Chapter 3

Alzina Stevens

 

Flynn, the saloonkeeper, eyed Anton as he helped himself to another deviled egg and pretzel.

"I see you're on a saloon diet this week, Mister Klima," Flynn observed. "Now what HAS become of me funnyman Dooley? Ah, there t'is! No, there t'isn't! On vacation, will you now?"

Flynn rattled his newspaper angrily. Finley Peter Dunne and his creation Mister Dooley were the main reason that he bought the damnable rag.

"Needin' a laugh, says I, I betakes meself to the society pages. Eh, Mister Klima? Hey, there, go lightly with that boiled ham!"

Anton dropped the piece of ham he had been holding and became Flynn's rapt audience. Anything for some meat. . .

"Have ye heard now of Ward His Highness McAlister, Klima?" Anton shook his head. "Well, Mister McAlister is setting their teeth on end over be th' Gold Coast. He says our society Chicago people ain't no more fit to host this world's fair than my old pig is fit fer to become president! Mind you now, this Ward McAlister invented the term The Four Hundred for themselves out in New York." He gave a knowing wink in Anton's direction.

Anton stealthily took another few slices of ham while nodding and agreeing with Flynn.

"Can you beat his nerve?" Flynn slammed the paper onto the counter. "To top it off, he says that Columbus was nothing but a damnable commoner and he can't see why anyone would want to celebrate him!"

"Terrible!" lamented Anton, his cheeks stuffed like a chipmunk. "I can hardly believe it!"

"Our papers will soon make mincemeat of that popinjay!" Flynn assured Anton, who was having a bit of trouble swallowing so much ham all at one go. "I can hardly wait to see it!" Anton gasped. . .and fell to a fit of coughing.

"Easy now, boy! Didn't your family ever teach you t'is only proper to chew your food before swallowin' it?" Flynn reached across the bar and gave Anton a few whacks on the back.

"Here it says that Mister McAlister is telling the young black sheep of New York families to come to our fair, anyway. Barbarians, we may be, but our heiresses' money spends as well as any! He ought to be run up a flagpole, that one! I've seen some of our heiresses and they'd eat Mister McAlister for breakfast! Good luck to the young gigolos. Let them try. . ." Flynn laughed and went back polishing his beer mugs. Anton slipped a couple of pretzels in his pocket and slipped out the door.

 


One of the places not high on the list of things to do and places to see while in Chicago was much of the city's South Side. The Levee vice district was certain to attract some of Mister McAlister's nice young men from New York, but aside from this tourist mecca, the South Side was in eclipse. The previous winter had been a hard one. The day after the doors of the World's Columbian Exposition opened, the stock market had crashed. America plunged into the Panic of 'Ninety-three.

Luckily for Chicago, the Fair had provided some jobs and brought a lot of extra money into the town. Still, beyond the fairy tale gates of the White City, people walked the streets in search of a meal. Chicago had changed. Lincoln wouldn't have known the place. Many of the men who stalked the streets of Bloody Maxwell and the Nineteenth Ward were from somewhere else. Irish, Bohemians, African Americans, Eastern European Jews, Poles and a scattering of Swedes and Germans lived cheek by jowl in the crowded tenements just west of the World's Columbian Exposition. Life had not been easy for these people as orders dropped over at Armour's packinghouse and Pullman's railway car company.

But before all this slump hit, a young woman from the Rockford Seminary had come to see the South Side. She had stayed on and bought an old house that she had stumbled upon in her ramblings up and down the streets of Packingtown. The old house had a lot of potential. The rambling old structure had been the country house of one Mister Charles J. Hull. Now the old house stood slap up against immigrant tenements and factories.

Jane Addams thought the location near to ideal. Another young woman joined Jane and then another and another. Suddenly there were a whole flock of zealous young females poking and prodding around to find out what the needs of the community were. Actually talking to the people and asking them what they thought about their lives in Packingtown. The South Siders didn't know what to make of it. Sure, there had been the periodic raids and singfests of the evangelists in the saloons. But those people usually hadn't talked to anybody. It had been just zoom in, sing and shout, and back on down the street, followed by a few well- aimed tomatoes. This had been the script. These young women were not following the script. Jane and her friends gave a person pause.

Not only were the South Siders having pause, but so was no less than that gray eminence Marshall Field, the dry goods tycoon. One of those Hull House women had lain siege to his office. Marshall Field was not accustomed to being pestered. He was admired, if not loved, for his ethics in business and for his dealings to employees high and low. They were all underpaid. Field replied to anyone rude enough to notice these less- than-opulent salaries. He himself had been ever-so-much-more underpaid on his way up and look at all the good being underpaid had done for him. Sometimes these homilies did not have the desired effect. Sometimes people like William T. Stead pointed out to Field that corruption lay beneath his nose. But did Field want to hear of it? No. Reformers have always had a difficult time with the one central concept of human nature. Nobody likes to hear bad news about himself. Did Stead, the reformer, profit from the lesson of John the Baptist? No. He charged about Chicago annoying the corrupt. They were not interested in examining their souls too closely. They liked business as usual. They did not ask for a Jeremiah with a British accent. They did not like things being stirred up. They wished Stead would go back to England and annoy the queen.

But Alzina Stevens was one of the many young people who had gotten themselves very stirred up by hearing Mister Stead. She was camped out at Field's office. She had heard Mister Stead talking at large public meetings. He spoke about what Christ would think about all this. Meaning corruption.

She had gone to those meetings with her friends from from Hull House. She had seen the strange crowds: women like Bertha Palmer sitting next to trade unionists, mesdames, saloon owners, professors, prostitutes and so on. The whole cross section of the town. Theodore Dreiser was there, too, but nobody had heard of him at the time. Stead had pulled no punches about the economics of sin. Alzina had wanted to stand and cheer. Mister Stead alternately boomed and piped—his voice being funny that way—that, not only would Christ not be amused with the way the cops and the mesdames played paddy paws to exploit the poor fallen girls, but Christ definitely would not be in stitches over the factory system where people starved and girls barely into puberty made a merchandise of their sex just to survive.

Stead's pleas had moved Alzina to tears. The prostitutes sitting next to Alzina at the Central Music Hall had remained dry-eyed, since most of what Stead had to say was old news to them. It was nothing short of miraculous for all of those prostitutes, Magdalenes, Christ's marred image in female guise. . .whatever. . .to show up at a religious meeting without being dragged, though, wasn't it? marvelled Alzina.

Alzina's little blonde curls shook at the top of her head as she looked to her left and right at all those penitent Magdalenes. The only difference that Alzina could hear in Mister Stead's speech from the usual unsuccessful evangelist's, was that he went to where the poor were and listened to what they told him.

"Go ye and do likewise!" Mister Stead told the crowd. Alzina thought of getting up early the very next morning and going to Custom House Place where all those brothels were. But then a fallen girl got up and told about her average day and it would appear that none of them were up very early. Actually, the brothels had been fairly well canvassed by Mister Stead, Alzina told herself, looking around. Still, there's always the tenements, Alzina surmised correctly.

The next morning she told Miss Addams what was up. Miss Addams appeared a bit fatigued due to her spinal disease. She had been awake part of the night and called Alzina to talk to her in her dressing gown. Hull House was informal that way. Alzina described her plan to Jane, who had red rims around her otherwise luminous violet eyes. Alzina said that she had a call, a real vocation, for work with the poor so she meant to go among them everyday and to learn their needs. . .

"Is that all? That is your plan?" Miss Addams asked, stifled a small yawn, and looked deep into Alzina's eyes. Alzina's voice quavered as she thought she detected mockery in Miss Addams's smile. Color rose to her cheeks. Miss Addams had the cool, collected look of a Quakeress as she waited for Alzina to, as they say, state her condition. Alzina told about her New England childhood. How she went to work at age twelve in a cotton mill. She promptly lost a finger due to, so her employer said, her "carelessness." She came to Chicago and learned to set type. She had met such interesting people in that typesetters' union! They convinced Alzina that she had a role to play. They said it would be a good thing if somebody had the time to go out and just talk to these immigrant people at home.

"These families have children who are growing up in factories, selling matches, pencils, rags, bags. . .Running errands for the pimps, seeing God knows what. . ."Alzina made a broad sweep with her gloved hand to emphasize her point.

"I see," said Miss Addams. "The injury is why you are never without your gloves." Alzina nodded.

"But I have no experience with languages," Alzina wondered if that would be a problem. "And I have never been around Eastern Europeans. . ." Miss Addams smiled. A lot could be said with mime and gestures. With smiles.

"My dear, when I was starting out an old Polish woman told me a secret. Talk to them about cabbage," she told me. "Our women are very proud that they each know more ways to cook enticing cabbage recipes than any other woman. . .She was right, Alzina. This will break the ice for you," Jane sat back and smiled at Alzina.

"But. . .that won't do for men!" Alzina volunteered. "It really won't, you know."

Miss Addams really hadn't thought what to do about men. "Men are always problematic," said Miss Addams.

Alzina pondered the curious advice as she left for her visitation. She walked up to the first person she saw near a tenement. Of course, it was a man. A little hunch-shouldered man. What does one say? She introduced herself. He nodded.

"Nice day," said Alzina.

The man, who appeared to be made mainly of very broad shoulders and a squat torso, said something like "yuh."

"Who lives in this apartment?" Alzina asked.

The man squinted at her and her question. He looked her up and down as if deciding. Then he spat some tobacco juice right past her down the hallway. He nodded his head at the splintery door in front of the two of them.

"That. . ."

He stopped and began to look at her again.

"That old woman is Hlavaty. Missus Hlavaty."

Alzina thanked the man. He gave no sign of hearing and shuffled down the gangway. Alzina raised her lilac- gloved hand and rapped three times on the door. She held her breath until an old, cracked voice floated out to her.

"Yes?" came the voice from behind the door.

"May I speak to you?" asked Alzina.

The door opened slowly. Two piercing eyes stared out from a mass of wrinkles surrounded by braided white hair. From inside the flat came the sound of many small birds.

"Hello, Missus Hlavaty, I just. . .".Alzina extended her hand, which was almost snapped off at the wrist by the slamming door. She jumped back a step. A teen-aged girl coming along the gangway toward her stopped and stared.

"I heard you," said the girl. "You said Missus Hlavaty's name."

Alzina had an urge to say, "What of it?" but she just nodded. The girl was very pretty, Alzina thought as she spoke. Her hair was deep, reddish brown and her eyes a bright green.

"Nobody's supposed to say Missus Hlavaty's name. My maminka says. She told us how Missus took her baby years ago on a novena through the snow. The baby died. Now, in her old age Missus Hlavaty thinks that she too has died and so nobody should say her name."

"How does she live? On what?" Alzina asked. The girl didn't answer immediately. This pretty blonde lady might be from some money collecting agency. But, the girl reasoned, Missus Hlavaty never bought anything much. So she loosened up.

"Her son, Ma'am. He comes once a month and pays her rent." Alzina wrote these facts down in her little notebook. The idea of her project was to map the needs of one of the tenements in greater detail than had been attempted.

The girl started up the reeking wooden stairway. There was a stench of boiled cabbage, stale tobacco, urine and other smells that Alzina preferred not to guess. Alzina followed the girl into the gloom and up the stairs. When they reached the top, the girl started into a flat. Alzina asked the girl who was at home and if they would mind if she came in to ask a few questions.

These are nicer people than their surroundings would indicate, thought Alzina, after she had been introduced to the Klima family. Alzina had seen shotgun flats like this one. She could read their little stories of life in the slums. One bed with a brass headboard and mattresses here and there on the floor, some covered with rags instead of blankets. There were clothes piled high on the floor and clothes hanging on hooks everywhere in the two rooms. A lonely gas jet burned in the corner of the room that they were in.

"You certainly have enough clothing for your family," said Alzina, suspecting why. The girl translated and the mother chuckled.

Alzina had managed to get a laugh from the Klimovas but she didn't know if this would be enough to break down their distrust.

"All this. . ."the girl swept her arms around her". . .is for Marshall Field's store." They spent hours from dawn until midnight, sitting up sewing and finishing fashionable coats and capes for Field's store on State Street. Alzina had only worked piece work in an inside shop, but she knew of the sweating system. She knew that some people did all their piece work at home.

"Right now, we're taking some extra clothes," said the bright-eyed teen-aged girl. "Missus Martelli was doing those clothes, but since her son died of small pox, it was piling up."

Alzina's little blue eyes widened. "These garments were in the room with that boy? The one who just died?"

"Oh yes," they nodded. "It was so sad. Now his puppy sits by the door and will not eat." Alzina looked at the pile of jackets.

She thanked the two women and rushed back to Hull House. She told Miss Addams about the situation.

The next morning Alzina knocked on the Klimas' door and explained to them when they answered that the clothes were going to be burned. The women cried and wrung their hands while Alzina's male helpers carried out the coats and the jackets.

"Co budeme delat?" They groaned. "What will we do?" They were moaning to wake the dead. "Boze muj! Boze muj!" they moaned. "Oh, God!"

Alzina firmly told them to be quiet. She herself would go and square things with Mister Field. The two women looked at her dubiously. She said not to worry. Miss Addams had said that, in the last resort, she would try to square things with Mister Field, but she wanted Alzina to see him first. This could be a test case.

She arrived at Marshall Field's office bright and early the very next day. She even brought a lunch with her, just in case. As it turned out three days went by and Field, apparently never had a free moment to spare for Alzina. He also had a private entrance at the back of his office, so Alzina never saw him either come or go. The stenographer at the desk grew quite friendly to Alzina and so she explained to her what the white labels she had brought to show Field meant. Alzina had a supply of white labels which were a proposed standard for all clothing sold in Chicago. These white labels meant that the clothing was not made under sweated conditions. They also meant that the clothes were not sewn by child labor. The stenographer thought that this was a lovely idea. Once or twice, Alzina had the feeling that she was being observed. She noticed several mirrors in Field's outer office and wondered briefly if one of these held a one-way window. It did.

Field observed Alzina from his office and fumed. How long could she keep this up? He didn't know what she wanted, but he knew a labor agitator at sight. Perseverance, like all other virtues, was good in Field's estimate only when it served the aims of business. Nothing about this young woman served the aims of business. Field had no human weaknesses. He never smoked, drank, whored with women, ate but sparingly. All that mattered was The Big Store. Field once confided to his most friendly employee—he had no friends in his old age—that he felt he had nothing. On this Field was wrong. He had The Big Store.

Alzina sat fruitlessly waiting in Field's office. Another idea came to her. Something from the newspaper. When she left Field's office, Alzina felt elated. She had plan two.

 


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