In commemoration of the fire that took the lives of 146 workers, nearly all young women and girls, on this day in 1911 in New York City, an excerpt from a work of fiction.
Friday, March 17, 1911
The sky lightened in broken bands of red. The Asch building, the building where she worked on the ninth floor, took shape in her window like something huge and black and winged that meant to break through the glass and pin her to the bed.
She opened her eyes. It was still dark but she knew her blue and white striped curtains were closed, she closed them every night when she came in from work, one of the few habits of her life alone in the room. Even if the curtains had been parted, the Asch building couldn’t be seen from her window. It was blocks and blocks away.
The shop had begun to follow her home.
Sometimes when she was trying to fall asleep at night she forgot where she was and thought that she was still at her machine, still working. She tried to work, but she couldn’t see what she was doing well enough to make the work come out right, the thread snapped, the stitches veered off the edge of the piece of sewing under her hand and all the time the overseer’s wheeze grew louder as he made his rounds up and down the rows. There were nights when she woke herself again and again from this dream, turned her head on the pillow that smelled of Paul Stein’s tobacco. Thought, “No, I can’t work now. I’m so tired. I have to sleep.”
What worried her was when this happened in reverse. When she was in the shop, working at her machine and started to dream as if she was asleep in her bed.
This didn’t happen at first, when she had to show that she could do the work. After two weeks she was an expert, Sophie told her most girls were experts after one, even though they were paid beginners’ wages for a long time after. Now she knew the work and it was always the same, seam after seam and hour after hour working her machine with her hands and her foot. One foot worked the pedal and the other foot, the left, did nothing. After a while she couldn’t feel the foot that wasn’t working.
The other day she dreamed that her left foot was gone. She was working, awake, and at the same time she was dreaming that this had happened to all of them on the ninth floor: at the end of the day the girls stood up from their machines and found nothing at all at the ends of their left ankles. Bite off your evil the way an animal bites away a leg caught in a trap – that’s what they said in the convent. In her dream, it was feet breaking free from girls and running for their lives. Two hundred and forty left feet on the streets of New York.
She jumped when the guard rang the bell. As if she really had been sleeping. The back of her neck was stiff and she felt as if someone was pressing a finger against the space between her eyes.
She was slow getting up from her machine. When she got to the cloak room, most of the girls were gone. Only a few coats were still hanging from the rack. Two pale, slender girls were pinning up their braids and laughing at each other in Yiddish. She had seen these girls in the cloak room before when she left late. They both wore their long hair wrapped around their heads, and either they spent a long time twisting their braids after work, or one of them did and the other always waited – anyone could see that they were sisters.
The girls didn’t notice her. She felt as if she was still dreaming, watching them side by side so alike in the mirror. It was so cold their breath whitened the glass. She hadn’t felt the cold when she was working, but she could feel it now, creeping up her legs through the soles of her shoes. One of the girls rubbed away the cloud that covered their reflection and said something that made her sister smile and blush. Even though Virginia couldn’t understand what they were saying, she was sure the girl who blushed was being teased about a man. She tried to imagine someone teasing her about Paul Stein. She reached for her coat.
The door swung open and an older woman she’d never seen before came in with a rasping sound of coarse stockings rubbed together. The woman was dressed all in black, with her dark hair pulled back so that her ears showed. She looked at the coat rack and then at Virginia. Her eyes narrowed and she said something in Italian.
“I’m sorry,” Virginia said crisply. “I don’t understand you.” She turned away toward the mirror. The woman spoke again and this time her voice was loud and sharp. The skin on the backs of Virginia’s hands prickled. The two girls at the mirror went quiet. The woman repeated what she’d said and pointed at Virginia’s coat.
“I really don’t know what you’re saying.” Her voice had gone loud, the way the nuns would shout when someone who didn’t speak English came to the convent looking for help. She looked into the mirror. The two girls had stopped combing their hair. They lowered their eyes. She put her coat over her arm and started to walk past the woman. The woman grabbed her arm.
“Please stop!” Virginia pulled herself free. “I really don’t know what she wants,” she told the two sisters. The girls exchanged glances in the mirror. Without saying a word they gathered up their things and scurried out of the room.
She was alone with the woman. The woman approached her again, this time plucking at the coat over Virginia’s arm as if she wanted to take it from her without harming it. Virginia stared at her in amazement. “This is my coat!”
The woman started to yell in Italian. Splotches of red appeared high on her cheeks and the veins throbbed in her bare temples. Her eyes bulged. “This is a madwoman,” Virginia whispered. “This is a madwoman who is going to kill me.” The woman was three or four inches shorter than Virginia, but her thick arms strained against the tight sleeves of her dress as if trying to burst free. Hugging her purse and the coat to her chest, Virginia tried to run past her to the door. The woman knocked her backward into the coat rack. Virginia opened her mouth to scream but then she imagined all the people left in the shop running in to see her humiliated by the Italian woman, and closed it again. It didn’t matter, because the woman screamed, a long, wild sound like a war cry.
“What’s wrong there?” a man’s voice called from the other side of the door. Then the same voice called again, maybe asking the same question, this time in Italian. The woman answered him and for a minute they shouted back and forth to each other. Men were never supposed to come into the cloak room, but what if this one did? Italians carried knives, the nuns always said, they would cut a person’s throat as easily as the string around a package.
“This is a nightmare,” she said aloud.
The woman broke off what she was saying and spun around toward her. From the look on her face it seemed as if she didn’t care any more about sparing the coat. Virginia backed against the mirror. The woman lowered her head like a black bull about to gore, but before she could move the door opened and a pair of hands gripped her shoulders. Another voice began shouting behind her in Italian. Sophie. Sophie, who sat at the machine next to hers.
The woman yelled and pointed with her whole hand at Virginia. Sophie yelled back, then she looked at the coat in Virginia’s arms and frowned.
“Sophie, she wants my coat! Will you please tell her – “
“Virginia.” Sophie took a step toward her, then changed her mind and went to the rack instead. She walked its whole length to the far end of the room and took down another coat, cheap black wool like the one in Virginia’s hands, but not like it, old and worn. Hers, of course.
When the woman reached out again Virginia let her take the coat she was holding. The woman shook it in her face and Sophie had to step between them and yell at her some more. The woman didn’t believe a mistake had been made, which was funny because the coat, as Virginia could see when the woman finally put it on, would have been much too small for her.
When the woman was gone, Virginia sank into the only chair in the cloak room. Her legs and hands were shaking. “If it was hers, why didn’t she just say so?” She gave a weak laugh. “Sophie, you saved my life. She would have torn my arms off in another minute.”
Sophie leaned against the wall, the brown coat that used to belong to her married sister buttoned up to her chin against the cold. She panted gently, as if she had been running. It occurred to Virginia that maybe she had been running.
“But why did you come back?” Virginia asked her. “You went home when the bell rang.”
“I was talking downstairs. They told me to come.”
“Who told you?”
Sophie named two girls Virginia didn’t know.
“The Yiddish sisters?” Yiddish was the word Virginia used for the girls in the shop. Ever since Sophie had told her that Paul Stein was Jewish, she’d decided that Yiddish and Jewish must refer to two separate kinds of people.
Sophie ignored the question. “They saw me outside. They said, ‘Go upstairs quick. Your friend’s in trouble.'”
That was funny, that girls she didn’t even know thought that Sophie was her friend.
Sophie watched her with a broody look, the same broody look she had whenever Virginia mentioned Paul Stein. “You don’t look right,” she said. “You’re sick.”
“I feel fine.” Virginia tried to smile. “I’m just tired.”
And much worse than tired, she added silently, to be so stupid. To risk my neck for a cheap coat that wasn’t even my size.