as she led Lucia down the aisle toward the door.
Lucia, surrounded by staring eyes and mumbles, looked around helplessly as she trudged along behind Matilda. This couldn’t be good.
Matilda stopped at one of a long row of sewing machines set up next to a wall of dirty windows. “This is your new station.”
“By the windows? That’s for…”
“Yes, the regular workers. The big boss says you’re too skilled for piecework. He needs good operators to make women’s silk blouses, and he says you’re ready for that.” Matilda pulled out Lucia’s new seat. “Congratulations,” she added flatly.
Lucia searched for her voice. “Do I make more money now?” she asked with a squeak.
“About the same, a dollar a day, but now it will be guaranteed.”
“Thank you, Matilda.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank your uncle.” Matilda started to walk away. She stopped and turned back to Lucia. “Don’t expect the other girls to like you for this.”
That night, the family celebrated Lucia’s promotion with a roast leg of lamb. Zia said that when she had ordered it at Patsy’s butcher shop last week, she swore him to secrecy. If the neighbors–Signora LaCava in particular–knew that Zia could afford a roast that cost twenty-four cents a pound, especially just a few weeks before Christmas, they would know something was up and would ruin the surprise for Lucia.
Donatella stabbed a piece of meat with the serving fork and dropped the utensil back onto the platter with a loud clang. “She’s here only a few months, and she’s a regular already? It took me three years to get there at my shop.”
“Zitta,” Mariana said. “Can’t you ever be happy for somebody else?”
Donatella raised her knife and leaned toward her sister.
“Enough, you two,” Zia said. “Let’s just be grateful Lucia has a job with some security–until she gets married, of course.”
“That won’t happen any time soon,” Lucia said.
“That young man, Gino, at the shop, is interested in you,” Zio said. “Not to get involved in women’s business, but he’s a good catch. He works hard and he saves his money.”
“And he’s handsome and very polite,” Zia added. “At least, that’s what Giovanni tells me.”
Lucia looked down at her plate. “It’s too soon. Mama’s still mad at me, and I don’t need to make things worse.”
“Time flies, little one,” Zio said. “A man won’t wait forever.”
The garment industry went into its slow seasons in December and June. Some workers were laid off until business picked up, but others were fortunate enough only to have their workweek cut shorter. Lucia and her family were among the lucky ones.
Although she made less money, Lucia loved having extra days off. She began to enjoy cooking and spending more time with the other girls in the neighborhood. With Zia’s encouragement, she even began to think about finding a suitable husband. And she didn’t cough as much.
The week before Christmas, Mariana told Lucia it would be fun to go to the big stores in mid-town to shop for presents. The next Saturday, they slept a little later than usual, had a hot breakfast, and dressed in their warmest clothes. As Lucia and Mariana put on their coats, Donatella headed toward the bedroom.
“Aren’t you coming?” Lucia asked.
“I’d rather shop on Orchard Street. Those Jews that own Macy’s are thieves, and I wouldn’t give them my hard-earned money for anything.”
Mariana shrugged. “Your loss.” She threw the end of her scarf over her shoulder. “We’ll have a better time without you anyway.”
The girls went to the subway to catch an uptown train. They found seats together, almost an impossibility in a car packed with bundled-up people carrying bags and boxes. They whispered to each other about the other women passengers, chattering about their clothes, their hairdos, and their shoes. Lucia spotted a woman wearing a beautifully shaped and stitched coat that she was sure came from her shop. Mariana prattled on and on about Macy’s and all of the wonderful presents she would buy there. She stopped in mid-sentence. “I can’t believe it! We missed our stop.”
As the train pulled into the next station, Mariana grabbed Lucia’s hand and pulled her through the crowd. “Getting off! Getting off!”
The signs on the walls told Lucia she was in Grand Central Station.
As the girls emerged from the dark train platform, one of many that stretched out to all parts of Manhattan like fingers, Lucia shaded her eyes. She hadn’t seen anything this big and bright since she came through the Great Hall at Ellis Island.
Heels clicked and voices echoed in the cavernous room. Voices crackled from boxes fixed high on the walls, announcing arrivals and departures. People carrying suitcases and shopping bags bumped into each other as they rushed along. Newsboys hollered and the sweet, familiar aroma of roasted chestnuts filled the air. A choral group, dressed in matching plaid outfits with white collars and black hats, stood near the entranceway to the uptown trains, singing Christmas carols to an ever-changing audience.
Lucia stopped short in the center of the terminal. Open-mouthed, she gaped as she slowly turned in a circle. When Mariana pointed up, Lucia tilted her head and leaned back to see the domed ceiling, painted dark green with gold figures, which Mariana told her were the constellations, sketched in gold spreading across the sky.
Daylight streamed in through windows bigger than she had seen in any church and cast a golden glow on the light-colored limestone walls. She imagined she was standing inside a jewelry box, or a grand room with gold floors and walls covered in yellow silk.
Lucia grabbed Mariana’s sleeve. “Papa was right. There are streets of gold in New York, and even walls!”
Mariana laughed. “Come on. There’s a lot more to see and do.”
They ran up the stairs and into the cold blast of air that hit them when they opened the tall, heavy doors to the street. Lucia took a deep breath, feeling an icy tingle down into her lungs. She coughed, but when Mariana looked at her, grabbed her scarf tightly around her throat and walked faster.
Arms linked, the girls walked through crowds and snow flurries to W.H. Macy’s, a nine-story building on the corner of 34th Street. That morning, Zio had given each of the three girls two dollars to spend on presents for each other, and Lucia and Mariana happily roamed every level of the department store searching for perfect gifts.
Although Lucia entered the store thinking she had a king’s ransom to spend, she soon found out that a dollar per gift didn’t go far at Macy’s. She looked at hair ribbons, scarves, perfume, even little books and ink pens, but couldn’t find anything affordable.
Hours later, Lucia and Mariana gave up and decided to go to Orchard Street.
As they walked back to the subway, Lucia said, “I know you hate to admit Donatella was right, but I had so much fun today, and saw so many beautiful things. Thank you for taking me with you.”
“I was afraid you’d be really disappointed.”
“Disappointed? No! Some day, when I’m rich, I’ll buy out the whole store!”
Smiling, Mariana shook her head. “I’m glad that you still have your dreams.”
“I’ll always have dreams.”
Throughout the next week, the sweet aromas of cookies and pies overtook the smells of the streets. Zia and her daughters showed Lucia how to make the pastries traditional to Italy but unaffordable for her family on the farm. She had to stop herself from eating the taralli, little baked knots of savory dough, right out of the oven, even before they cooled and Mariana smothered them in icing made of confectioner’s sugar.
Lucia’s favorite treat was struffoli–tiny, fluffy balls of deep-fried dough covered in honey and shaved chocolate and piled into the shape of a Christmas tree. Zia said no samples before Christmas dinner, so every time Lucia passed the struffoli, she just stared at them and licked her lips.
Zio laughed when he caught her at it. He picked two struffoli from the base of the little tree and popped them in his mouth. He replaced them with two from the back.
“He still thinks I don’t know what he’s doing,” Zia said, shaking her head.
On Christmas Eve, as the women cleaned the turkey and made pasta and sauce for the next day’s dinner, a loud banging on the stairs interrupted their work. The door flew open and a gasping Zio pulled an evergreen tree, tied with several pieces of rope, into the kitchen. He dropped it on the floor.
The tree was almost as long as the kitchen itself.
“What’s that for?” Lucia asked.
“Haven’t you ever seen a Christmas tree?” asked Donatella.
Lucia, tired of Donatella’s treating her like a child, snapped at her cousin. “I’ve only seen them all decorated in the stores. I didn’t know that’s what they looked like before.”
“Didn’t you have them in Italy?”
“No. We celebrated the birth of Jesus and the Epiphany, but not with all the lights and glitter and…and…” She waved a hand over her head. “…mossa you do here.”
“We left Italy when Donatella was three,” Zia said. “All she knows is how the Americani do it. Tell her about Italy. Maybe she’ll learn something.”
Donatella made a face.
Zia waved dismissively.
“Christmas day was just Mass and a nicer dinner than usual,” Lucia said. “The real celebration was on the Epiphany, and on January 5th, the eve, when La Befana came and left gifts for the children.”
“Why?” Mariana asked.
Lucia explained that the Wise Men, on a journey to find the Christ child, came through La Befana’s village. They stayed overnight in her immaculate house, and the next day she pointed them in the right direction. “Thanks to her, the Wise Men found the baby Jesus on January 6th, when the angels proclaimed him the Son of God.”
“That’s really dumb,” Donatella said. “How did the Wise Men wind up in Italy?”
“They were men. Maybe they weren’t so wise,” Zia said.
“The nuns never told us about this.”
“What do Irish nuns know about Italian traditions?” Zia said.
“The nuns here are Irish?” Lucia asked.
“Fa niente. Just tell the rest of the story.”
“Italian families leave wine and bits of food for La Befana,” Lucia said. “She comes late at night and leaves candy, figs, and nuts for good children, and garlic, onions, and lumps of coal for bad children. She sweeps the house before she leaves, especially under the beds, so everything is clean for the New Year.”
“No Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus?” Mariana asked.
“No, just La Befana. We even have a poem about her. ’La Befana vien di notte, Con le scarpe tutte rotte, Col vestito alla romana. Viva, viva La Befana.”
“She must have been a sight with her torn shoes and ragged clothes,” Mariana turned to her mother. “Why didn’t we ever do La Befana?”
“Because you already get gifts on Christmas, and you’re not getting them twice,” Zia said.
Donatella shook her head in disgust. “Well, anyway, we live in America, so we’re going to decorate our tree this afternoon,” she said.
“And then celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes,” Zia said, “La Vigilia di Natale–the vigil before the birth of Jesus.” She started to clear the table. “Enough talk. We have a lot of work to do.”
“I feel like a mole,” Lucia said to Angelina at lunch. “I’ve hardly been outside during daylight this entire winter.”
“You know that’s not true. I worry about you, though. Are you sick?”
“No, just…this is harder than I ever thought it would be. The farm was hard work, but at least the air was fresh and I was free to walk around. Here, they lock us in like prisoners.”
“They’re afraid we’ll steal things,” Angelina said. “Fools! But at least it’s money.”
The whistle blew.
Lucia packed up her things and cleaned off her station. She squinted, took a deep breath, and reached for another sleeve. The dark days made the factory lights seem so bright that they hurt Lucia’s eyes, and she almost always went home tired and with a headache. Still, every morning from Monday through Saturday, she and Zio went to the factory and worked from whistle to whistle.
On a day when she felt more tired than usual, Lucia forced herself to finish her allotment. When the whistle blew, she leaned her elbows on her workbench and dropped her weary head, then massaged the tightness from her neck. She stretched back and pushed herself up from her hard wooden chair. Rubbing lint from her nose, she coughed up cotton dust, something she now did frequently, and shoved the chair under the table with her hip. She gathered her coat and lunch bag from under her station, more than ready to face the frigid March wind. Anywhere was better than this place.
Gas lamps, cheaper than electrical lighting, hung overhead and cast their dim light on the departing workers and their stations. Lucia looked across the room heated to sweltering by the pressing machines and waved at Angelina, who was still a piece worker.
Angelina grabbed her things and joined Lucia at the ceiling-to-floor iron gate chained closed across the only exit door. The foreman opened the padlock and Angelina, muttering “bastardo” under her breath, pushed past him, dragging Lucia behind her. The two girls ran down four flights of rickety steps and out into the vanishing daylight, jabbering and gossiping. When they got to the street, they stopped short.
Acrid, thick, black air surrounded Lucia and forced its way into her nose and lungs. She started coughing and her eyes began to burn. She wiped her tears and tried not to breathe.
A crowd rushed toward her. As their wailing and moaning grew louder, Lucia covered her ears against the wall of noise. Soot swirled around her and a sudden gust of heat cut through the cold March air and blew in her face. Her hands tried in vain to protect her from the assault.
A mob approached from the direction of Washington Square, two blocks away. Weeping, soot-streaked women held onto each other. Men with smudged faces and clothes, some in firemen’s coats and boots, shoulders slumped and shaking, helped the women move along. Young women, clothes tattered and ash-covered, some with burns on their arms and faces and others gasping for breath, stumbled up the street, bumping into each other as they followed the crowd to safety.
Lucia looked above the crowd. Flames shot out of the roof and windows of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which occupied the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building. Giant thick, black clouds rose above the fire and hung suspended over several blocks, evil clouds raining cinders and ashes onto the sidewalk and the motionless onlookers.
“Madre di Dio! Mariana!” Lucia began to run toward the burning building.
“Lucia, what are you doing? Stop!” Angelina screamed.
“I have to find Mariana!”
For the next block a steady stream of girls and women staggered toward her. Lucia stopped running. She stood in their midst, searching every face that passed her. Madonna, there’s Gracia, and Teresa. And Carolina, and Philomena. They all made it out alive! She touched their shoulders as they streamed past her. But where was Mariana?
Out of the corner of her eye, Lucia saw a flaming ball fall through the smoke billowing from a window on the tenth floor. Then another, and another. She clutched her stomach and hunched over, choking down vomit. Madre di Dio! They were jumping out of the windows!
Lucia blinked and shook her head to clear it, and started toward the flames, running faster as she neared the building. Her hands cupped her eyes like blinders. She looked at the burnt and broken bodies lying on the street, surrounded by broken glass and glowing chunks of wood, but their faces were unrecognizable. Madonna, per piacere, don’t let them be Mariana! Almost to the corner, gasping, she dropped to her knees.
A priest touched Lucia’s shoulder. She turned her head toward him. He made the Sign of the Cross and moved on.
Lucia jumped to her feet and darted through the crowd of onlookers, kicking the fire’s rubble out of her way, grabbing sleeves and shoulders. A man shoved her as she pushed by him. A crying woman grabbed Lucia and keened. Lucia spun away from her and continued weaving through the crowd.
After what seemed like hours of staring into perfect strangers’ faces, Lucia saw Mariana. She ran to where she stood in the middle of the street, motionless, coatless and covered in soot, a dark rock around which waves of people streamed.
Lucia enfolded Mariana in her arms and hugged her close, murmuring comforting sounds while she rocked the shaking girl and stroked her matted, water-soaked hair. People bumped into them and Lucia shoved back, but she never let go of Mariana.