Chapter 12

Saint Vitus's Dance

 

Doctor Milligan, her hair flying along the sides of her head, almost collided with Emma and Alzina in the doorway. She was just leaving Hull House for her evening rounds of the tenements. She clutched her black bag with her right hand and retucked her baby fine, side wisps with her left.

"Well! You almost got me that time—or I, you! At least I have first aid!" Doctor Milligan nudged Alzina. Alzina laughed. "Do you have some children to be weighed?" Alzina produced a list. "I'll get to them first thing tomorrow. You've told them how to get here and which room I'm in?" the doctor asked as she quickly looked up and down her list. Alzina said that the children had all agreed to come in the next morning.

Alzina looked past Doctor Milligan at the men in dark coats who were streaming in the doors of the Jane Club meeting room. "Who are they?" she asked Doctor Milligan.

The doctor laughed. "Them? That's the Hebrew Cloakmakers' Union. Now you'll be wondering what wake is going on from their sour faces!" She shook her bright ropes of hair as she tossed her head toward the corner of the room where a clump of young girls were waiting. "Over there now, that lot are the seamstresses! Miss Jane herself—who can understand the workings of her mind—says that the two groups should meet together for their mutual benefit and that. . ."she smiled mischievously. . ."you are just the one to arrange the introductions!"

Alzina started to explain her prior appointment with the canvassers and factory inspectors. "No, no, that's all been arranged. We have got to get them to go in for this meeting. You know how she gets. Jane says it's that important. So off with you. And you. . .Go on, girls!"

Doctor Milligan made a swooshing motion with her hands and jerked her neck toward the door that the men had just entered. She looked sharply at the first girl in line. "Cathleen, haven't I been telling you it's all right? Now be a dear and tell them!" The girl who stood before the group turned and whispered something to the rest. Doctor Milligan turned to Alzina and said in an undertone, "From Saint Bridget's parish, you know."

The girl named Cathleen got up and motioned to the others to follow her. They all trotted into the clubroom after the first girl, like ducklings in a file.

Doctor Milligan turned to Alzina. "There, now, they're going in. See? The hard part's done! Just to see that the speaker gets introduced to everybody. Try. . .try to get them to mix a bit! I don't know how in mercy's sake we're supposed to be starting some union if they can't even be in the same room together!"

"Well, who is going to be the speaker?" Alzina muttered, dubiously. "I didn't know we had anything scheduled for tonight other than our wrap-up of the inspections. . ."

"Miss Addams was able to get two speakers—I forgot," said Doctor Milligan. "One is that newspaper fellow, Mister Stead. And the other is. . ." A dignified gray-haired man came through the door. "There he is right now! It's Rabbi Hirsch from the University. He was the one that got the men to come over here. I don't know how it will go. Those girls aren't used to meetings like this, with men attending. . .I've got to run! Down the street. . .there's a baby I've got to birth!" Doctor Milligan hurriedly excused herself and rushed out the door with her bag.

"Come on, Emma," said Alzina, as she braced for a chilly reception on both sides. "Now, this should be interesting, because. . . Well, just watch." Emma and Alzina walked into the clubroom. Emma found a seat near the rear of the room. She looked at the backs of the seamstresses. They were all girls about her own age of fifteen. They stole a few glances at the dark-coated men across the room.

Emma felt a thrill of hushed anticipation. Back at Vina Fields', she always sat at this hour in the pantry, shelling endless numbers of peas or peeling potatoes. And before that, she and her mother were up each night until midnight finishing cloaks for Mister Field's store. Tatinek should see this! Emma thought. Tatinek used to discuss plays and books even as Maminka and Emma basted in the seams in the evenings. The work went much lighter, then. Tatinek had so much wanted that Emma should get an education. Here, in this house, was a place where she could be among people who discussed things, important things! Emmma crossed her hands on her lap and waited for the talk to begin.

Alzina stopped a moment and spoke to the man with the gray hair, then she walked to the lectern and called for order. The girls had arranged themselves all off on the right hand side of the room, pretending not to notice the men. The men had arranged themselves off to the left, studiously turning their heads toward each other, rather than gawk at the girls. Each group had been buzzing and whispering among themselves. They looked up and faced Alzina now as she began the introductions. William T. Stead was seated in an armchair to her right.

"Our first speaker," said Alzina with an attempt at lightness, "Is a man many of you know from his highly successful meetings at Central Music Hall." She looked over at Stead and patted the back of her hair rapidly, since the room held no spark of common interest. Alzina hoped Stead would not be enjoying her discomfort too much, since the other time that they met, he seemed to find her difficulties so amusing.

Stead smiled, as if to encourage Alzina to go on. He knew a cold house when he saw one. Stead also recalled Alzina from their meeting at the Harrison Street Station. He folded his arms, guessing that she could manage this well enough. This woman obviously had push, now it would become clear if she had diplomacy.

Again Alzina forced a smile and began. "Mister Stead has proposed that we all try to work together here in our neighborhood and in our trades. I believe he has some news for us tonight and some suggestions to share." A young man came up to Alzina, flashed her a bright smile, and whispered in her ear. The boy's open smile contrasted sharply with the looks on the older men's faces. She put her hand on the boy's shoulder and introduced him to the crowd.

"I have just been informed that Ben here will be translating for some of our friends in the Hebrew Cloakmakers Union, so if our speakers will please accomodate him, all may participate." She motioned with her gloved hand over to the gray-haired man. "Before we begin, I must also introduce our second speaker, a man who needs no introduction, to some of you, Rabbi Emil Hirsch. I believe you are Professor of Rabbinical Literature and Philosophy at Chicago University, is that correct?" The Rabbi smiled and nodded. "We shall all be most interested in what you have to say, sir, because we have only recently begun to coordinate our settlement with the fine work going on over at your Maxwell Street Settlement. So, first let us hear Mister Stead since he has another meeting. . .and then, Rabbi!" Alzina lead the applause.

Stead got up, cleared his throat loudly, and coughed. "I don't know what it is about your Lake Michigan breezes that puts a damper on my voice, but I shall try to hold out. . .Well!" Stead rubbed his hands together in anticipation of a challenge. He looked around the room for the faces that were beginning to respond. Not much sign of life out there. The women were still stiff and silent and the men examined the patterns of the wallpaper or their boot tops with apparent fascination

Stead raised his voice a few notches, preparing for a climax. "If I may be pardoned for repeating an old tale from the scripture, the Assyrian is loose upon this city!" Heads looked up at Stead's first blast. Stead turned to the gray-haired man. "You surely know, Rabbi, far better than I, the familiar story of the Children of Israel after they had established themselves and had waxed fat and comfortable in the Promised Land."

Stead waited for Ben to translate his opening into Yiddish and was pleased to see that some of the men seemed to relax and to lean forward at the prospect of hearing a familiar story well- told. He estimated that about one-third of the men needed the translations. Stead turned again to Rabbi Hirsch. "Correct me, sir, if I have this wrong, but was it not then that the hosts of Moab and of Midian and of the Mesopotamians fell upon the chosen people and smote them and despoiled them? So it is today in the city of Chicago!" The men in the dark jackets turned to each other and whispered among themselves, since it was not usual to hear Chicago compared with the Cities of Old. "Chicago, my friends, is under the tyranny of the Assyrian as were the Jews in olden time. Only our Assyrians seem to come not from the Euphrates Valley, but from Philadelphia." Alzina laughed at this homely allusion, since she knew of Yerkes's wealthy backers from Philadelphia. She looked down as the translator repeated Stead's words. The men in the dark suits didn't seem to get the joke. Nobody laughed.

Stead went on, looking for the elusive friendly faces in the crowd. . . "It is a mistake to think that the Assyrian or any other Eastern conqueror established the minute despotism of the modern state. What these ancients wanted was not so much to interfere with the liberties of their subjects as to plunder them and deal with them as they pleased. They killed a few, not more than they pleased, but all tribal life they left alone. The Assyrians crushed Israel as a result of the misrule of that country and the indifference of its rulers to the welfare of the poor among the people. . ." The men were frowning at these words and leaned forward to hear.

Stead asked if perhaps his comparison might seem far- fetched. Some of the audience nodded, after the translation. "Hear this, then,

Wo unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, 
and that write grievousness which they have prescribed. . .
To turn aside the needy from judgement, and to take away
the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be
their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!"

Stead looked about as the light of recognition went on in the Hebrew cloakmakers' eyes. The seamstresses needed an explanation. Ladies, these are the words of the prophet Isaiah. You might think he had paid a visit to City Hall or to any number of streets and alleys in your city. You are used to these things. You begin to think that they are the norm.

Stead looked at the girls, whose attention seemed to be wandering. They were putting their hands up in front of their mouths and whispering behind them. Stead shot a blazing stare at one girl, who quickly dropped her hand. He cleared his throat ominously while still staring at her and resumed. "Those of you who are Catholic in this room know that there is a patron saint for just about everything. How is it that. . .Chicago. . .has not as yet found that patron saint? Let us come up with one here, tonight, then! How about Saint Vitus? He is the saint that is all that is restlessly moving, of the dance—in fact they call one nervous condition Saint Vitus's Dance. Chicago dances that dance and the workers in your garment trades must dance the fastest of all or you fall by the wayside. You die. A huge, bloated Moloch sits bestride this town. You dance your little dance into those iron jaws and are never again heard from! Our job tonight is to be sure that you are heard from!" When Ben, the boy translator, had finished, the men broke into spontaneous applause. They were really getting into the spirit of the thing. The girls looked at each other, indecisively.

"Lads, I understand that your wages have been cut, once again. Is that so?" Voices answered Stead affirmatively. "And you on my right, you young women, I understand from your employers that you work not from economic need, but to earn— what is the colorful phrase—? Pin money! Eh? Is that not what they say?" Two curly-haired girls up front nodded.

Stead looked from the threadbare group of pale and dark- coated men on his left to the gaily decked-out girls on his right. A vast gulf still yawned between the two sides of the room. It occurred to Stead that the seamstresses had more in common with middle-class girls from Evanston than they had with these fellow workers in their own trade. . .But he went on probing for the thread that would unite them. "Ah, I'm not as young as I once was, so it is no superior wit on my part to say that I see the pattern in all this. I've seen it before. Girls can be offered the lower wage and they can be made to seem the men's worst enemies. Pin money, indeed!"

"Employers may combine to their advantage!" Stead shouted. "Is that not so? But you? Never. Your lives are to remain what Shakespeare called a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Stead dropped the pitch of his voice on the word nothing. His mouth puckered as though he were spitting out the pit of a prune. He mopped his brow and resumed. "If we look beyond the law of Cain, who considered no man as his brother, if we look beyond the rule of the counting house, what do we see? I believe the cost of demeaning one person and robbing that person of every particle of human dignity is that the masters, the bloody Assyrians in their palaces, suffer as well! The will of God is for all to be connected and he who would grind down others will find no rest. This meeting is only a start. You may think that a gulf divides you. They over there, young Irish girls. You over here, Hebrew cloakmakers. But think again. You are not slaves! And a human being has the right to just employ. What arrangements you make among yourselves are best left up to you. My next meeting is to organize a group of men to clean our streets—men of all religions and nationalities. For them, it is a start. A job. Now here, you already have that start. It is up to you yourselves to see that you are decently treated! I will turn this over to Rabbi Hirsch, since my voice is about gone and—look at that!— I'm fifteen minutes overdue!" Stead gave a broad grin, tipped his hat, and started to sprint for the door.

The Rabbi caught his arm. "Young man, we may differ as to interpretation," said the Rabbi with a smile, "But I wish that more of my Rabbinical students had your fire! Look at them. . ." The tailors were all on their feet applauding. The girls, too, got to their feet and began to decorously applaud, still looking uncertainly over at the men. Emma was sitting behind all the seamstresses. She thought that she had never heard a better speech. If only her brother could hear such words as this. Or even little Julka. She watched the door close behind Stead. Then she looked up towards the front, between the heads of two girls.

Rabbi Hirsch stood at the lectern a moment, just smiling down at his notes. He raised his white eyebrows with his eyes still closed and gave a slight nod. He smiled over at the men. "Shalom," he said. The men chimed back, "Shalom." The rabbi seemed still in a state of mild amusement from what he had just seen and heard. He drew out a pocket handkerchief and mopped his forehead, since the room was becoming close in the July heat.

"For tonight, I shall range myself among the believers of the dogma that life is a jungle and that all men are beasts of prey. . ."

Ben translated and someone shouted in Yiddish that he knew the rabbi could never believe such a thing!

"Tscha!" said the rabbi. "For tonight only you will indulge me that I may hold the beliefs of such men, whether the psychology of such a belief is sound or not. Tonight I accept this belief blindly and on faith! Man is subject only to his own self-interest! This is our shrine for this evening. . . Enlightened self-interest wears the crown in our factories and countinghouses." The rabbi waited for Ben to translate. He seemed slightly annoyed at the sound of the Yiddish, annoyed perhaps that all should not know English on their arrival, as he had. When Ben stopped his translation, the rabbi continued. "Vulgarly put, men are not in business for their health. . ."

The rabbi placed his hand under his chin. "Now, no one wants to be told to do some disagreeable thing, told that it will not benefit him, but that he must do it. Is that right, my friends?" The rabbi looked around and heads were nodding. He nodded and stroked his chin. "So, if we are to gain better conditions, we must show our employer that it is to his own self- interest not to deplete his stock of workers, which he must do, if he hires children!" The rabbi slammed his hand down into his other hand. Then, regaining his composure, he went on. "So, like every man, the employer must make maximum use of the material at hand. Otherwise. . .waste! There will be no competent workers if they are all prematurely employed or. . ." The rabbi turned toward the seamstresses. "Or if the development of their spines and limbs is stunted from cramped sitting or long standing. How will your voices be heard on all these things? Will you stand at the gates of your employer with a trumpet like Gideon? No,in today's Chicago that would not do, my friends."

The rabbi took a drink from a glass of water that had been placed in front of him. "To be heard on the issues that Mister Stead has raised and on the issue of child labor, you must combine! I have just returned from a meeting of the National Council on Child Labor. Things are starting to happen. We are fortunate in having a governor so sympathetic to the rights and well-being of children as Governor Altgeld. But all of you must be a visible support in this effort!" The rabbi looked around the room. Some of the men lowered their eyes in discomfort, perhaps recalling a little sister who was sewing at this very moment.

"On the train coming back from New York I thought about your living conditions. The signs are that this will be a hard winter. You will be pushed this way and that. The work will come in great loads that you will have to do fast, fast! How many of you have worked the forty-eight hour stints during rush season." Some hands were raised. Others looked around uncertainly. "How can you help? My friends, manys the time I've read Kaddish over a worker with young babies at home, over a child. . .How can you help? First, keep your younger brothers and sisters, your children, in school. Some of the ravages of health that were discussed at that child labor meeting were beyond belief! So—keep them in school. Miss Addams has a measure before our state legislature which would help the children who are the sole support of widowed mothers to remain in school. A scholarship would be settled upon such students until they are of age and can pass a standard literacy test. In the long run, so I reason with employers, this costs less than having maimed and useless adults in state hospitals or prisons. . ."

Alzina had been sitting next to Emma when the woman came and tugged at her sleeve. Alzina and the woman walked to the back of the room, began talking in hushed tones and gesturing with their arms. The woman rushed back out the door and Alzina followed her. Emma didn't know whether or not she should go, too. She wanted to hear the rest of Rabbi Hirsch's talk. She looked back at him reluctantly, because she longed to hear how he would inspire the men. But then she decided that she had better go. She could not afford to be uninformed about the workings of Hull House!

Emma crossed the foyer and saw Alzina talking to three well- dressed men. One of the three men was quite clearly Mister Charles Tyson Yerkes, Emma realized with a start. His large, liquid eyes beamed as he saw Emma come through the doorway.

Alzina walked up to Emma on her way down the hall. "They are a deputation to see Jane," explained Alzina. Emma asked what they were there for. And did she know that one of them was Mister Yerkes? Alzina didn't know what they were there for, but, yes, she recognized Yerkes and she didn't like the look of it. Alzina waved Emma come along with her. They scurried down the darkly panelled hall, peering into each doorway. Finally they found Jane Addams and Florence Kelley sitting in the back parlor, drinking lemonade.

Florence Kelley's voice was rising sharply. Her face flushed as she leaned over toward Jane Addams. "And then—you know what I said then? I said to that Assistant District Attorney, Mister Kimball, Well, are you going to take this boy's case or are you not? He said that his docket was booked for two years—two years!"

Jane Addams held up a hand to stop Florence's narrative. With all her residents she had a technique of slowing them down, calming them. This came from Jane Addams's Quaker background. "Now. . .let me see if I have this all right in my head," Jane said in a soft, rolling tone. "You told him that young Joey Martinelli was losing the use of his right arm from his work with arsenical paper at the Prosser Box Factory. And. . .that you needed representation to sue that employer for damages, correct? Now he did not refuse you, just said he was busy. . ."

"Busy!" Florence Kelley snorted. She was taking being the first woman factory inspector for the State of Illinois very seriously. She stood up every inch of her five-foot-six and bellowed, "He said that how did he know I wouldn't come next with a suit against Marshall Field? You know what, if Field crippled a child like that, I would! I knew it and he knew it!"

"Miss Addams. . ." Alzina burst in, "There are some men to see you and one of them is Charles Yerkes—the streetcar king!" Florence Kelley choked and spat out the mouthful of lemonade she had just taken.

"There, there, dear," said Miss Addams. She patted Florence's shoulder as she went past her. "Now what could they want at this hour? Alzina, did they say?" Alzina shook her head and muttered that they wouldn't speak to anyone but Jane herself.


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