Monday, September 22, 2014

#142: "Coming of Age" by Lorine Kritzer Pergament

~This story was previously published in Bridges (2008).

Fannie Lipsky picked up her pay envelope at four forty-five. She counted her money and thought about what she might do with the nickel she usually kept before giving the envelope to her mother. Her papa and brother Oscar always went to the Havdalah service at the shul to thank God for giving them a day of rest and meditation. The Havdalah was the “great divide,” between the Sabbath and the rest of the week. For Fannie, it was also the great divide between men and women. She thought about how nice it would be to have a Shabbos day of rest herself, but the entryway sign in three languages at the Triangle Waist Factory was clear: “If you don’t show up on Saturday or Sunday, you’ve already been fired when it’s Monday.” She sighed, content with the thought that tomorrow, Sunday, was her day off, and even though she had to help her mama with the housework, that was better than going to work at the factory.
She glanced at the calendar on the wall – March 25, 1911 – only two weeks until her thirteenth birthday. She didn’t care that girls didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah service at the shul with a grand reception afterwards, like her brother Oscar had, to celebrate entry to adulthood. Fannie wanted only one thing – books.
            Back out on the floor she made sure the girls finished putting everything away properly. The eighth-floor watchman had just rung the quitting bell, and one of the girls in the cloak room started singing “Let me call you sweetheart.” Soon others joined in. “I’m in love with you...”

    Gerty Steinberg, Fannie’s best friend, worked on the floor above and was about to get her coat when she heard someone scream. At the same time, she caught a whiff of the unmistakable smell of burning cloth. She dropped the piece she’d been folding and ran toward the stairway. She was caged in by the wicker work baskets and scrambled to get over them. By now most of her coworkers were at the door or on their way to it. Gerty tripped as she freed herself. She pulled herself up as she heard Mr. Wolk, the foreman, uselessly trying to calm the girls at the door, which was locked from the outside. Management claimed this was so the girls wouldn’t be bothered by outsiders, but everyone knew that the outsiders they were referring to were union organizers.
            Some of the girls ran to the windows and screamed for help. After a few agonizing moments, it was apparent they couldn’t stay where they were. One by one and in two’s they stood on the window sills – then jumped, some holding hands, others praying softly.
            Not wanting to jump nine stories to a certain death, Gerty crawled on the floor to avoid the smoke, and made her way to the elevators. She inched between moving legs and feet to the front and pulled herself up against the wall next to the open doors of one of the cars. Girls were pushing their way in through the opening between the grated closure while Joseph Bevilaqua, the operator, implored them to wait for the next car. Finally, struggling with the rotating handle, he managed to bring the two sides together, leaving the outer metal doors open and the remaining girls shouting. He yelled, “I’ll be back,” but Gerty knew he wouldn’t.
            She quickly threw her coat on top of the descending elevator, closed her eyes and jumped. Her body hit the elevator with a thud, and she knew she had broken at least one leg, maybe both, and felt sharp spasms in her rib cage. She started to call for help when she felt a huge weight fall on top of her. She tried to lift her head for air but it was pinned down, and her screams were muffled by the weight of the body on top of hers. Then another body fell on them. With her free arm, Gerty grabbed a leg flopped against her shoulder and managed to wriggle to the top of the pile. She gulped at the newfound air and caught her breath – a small bit of relief. After the girls got out of the elevator car, it was lowered further to retrieve those on top. Gerty was able to pull herself off and stumbled out of the building. Disoriented and in excruciating pain, she instinctively tried to walk toward Hester Street. After a few steps, she fell.
          Fannie’s eyes were irritated and her back sore from a day spent bending over to inspect the girls’ work. She stopped for a moment to stretch and rub her eyes. Just as she noticed an unusual odor and heard a commotion from the cutters’ tables, Antonia Colletti stood up and yelled, “Fire!”
          Flames and smoke were coming from the bins underneath where the cutters threw their scraps. The odor was acrid, a combination of the melting bolts of flimsy cloth with the ubiquitous machine oil that soaked the thirsty wood floors.      As one, the girls at the sewing tables leaped from their seats, but they had to get around the long tables and each other to get to the exit – in seconds, a horde of girls was pushing and shoving. Fannie, near the door, started for the stairway, then realized she didn’t have her coat. Without thinking she went back to the cloak room to get it. By now the girls were pushing harder and yelling frantically, crowded at the partition in front of the elevators and stairway exit where the doorway permitted only one person at a time.
            Putting on her coat, Fannie pressed and managed her way into the screaming crowd and through the narrow doorway into the vestibule. She dropped down and crawled into the narrow smoke-filled stairwell. People coming from the tenth floor were falling over each other on their way past the ninth floor where the haunting sounds of screaming and banging on the locked door could be heard from below.
            I’ve got to get home to Mama. Mama will worry about me, was all she could think as she squeezed against the wall to prop herself against the rushing crowd. I just need to get down the stairs – one at a time – one at a time. As she pushed her way slowly down, she used her outside arm to protect her face from the flailing limbs of the now hysterical girls.
            Fannie passed a policeman coming up the worn wooden stairs. “Okay, girls, take it easy, now. One at a time, now, there ya go,” he tried to cajole the electrified horde, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t hear him. He helped up one girl who’d fallen down and was blocking the stairway. By now, the heat and smoke reached out to the girls as they descended. Fannie breathed in the strong poisonous smell of burning paint while the walls blistered, as if trying to defy the fire. Choking, she tripped near the seventh-floor landing and hit her head on a protruding light fixture. She felt as if something sharp and hot had struck her. For a moment, all she could see was the jumble of brown and tan and black stockinged legs surrounded by rose and blue and green skirts with white petticoats peeping out. Catching her breath, she managed to grab the banister and was trying to get to her feet when she felt a strong grip on her arm. She looked up to see Sadie Klein, one of the girls from her floor.
            “C’mon Fannie, we gotta get outta here.”
            Fannie pulled her skirt up around her mouth and nose as the two girls continued down the stairs among the crush of desperate co-workers: some weeping quietly, singed hair flying around their faces; others screaming as if the very sound of their voices would propel them down the stairwell. Each had only one concern, to escape the inferno to the safety of Washington Place.

            Thirteen year old Izzy Rosenfeld had decided to make his last delivery of trimmings by way of Washington Place in the hopes of running to Miss Fannie Lipsky on her way home from work. He’d met her with her friend Gerty, a cute blonde with a pea-green beret, in the park that day at lunch time. He was just rounding the corner of Greene Street on his bicycle when he heard what sounded like an explosion in the Asch Building. He looked up to see a puff of smoke, then heard a commotion. He stopped his bike in time to see a bundle of dress goods come out of an eighth-floor window. A bystander remarked they must be trying to save the best cloth. But in its descent, the wind came up, opening the bundle to reveal that it was not a bolt of cloth – but a girl.
            Izzy automatically picked up his cap which had fallen off and stood still for a moment – he clutched the handlebars of his delivery bike, trying to comprehend what was happening. He stared at the girl, not believing she was dead. For a brief moment, all was silent as Izzy walked over to where the delicate girl lay as still as a fallen branch. He placed his cap gently on her anguished face and began to chant Kaddish, the ancient recitation for the dead.
            Then he heard the racket: policemen yelling at bystanders; firemen, abandoning ladders that only reached to the fifth floor, were struggling to open their safety nets to catch the petrified girls standing on the windowsills; other fireman, their hoses aimed at the upper windows, braced themselves not to be unbalanced by the pressure of the avalanche of water; and girls, singly and in two’s and three’s screaming as they managed to get out of the burning building.
            As a crowd gathered near where the body had hit the ground, horses pulled at their tethers, and the wagon drivers stood to quiet them. The screams and the whinnying brought Mrs. Lena Goldman out of her restaurant on Greene Street.  At first, she too thought someone was throwing bolts of cloth out the window, till one opened and she saw legs. Another girl came tumbling down, then another. Mrs. Goldman, who knew many of the girls as customers, couldn’t believe her eyes. She watched in horror as groups gathered on the sills of the ninth-floor windows. Some would pause, as if to rethink what they were doing, then jump with arms entwined. Some tried to jump feet first, others seemed to float for a moment before beginning their fatal descent.
Mein Gott,” she said, “it’s raining children.”
            Izzy looked up through the smoke and water torrents and saw men, women and girls leaning out of smoke-filled windows in between the neat lettering proclaiming “Triangle Waist Factory.” He ran to help, grabbing a corner of a blanket that some men were holding, but they yelled, “Get outta here, kid, you wanna get killed!” and when Izzy persisted in holding on, they kicked him out of the way.
            “Move along, now, young feller,” said a serious-looking copper. “You’ll only get hurt here.”
            Izzy absentmindedly wiped off his dirty knickers and moved his bike across the street, chaining it to the railing on a stoop. At least this was something he could control. He edged his way back to the other side, unnoticed by the policeman. He couldn’t leave. He knew some of the girls who worked at the Triangle Waist Company – Molly Cohen from down the street, Sadie Klein from his building, and Fannie Lipsky, whom he’d met in the park earlier. Maybe he could sneak into the building and look for them.
            Officers from the nearby Eighth Precinct station on Mercer Street began to arrive. The scene was a deja vu when they realized whom they’d been summoned to save. A year earlier, the shirtwaist makers had a strike and the police had been called upon to break it up. Now they looked at the falling and dead bodies in disbelief. Captain Patrick Moroney noticed a girl who seemed to have survived and recognized her by her blonde curly hair as one of the girls he’d clubbed during the strike. Relieved that she was alive, he helped her up and, starting to guide her across the street, said, “There now girlie, you’ll be all right. And don’t forget your pretty green hat.” They walked ten feet – her hands cold, her eyes unseeing – and she dropped to the ground. In less than a minute, she was dead. Captain Moroney gently picked up her body, carried it across the street, and lay it carefully next to a nearby building, being sure to cover her face with her pea-green beret. Then he walked around the corner and threw up.
            By this time, there were so many curious bystanders that Izzy was able to make his way to the Asch Building without being noticed. People were streaming out of the fire door at the right of the building front. As he approached, a pair of young girls ran out onto the sidewalk. He recognized one.
            “Sadie, are you okay?” he asked as the girls leaned against the building to catch their breath.
            She met his eyes. “Izzy, what are you doing here?”
            “I was making a delivery. Why don’t you sit, Sadie?” He looked at her companion and realized she was Fannie, the girl from the park.
            He practically whispered, “Are you all right, Miss Lipsky?”
            Sadie looked at her at the same time. “Oh, Fannie, you’ve got a bruise on your head.” She gingerly touched Fannie’s forehead where she’d struck her head. “Does it hurt?”
            “I think I’m okay,” Fannie sighed. “I just need to rest.”
Sadie took a deep breath.
            At that point, they all noticed the noise and activity around them.
     “I’ve got to find Gerty,” said Fannie, as she steadied herself against the building.
            “But Fannie,” said Sadie, “we can’t do anything. Let the policemen and firemen do their jobs. We’d only get in the way.”
            “She’s right,” said Izzy. “You need to get your head looked at.”
            Fannie looked at Izzy as if for the first time. “You don’t understand. She’s my best friend, I have to find her.”
            She started to walk toward the Asch Building, but more bodies came hurtling down. The three young people instinctively drew back as they witnessed each human missile hitting the pavement with a thud, like heavy bags of trash. The deceptive difference between the ordinary sounds and what they were witnessing was unbearable.
            “Oh my God, I can’t believe it!” Fannie screamed, holding her face with her hands, her body shaking all over. She and Sadie clutched each other as the horrible spectacle continued.
They heard a sound from above and looked up. A young man and woman were entwined on the ledge. They held each other for a moment and tenderly kissed. Then he held her out, as if making an offering and, trying to be gentle, dropped her delicately to her death. The young man straightened his jacket as if he were about to greet someone and stepped off to meet his loved one in eternity. As if in pursuit, flames forced their way through the open window.
            Then a young woman in burning clothes toppled out of the same ninth floor window and got caught on an iron hook which protruded out from the sixth floor. Her body just hung there for a moment, then fell forcefully to the ground, its flames extinguished by the impact.
            Frozen with horror, all the bystanders, including Fannie, Izzy and Sadie, continued to look up, waiting for more bodies to come crashing down. Firemen and policemen shouted commands and ran around frantically to bring some order to the chaos of bloody corpses and belongings on the pavement.
            After a while, it became obvious no one else would escape the inferno. Fannie noticed the clock on a nearby building. It was five past five – only twenty minutes ago she’d received her pay envelope. She put her hand in the left pocket of her coat and felt her change-purse – it was still there.
            “Oh, my God,” she heard a wail and, turning her head, saw Sadie bending over a girl’s body. Then she noticed that the face was covered by a familiar-looking pea-green beret.
            Collapsing, she wailed, “Gerty, oh no, not Gerty.”

            I grew up knowing that my grandmother had been a survivor of the infamous Triangle Waist Factory fire of March 25, 1911. There were two facts of which I was sure: that she stupidly went to the cloakroom to retrieve her coat; and that somehow the event was the catalyst for her meeting my grandfather. They were both thirteen at the time.
            My grandmother was reticent to talk about the incident, and when, in the 60’s, a man named Leon Stein approached her to get information about a book he was researching, she demurred. (I later relied upon this book for the facts – The Triangle Fire, published in 1964. The only reference to my grandmother in the book is the mention that only two women refused to speak with the author.) My grandmother died when I was in my twenties, and I later wished that I had tried to get more details when I had the chance.
            All the details about the fire itself, the descriptions of the loft, the girls jumping out of windows and the other means of escape, the bystanders standing in disbelief, and the whole incident happening in twenty minutes are accurate. I created Gerty and imagined all the conversations and the way in which the scenes unfolded.

Lorine Kritzer Pergament's stories have appeared in Gargoyle, Bridges, and Penn-Union, and she was a winner in the 2008 F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest. Her story "Smell the Roses on Your Own Time," is included in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women, edited by Richard Peabody. She is working on a novel inspired by her grandmother’s experiences as a survivor of the infamous Triangle Waist Factory fire of 1911.  Lorine is the Book Review editor of Signature, a publication of the Women’s National Book Association and is a member of the WNBA’s Great Group Reads panel, which annually chooses books recommended for book clubs. She is a 2006 graduate
of the Johns Hopkins Writing program.       


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