|Rose pushed through the door and was immediately
overcome by a feeling of déjà vu. She had seen this room before, seen these uniform rows
of machinery stretching to the distance every time she had closed her eyes during the past
few days. After visiting more than a dozen shops, it was as though she was back at the
first. I feel
like I'm living in a nickelodeon loop.
Yet another supervisor hustled
over to confront her.
Oh well, here we go again.
He'll ask me what I want, I'll explain, he'll explain, so sorry, end of story.
"I hope you have a damn good
excuse!" the man scolded as he reached her. He puffed, a bit out of breath.
"Aren't you Dorothy?"
"Where the hell IS she?"
He looked past Rose towards the street as though his eyes could pierce the solid walls.
Pulling on his fob chain, he yanked his watch from his pocket, snapped open the cover and
examined its face. "She's three hours late!"
The man started slightly, as
though he had already forgotten that Rose was there.
"Who might you be?"
"Rose Dawson, sir. I'm
looking for work
"I don't have time for this
right now," he said and, dismissing her with a wave, he began to walk away.
Rose quickly assessed the
situation. She took a deep breath.
"You need me, sir. You need a
good worker, and quickly."
He stopped to consider her.
"And that would be you?"
"That would be me."
Rose wondered if he could sense
He looked over the room, his mind
at work. After a few seconds he shrugged and emitted a short sigh, its sound lost amidst
the ever-present hiss of the irons.
"All right, Miss Dawson, I've
no time for trying you out so youre hired, at least for the time being. Come with
After so many rejections, Rose was
too surprised by success to move.
"Well, come on, then,"
the man called to her as he strode rapidly across the floor.
Rose followed, glancing around the
room while almost having to run to keep pace. She couldn't help but notice the large
number of sewing machines lying silent.
"My name is Mr. Souster. This
is my shop. You'll work 7 to 6, Saturdays until 1. You'll be paid $10 per week to
He stopped to gauge Rose's
"Is that all agreeable to
you, Miss Dawson, or were you expecting better?"
I mean yes, that's
fine, Mr. Souster."
He came to a halt in front of a
vacant station near the rear of the factory floor. Rose stood to the side while he set to
work preparing her machine.
A young woman working at an
adjacent machine glanced up at Rose. A few streaks of blue adorned her cheeks and
forehead, and she added another as she paused to wipe her brow with the back of her hand.
She smiled broadly at Rose but said nothing as she went back to her work.
"All right, Miss Dawson,
you're all set."
He looked at her questioningly.
"Double chain stitch on the
hems?" she asked, droning her voice a bit, hoping she sounded bored with such
The owner relaxed.
He was interrupted by a panicky
voice shouting for him from across the room.
.I'll check back on
Mr. Souster went off like a deer
and Rose girded herself to begin.
All right, I can do this, Rose
thought. If nothing else, I've gotten a lifetime's worth of criticism the past few days. As
Father used to say, 'embarrassment is a swift teacher.'
She found she was able to smoothly
complete the first few garments without error, although she worked quite deliberately.
Slow and steady, and don't jam
the machine, Rose lectured herself. I don't want to give him any reason to come
back over here. He looks to have enough to worry about.
Rose glanced up and down the
aisles and saw no other attendants working the floor. Mr. Souster was lying supine beneath
an open sewing machine up in the first row of the room.
Pretty difficult to try to
maintain all this by oneself.
"You finally made it,"
the woman next to her called out, her voice just loud enough to be heard above the
"Aren't you Dorothy?"
"Oh, sorry. I'm Gina, well,
Giorgina, actually." The girl shot a quick glance towards the front of the room.
"Mr. Souster doesn't like us to talk while we work but he won't pay too much mind as
long as we don't gossip."
Rose noticed that the girl barely
moved her eyes from her work while she spoke.
"I'm Rose Dawson."
"I thought you were the new
girl he's been clamoring for."
"I heard Mr. Souster mention
that name as I came in but I was just here looking for work."
"Luck was with you, then;
this is a slow time and you might have gone weeks without finding work. Right now, though,
we're short about ten girls, I think. They upped and got sick almost all at once. We were
full up till a few days ago but Mr. Souster's been in a tizzy since then."
That explains all the idle
machines, Rose thought.
"Yes, lucky, I guess. Pleased
to make your acquaintance, Gina."
They worked on in silence. Mr.
Souster drifted by from time to time but Rose felt fortunate that he never seemed to have
a moment's peace to evaluate her technique before another mechanical crisis arose.
"It's a cinch you weren't
raised on a treadle," Gina noted, just after the owner had left the floor through a
side office door.
"Yes, you're right. I'm slow.
I haven't had much experience."
"Uh huh, I had you pegged for
a beginner. You're doing all right, though."
Rose glanced nervously at her
finished garments. Her pile was still quite small. She resolved to risk working a bit
"It'll be lunch soon,"
Gina said. "They'll be doing their count then."
Gina took a quick look at the door
through which Mr. Souster had vanished, then stopped her work and lifted half a dozen
finished shirtwaists from her pile. She stepped over to place them on top of Rose's
completed product and then took an equal number from Rose's unfinished ones and placed
them atop her own.
Rose glanced around nervously but
they were in an area of mostly empty stations and no one else had paid any attention to
Gina's actions. The rest were busy, heads down low over their machines.
"Right quick for a
beginner," Gina said as she winked at Rose.
Rose sat for a few seconds with
her mouth open.
This girl doesn't know me, why
is she doing this?
all she could manage before the owner reappeared.
Mr. Souster had returned to the
room accompanied by a middle-aged woman, and they began to inventory completed garments,
working as a team. He acted as counter and called out the totals while the woman recorded
them in an oversized ledger.
"That's his wife," Gina
said, noting the direction of Rose's gaze.
Rose was about to respond when a
loud whistle pierced the din of the room, causing her to startle and almost leap out of
"Finish the one you are
working on," Gina instructed. "Lunch time."
The noise level in the room slowly
diminished as machine after machine wound down and the irons were returned to their
holders. Gradually, snippets of conversation became distinguishable again; after such a
steady din the silence of the room felt strange to Rose.
Gina reached under her machine and
retrieved her hat and a plain brown bag. She stood and stretched, arms fully extended
"You didn't bring your lunch,
"No. I didn't know if I'd
actually find a job today."
"Well, no matter. Mr. Souster
is pretty decent; he gives us 45 minutes. We've time to walk up to the avenue to get you
something, if you'd like."
Rose and Gina followed the line of
girls winding their way to a long sink. They washed the dye off their arms and faces as
best they could then headed out the door and turned westward to walk the few blocks to
"Thanks for your help. You
didn't need to," Rose said.
"'It was nothing! Everybody
needs a hand now and then. But watch out for me if Mr. Souster starts running us
Gina laughed at her own comment
and Rose examined her co-worker more closely in the brighter light of day.
With most of the dye washed free
of her face Rose could see that Gina was quite pretty. Her raven-black hair framed a
narrow, olive-toned face. Her eyes were magnetic, the focal point of her face, her irises
the darkest brown Rose had ever seen. She wasn't tall by any means but she carried herself
so lightly that it appeared as if she was walking a few inches above the ground.
At a sidewalk market on Sixth
Avenue Rose opted for two puffy rolls, a wedge of cheese and two soft drinks, one intended
for Gina as a token of her appreciation. The market vendor totaled her purchase.
"That'll be 24 cents,
miss," he informed Rose.
"I believe it should be 21
cents, sir," Rose asserted as she handed him the proper amount in coin.
Gina looked from Rose to the
vendor. The man's face reddened, taking on the look of a child caught with his fingers
deep in a forbidden pie.
"Right you are, miss, my
mistake. Good day to you both," he replied in haste, and then he turned away as
though most eager to be of prompt service the next customer.
Gina led the way to a small park
where, she explained, she often took her lunch when the weather obliged. As they strolled
several men tipped their hats in greeting, and Gina had a warm smile for each. Rose simply
nodded her head in acknowledgement.
She's so open, Rose
thought. Isn't she afraid of giving the wrong impression?
"How about here?" Gina
asked, gesturing to a bench in the shade of an elm.
The previous night's rain had
wrung the city air clean and the strong sun encouraged the newly budded flowers in the
tilled soil beds. Rose closed her eyes and breathed the park in deeply. She could smell
the damp earth, the crisp air and, except for the background noises of the city, she could
easily imagine herself back in the park behind her home in Philadelphia. She smiled at the
memory and relaxed.
"Penny for your thoughts,
"Oh, I'm just happy to have
She opened her eyes and turned to
"How long have you been
"About six months, I think.
Yeah, I started just before Christmas. It's okay. Mr. Souster is fair enough, but you have
to pull your weight."
"What about Mrs.
"She's a queer one. I don't
think she trusts him with so many young girls around. You'll laugh at that when you know
him better; he's the last man a wife'd have to worry about. She says he needs her as
bookkeeper but she stays mostly to keep an eye on him, I think.
"What have you been doing,
"No other jobs yet, if that's
what you are asking. I just arrived in New York last week."
Again, Rose thought.
"I'd like to go there some
day. Anywhere, actually, anywhere out of this city. Where do you live now?"
Gina looked curiously at Rose for
a few seconds, then took a deep, crunching bite of her apple. She talked as she chewed.
"Yeah, me too
far," she said, and she smiled at Rose, full mouth and all.
Rose laughed at her appearance, at
the muffled sound of her words through her food.
As they ate a man in his
mid-twenties walked slowly by them and then doubled back. He hesitated, appeared to come
to a decision, and then approached.
"Excuse me. Could either of
you ladies direct me to 14th street?"
He looked expectantly at each of
them in turn but Rose thought his eyes lingered on Gina.
She was about to politely respond
but, before she could, Gina stood up. Rose was surprised to see her lean in close to the
man and speak to him in an almost conspiratorial manner.
Maybe they're friends just
playing with each other, Rose thought. Strangers would never draw so close
"If you go that way,
sir," Gina said, pointing south, "I believe you'll find it lies just past 15th
The man smiled, bowed, and
prepared to take leave of them.
"I hope to see you again,
ladies," he said as he slowly backed away in the indicated direction. He turned to
bow to them once more as he neared the end of the park, almost falling backwards off the
Gina sat down, chuckling.
"What do you think of him,
"What do you mean?"
he was kind of
handsome, don't you think? I believe maybe he liked you."
"No, he doesn't even know
me," Rose replied curtly, almost defensively, and then she realized Gina was poking
fun at her.
Was he really flirting with us?
Rose wondered. I guess he was; I'm not used to such forwardness.
Gina looked at her intently and
then took a small sip of her soda.
"Last boyfriend broke your
heart?" she asked.
"Something like that,"
Rose answered, avoiding her eyes.
Gina looked straight down, a
serious cast spreading over her features.
"Yeah, me too
Gina sat shaking her head slowly
from side to side, a somber expression furrowing her brow, and when she looked
mischievously at Rose out of the corner of her eye Rose couldn't help bursting out with
"I do think that gentleman
liked you, Gina. I believe he's intrigued by a woman who really knows the lay of the city
This made Gina join in, her laugh
a throaty expression of delight.
Mr. Souster seemed satisfied with
Rose's enhanced morning output, and he paid little attention to her for the remainder of
the day. With coaching from Gina, Rose 's sewing began to show improvement; enough that
she just might be able to pass muster on her own.
At quitting time, the women said
their good-byes and Rose headed back home. The city was alive with late rush hour traffic,
the streets awash in the reds of sunset. Walking seemed different, easier, and Rose
stopped for a few groceries to stock her icebox. Though the streets were crowded she
didn't feel the crush at all. For the first time Rose was able to see the throngs
streaming along the sidewalks not as strangers or threats, but as people with lives not
too unlike her own.
She felt anticipation; felt
encouraged. It seemed as though, ever so slightly, the arms of the city were opening to