Chapter Eight

Rose stood across from the garment factory and eyed the entrance anxiously. She'd been frozen in place for nearly half an hour, trying to mount the courage to go in.

All morning, while journeying up to the Waldorf and back, she had been dreading this moment. It wasn't that she was nervous about working for a living; she actually felt an anticipation of sorts for accomplishing something with her hands.

She just felt unprepared.

Rose had done a bit of sewing over the past few years but she could in no way pronounce herself as proficient. The previous night, while waiting for sleep to come, she had mulled over the short list of jobs that she might be able to hold.

She knew she had a good mind but precious few marketable skills.

They don't pay much for being able to stand on the points of your toes.

It's not right, but truly interesting jobs are scarce for women. The average woman doesn't have a career… she just works.

The problem is, if I try to get a job based on my education there will be questions asked, questions I don't want to answer. And too many of those jobs will be quite social. A seamstress, on the other hand, can be anonymous, and being one doesn't require anything but experience.

Which I don't have.

Rose finally forced her legs to move and strode across the street. Pushing open the factory door, she was immediately hit by the aroma of material being ironed commingled with the smells of machine oil, leather and the particular musty scent of damp cloth left lying in one place for too long. The room was high and long, with rows of women intently at work over various sewing machines and others laboring over the ironing boards that lined the walls. The squeak of the pushcarts as they moved between tables was layered with the sound of the irons steaming over garments and the constant whir of the sewing machines wheels. It took Rose's eyes a few seconds to fully adjust to the relative dimness of the room. Thick layers of grime covered the windows and strangled the daylight.

Several of the nearby women looked up at Rose but quickly returned to their work. A shabbily-dressed man walking between the rows spotted her and approached. His hair was a black thicket and his shirt and pants had many stains where he had wiped his hands clean of oil and grease while working on the machines.

Must be one of the mechanics, Rose thought.

"Looking for someone?" he asked abruptly.

"No…er…well, actually…the manager, please."

"And what would you be needin him for?"

Rose tried to ignore the flock of butterflies in her stomach.

"I'm looking for work."

The man eyed her appraisingly.

In the early morning, before she had taken the El uptown, Rose had stood outside the factory and watched the women arrive, seeing how they dressed for work. They all wore short sleeved dresses in dark solid colors, all the easier to conceal the job's grime. She had put on a similar simple work dress and hat for her afternoon job hunting.

"Follow me," he commanded.

He led her to a small office off the main room, sparsely furnished with just a desk, two chairs and a cabinet. The man offered her a seat as he moved around the desk to the chair behind it, and it dawned on Rose that this man, despite appearances, was the owner of the business.

"What's your name?"

"Rose Dawson."

"All right, Rose. Can you run an ornamental stitching machine?"

What's that? I'd better just be honest.

"No, sir."

"How about a button-holer?"


"Glove sewer?"


"You DO know how to run a sewing machine?"


"I don't really need many girls right now but I can always use another good worker. I just don't have the time to be teachin no one. We'll give you a try for this afternoon and then we'll talk."

He walked to the door, whistled out across the floor, and then returned to his seat. A tap on the glass heralded the arrival of another supervisor.

"Jonesy, put Rose here on a machine," the owner instructed. "Give her something easy to start, and keep an eye on her."

As Rose followed Mr. Jones out she turned to the owner.

"Thank you, sir."

"We'll see."

Mr. Jones led Rose to an open machine along the far wall. He quickly explained the operation of the sewing machine and rolled over a heaping tray of garments.

Rose tried to follow his explanations as best she could. The machine wasn't too different from the one she had used at home but was obviously designed for a greater volume of work.

"We'll start ya off doing some simple hems on these dresses. The lengths are already marked. The machine is set to do a simple double chain stitch, is all. I'll check back on you in a bit."

Rose looked at the pile of dresses to her right.

How long is it supposed to take me to finish all of those?

The woman in the next station smiled a greeting as she shifted a finished dress to her left, grabbed another from her right, and silently started in on the new garment.

Rose placed a dress on the machine.

What do I do first?

Someone had already pinned the lengths; all that was needed was a hem. Rose started sewing, using her hand on the wheel to do several deliberate back stitches to lock the start, just as her mother had taught her. It took a while for her to get the feel for the amount of foot pressure needed on the treadle, and her speed in drawing the material across the machine was often too fast or too slow. Twice she had to cut her thread and begin again as her line began to drift, but she finally finished the first dress.

Snipping past the final stitch, she tied a square knot in the end and ran her finger along the seam she had created, examining her work.

Not bad, she thought, as she placed the dress on her 'finished' tray and began another.

While on her third garment, Rose mistakenly applied too much pull on the fabric while simultaneously peddling too fast on the treadle, and she created a tangle of bunched material and thread, with the needle jammed down in the base of the machine. She signaled for help, and Mr. Jones pursed his lips as he silently cleared the snarl and re-engaged the machine wheel.

Rose looked at her fingers. They were smudged with beige dye from the material, as was her left forearm. She wiped them as best she could while she waited to resume.

After half an hour Rose had completed ten dress hems, barely making a dent in her pile. She glanced over at her neighbor and noticed her stack was half gone.

Didn't she get a tray just before I started?

Rose watched her work for a moment and felt intimidated by the speed with which she sewed. Her hands seemed to fly across the machine, her feet a blur of activity.

God, I don't think I could ever be that fast.

Several minutes later, Rose became aware that the owner had quietly moved to spot behind her, watching her work. She self-consciously completed the dress on which she was working and put it on top of her finished garments.

I really hate someone watching over my shoulder, Rose thought. As she turned to acknowledge his presence he stepped forward and picked up her just-completed dress.

He looked at her hem and then pulled a needle from his lapel and began to pick at her seam, testing its tightness. He withdrew at random another dress from her small "completed" pile and repeated his examination.

Replacing it, he shook his head.

"Like I said, we've no time for beginners and I have nary an opening for even a presser."

Rose considered him for a second, then picked up her bag from under the table and turned to leave without a word.

"You might try the sweaters," he suggested, without malice.

Rose didn't respond and started towards the exit.

There is no way I'm going to work in a sweatshop, she thought.

As she walked by the women Rose felt her face burning, and she concentrated on looking straight ahead until she had made her way through the door and into the outer entranceway.

Those girls think I can't even make it as a seamstress. How embarrassing! Little rich girl can't even sew!

Rose leaned against the side of the foyer, eyes closed.

Why do I think that? It's stupid; they don't know who I am. I'm just another working girl to them. They probably forgot about me the second I left.

Still, it's embarrassing. I've never failed at anything before and I've never had anyone dismiss me before, either.

Rose stepped out onto the sidewalk and glanced up and down the street, trying to decide where to go next.

Oh well, she thought, it can't get any worse than that!


The rest of the afternoon and the next morning were filled with more of the same.

Some shops wouldn't even consider her without any sewing experience. One owner, on seeing the speed of her work, berated her loudly in front of his entire workforce for wasting his time.

And at one factory Rose made the mistake of absent-mindedly removing her hat at the interview.

"We don't need your kind here," the manager said abruptly.

For a second, Rose had the strange notion that he knew secrets about her, about Titanic, and that he somehow blamed the survivors for those who had perished. She flushed with guilt, and then she noticed his gaze was fixed steadily on her hair. His comment became crystal clear.

"My kind?" she shot back. She felt foolish and tired and her temper rose in spite of her best efforts to corral it.

"Feminists are not welcome!" he said with disdain.

"Why? Because you might be forced to treat your workers decently; pay them a fair wage?"

She suddenly found herself playing a part for which she hadn't auditioned.

"Come on," he said, shoving her quickly towards the door. "Out with you."

She thought of dozens of retorts but couldn't find the energy to utter even one, and she ended up standing on the sidewalk, hat in hand, as the door slammed loudly behind her.

I should not have let my tiredness get the better of me, Rose thought.

'Can't get any worse?'

Boy, was I wrong!

By noontime on Wednesday she was becoming discouraged, and decided to take a break from her search.

Rose wandered about the streets and avenues in her neighborhood, ducking in and out of a few shops, looking without much interest.

Maybe I could work as a secretary. No… schooling would come up.

Some stores are hiring women as salesmen, but that might be too visible. I would never know when an old acquaintance might happen by the shop.

"Watch out!"

Rose snapped to attention, teetering on the brink of a gaping hole in the street. She felt a momentary vertigo, staring into the deep pit, and then stepped back from the edge.

"You ain't payin proper mind where ya walkin, miss!" a city worker scolded her.

"Sorry," was all she could manage. His tone made her feel like a schoolgirl who had distractedly wandered out of line.

"Mindless floozies," Rose heard him mutter under his breath as she walked away.

She stepped up on the sidewalk and surveyed the excavation. A large section of Sixth Avenue was undergoing sewer replacement to meet the rapidly increasing demands of the growing city. It was badly congesting the traffic and adding to the general din of the street scene.

And it's not doing wonders for the smell around here, either, Rose thought.

Her mind wrapped around her experiences of the day and Rose soon found she had wound her way back to her apartment building by rote. She sat on the steps and put her head in her hands.

For perhaps the hundredth time over the previous few days, Rose wondered if she was doing the right thing.

As she rested, she became aware of the clip-clop of a horse slowly walking up the street and glanced up to see the ice-man's wagon approaching. She watched him stop at each building and laboriously grab great blocks of ice with his tongs, lugging them inside.

"West Side Ice" was painted on the wagon's side, the letters arching over a rendition of a glistening blue block. Water dripped to the cobblestone from the underside of the carriage, runoff from the melting ice inside.

I suppose it's time I got some ice, Rose thought, and she went inside to unlock her door. By the time she had returned to the stoop the wagon was in front of her building.

"Hello," Rose greeted the cart's driver.

"Ice for you today?"

"Yes, please. Top floor."

"I know. Cash only, miss."

"Fine, Mr. …?"

"Carson." He tapped his tongs against the side of his cart, near the front. 'C. Carson', it read, in plain black lettering.

"I'm Rose Dawson."

"Ah huh," he replied as he tonged a block and headed up the stairs.

Rose watched him disappear into the building.

Friendly, she thought, and she was awaiting his return when a nearby snort caught her attention. She turned to the horse harnessed to the front of cart.

He was a chestnut with two white stockings in the rear, though his coloring was difficult to discern what with cumulative layers of dust, dirt and smoke covering him. Rose patted him lightly a few times, but was afraid to run her hand over his coat.

No point in making a clean spot, she thought, and she laughed out loud.

She went forward and scratched him behind the right ear. He tilted his head towards her and seemed to enjoy the sudden attention.

"I wish I had something to feed you, fella," Rose said to him, and his eyes turned to the gentle sound of her voice.

Rose could hear Mr. Carson rapping on Mrs. O'Reilly's door and the subsequent muffled tones of their conversation, then he re-emerged from the building and hustled down the stairs.

"Hey, what are ya doing there?" he called to Rose.

"Just saying hello, Mr. Carson."

"Well, don't! I don't need him to be getting spoiled by no attention."

Rose continued to pat the horse's snout.

"What's his name?"

"If ya must know, it's Red. Now we best be getting on with our business."

Rose paid for her ice and watched the horse and owner amble down the street.

"Thank you, Mr. Carson," she called out after them.

"Ah huh."

Red, Rose thought. Now there's an original name!


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