Before we get stated, a note-- I use two words in this story that seem to be unfamiliar to most people. Since they are somewhat important to the story, here they are:
Shirtwaist: also waist. A type of ladies' blouse.
Lawn: a type of light fabric used to make shirtwaists, usually cotton.
Thanks for your patience.
Lotte Ethelstan, Sewer, 9th Floor
The street was still gloomy, the tall buildings blocking the early morning light. The Asch Building wasn't the tallest on the street, but its ten rough, brown stories of steel and concrete were more than enough to make me feel insignificant. The scraps of sun that filtered down into the street didn't help me keep clean; there was no way to avoid the filth on the street. I pulled my shawl closer around my face and glanced up at the sky. While it was tinged with gray, the steel mills hadn't been running long enough to really make it murky yet.
I ducked off of Greene Street and into the alleyway, carefully avoiding the slime-smeared walls. I had never used the massive front doors, and likely never would—that was for clients and the bosses. Like the rest of the workers, I walked around to the back of the building, scraped the worst of the street muck off my boots, and entered through the small, nondescript back door.
That was one thing no one ever said about America. The streets are paved with Fäkalien, not gold. My face was smooth when I punched the freight elevator's call button, but I still needed some more time to compose myself. While I waited, I pulled off my shawl and tucked it into my satchel, wrapping it carefully around the bread and cheese I'd brought for lunch. I thought it would be better…
"Privyet, Lotte!" said a cheerful voice behind me. "What luck! We can talk for once!"
My head popped up. "Katya! Good morning! Will you ride the elevator with me?"
She smiled. "No, Lotte. The elevator is too small for us both, no? I will use the stairs. Nine flights every day, it is good for the health. Also, I can see the fourth floor's handsome Alexei on the way up, hmm? And I will still be faster than that creaky old thing!"
I winced. She was right; the elevator was held together by spit and prayers.
I tugged my skirts straight and pulled the satchel off my shoulder. I stepped out of the elevator and took a cautious look down the hall. I took a deep breath. Joseph Fletcher was leaning against the wall, right next to the door of the sewing room. I felt my back stiffening, but I forced myself to walk forward. "Well, good morning, Mistress."
I unclenched my teeth and tried my best Society smile, like the ladies at the theaters wore when talking to the ticket-takers. I need this job. Act polite. "Joseph Fletcher. It's Miss, actually. Miss Lotte Ethelstan."
His smile widened. "You could always change that."
I need my job. I tried to step around him, but he pushed himself away from the wall and stood in the middle of the narrow corridor. I eyed the gap between his shoulder and the wall. I could fit, but I would be uncomfortably close to him.
"Not thinking of doing anything dramatic, are you? Come now, chat for a while!"
I darted for the gap and shoved past him. I didn't completely avoid the pinch that found me, even through my petticoats. Schmuck.
He caroled after me, "Why so cold, love? You wound poor Joseph's heart!" I wished I hadn't taken off my scarf. My cheeks were flaming as I dashed around the room and into the coat closet. I tried to snatch a moment to compose myself—no such luck. Mrs. Krupin swept away from the cutting tables and shot me a sharp look through the door as she passed. She gestured towards the rows of sewing machines. Get to work, girl. I ducked my head.
I walked as quickly as I could to my machine, dodging around the piles of scrap littering the floor and the finished blouses hanging from the ceiling like an army of unraveling ghosts. Mrs. Krupin's eyes were hot against my back.
I looked up for a moment. The men at the cutting tables were going strong-- Jake Kline was already smoking. With his cigarette held carefully to keep the ash off of the lawn, he flipped his shears around his finger and into the fabric in front of him, cutting it cleanly. I appraised the pile critically. He was being ambitious-- it looked like he had about a hundred-eighty thicknesses stacked up. Most of the men only cut about a hundred-sixty or so at a time. Showing off?
I didn't know why I still cared. Elizer had been coming by the house regularly. I'd been putting him off; if I married him I would need to give up my job. I sighed, glanced at the bare wire above my workstation and the teetering stack of hangers on the table, and went to collect my fabric.
The short relief of lunch seemed centuries ago. My mind was fuzzy, my fingertips were raw, my eyes were bleary, and my legs were numb. It was lucky that Harris and Blanck hadn't started using Ford's assembly line, or I might have hurt myself. As it was, my fingers slipped uncomfortably close to the needle several times. 4:45. Thanks be for Saturday hours. I stood, stretched, and folded up the half-sewn blouse. I smiled slightly, and grabbed the sleeve that brushed my neck as I stood. Four and half shirtwaists. Not bad for a short day. I tucked my stool over the sewing machine's treadle and started towards the coatroom.
One of the Baumann girls, the younger one, was in front of me. What was her name? Ah. "Feiga!" I called. "Kommst du hier für einen Moment!" She turned. "Here," I said, and pressed a piece of cheese, saved from my lunch, into her palm. "You did good work for me today."
"Bitte." Her face was blanker than the unpainted walls of the coatroom.
"Thank your sister for me, please? Tell her that Mrs. Krupin complemented your work." Her eyes widened slightly, and she dashed away from me. The cheese had long since vanished.