In 1895, New York City had just completed its sixth consecutive decade in which its population doubled. The poorest of immigrants flocked to the Lower East Side into cramped, disease ridden hovels. Where else could they find rent that cheap? Where else was there an opportunity for work?- any kind of work. It had all changed so quickly. At least in the eighties a man could get by- no doubt the margin was a slim one-still, he could get by. But the prosperity of the eighties had given way to the Panic of 1893, a major economic recession and most severe setback since the Civil War ended thirty years before. It was a time before there was such a thing as a government sponsored safety net for its citizens.
Typhoid, diphtheria and other contagious diseases, decimated those who lived in the Lower East Side, most of it caused by appalling lack of sanitary conditions. New York at that time, was considered ‘one of the dirtiest cities in the world.’ The death rate was almost equal to London’s in the Middle Ages. The poor had no recourse but to continue living amidst squalid surroundings whose filth contributed to the early demise of family members.
Men of immense greed like Boss Tweed, the power hungry politician who ran Tammany Hall, profited greatly by diverting money from municipal projects into their own coffers. The streets got dirtier, the sick got sicker, the politicians got richer.
It was the age of the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, Jaye Gould. Powerful men who shaped the economy as we know it. America was well into the Industrial Revolution, begun almost a century before, but the lowly horse remained a chief means of transporting goods and people into the twentieth century. As late as 1920 there were an estimated twenty million horses in the United States. Twenty-five years before, in 1895, New York City alone had hundreds of thousands of horses who littered the streets with tons of manure. Moreover, a horse, injured by a fall, would frequently be shot on the spot, the carcass left to rot in the street, one more addition of foul odors and stench that permeated the city.
In terms of health issues, the problems presented were enormous. Piles of uncollected horse droppings accumulated in vacant lots becoming breeding grounds for flies- and flies were everywhere; on meat, on fruit, on baby’s faces, caked on sticky fly paper hanging from ceilings.
Enter the lowly street sweeper who had to contend with the manure, the garbage, the rotting carcasses and the fetid water to maintain a meager existence. His was an unenviable lot, overseen by those rife with corruption. By 1895, it couldn’t get any worse.
Lower East Side, New York, 1895
I heard the high pitch of her voice. It had the ring of hopeless desperation. She never sounded that way. Given up, I thought, and who could blame her? Nora always held things together; made do with the least, kept the children fed though she didn’t have enough herself. It was that way with her. She never complained. ‘We’ll survive, better times are just around the corner’, she’d say. It always kept me going. Now the change in her voice told me she had lost even the small bit of hope she harbored.
“Sullivan said he’d pay me a quarter to sweep out his store tomorrow, and Street Cleaning may need some men. I’ll see about it, first thing.”
“Twenty five cents? Twenty five cents, you say? Why it’s not enough to buy but a few scraps of food, pay Mrs. Janeski back for the oatmeal I borrowed. Oh but not before I return the potatoes I owe Mrs. Meyer. We’ve got Tom and Alice to think about, or had you forgotten? And Mr. Herbert- he’s at my door every day lookin’ for rent while you’re out- who knows where? We won’t be livin’ here in another week. It’s not quarters that are goin’ to save us, Ned. It’s dollars! I’m tired ! I don’t want to think about tomorrow and twenty five cents we may or may not get, for the love of God.”
I heard the sound of crying from the one bedroom off the kitchen. One bedroom, yet it was more space than most had. The Gesmundos, two floors above, had eight crammed into a single room. It’s no wonder Herbert was anxious to see us go. He could get more rent if we vacated. But then he had the problem of collecting it. Half the people in our building were behind.
Our two year old, Alice, woke up hungry. Lord knows what Laura would find to pacify her. Tom, our four year old, sat quietly on the floor, playing with two clothespins he pretended were toy soldiers. To anyone else he looked preoccupied. I knew better. He’s heard these discussions before. But then, his mother never sounded this distraught. I watched as he cast his eyes downward and let the clothespins drop.
Nora wiped her hands on her dress and from somewhere, I don’t know where, produced a bag of Mrs. Janeski’s oatmeal. There was warm water in the kettle and she brewed a gruely mix of water and oatmeal, let it cool a few minutes then fed it to Alice. Tom looked at each spoonful, the pangs in his stomach were as bad as mine I’m sure. But he continued his silence.
“I told Mr. Herbert we’d have the money by Friday. He wants $9.00 but he’ll take half that. It’ll buy us a bit of time. Truth is Ned, I don’t see us havin’ even the half by Friday. Neither do you.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll see to it.”
“I’ll see to it! I’ll see to it! It’s all I ever hear, Ned.”
She left me sitting at the kitchen table while she tended Alice. I stared at the oil cloth covering, now faded from the small amount of sunlight that shone through the only window in the cramped apartment. Nora kept it as clean and neat as she could with nothing but soap and water but there was only so much she could do. The walls peeled badly, the floor covering curled, the ceiling stained with water leaks from the floor above. The stairwells and halls were worse. They reeked of boiled cabbage and leeks and urine; dark as a coal mine even in daytime. It’s probably just as well I’m not there when Herbert shows up. $4.50 a month! He should get a tenth for all the goddamned rats and roaches we have to contend with! It’s freezing in winter and stifling in summer. Nothing more than a covering over our heads. Then I think- where else could we go? The Poor House for sure; as bad as this place is, that would be far worse. It’s where Patsy Farley ended up. Hasn’t seen his kids since-wards of the state they are. Last he knew, they were swallowed up in the Foundling Asylum. His wife since died from tuberculosis.
No, I can’t let it happen. Poor houses! The bastardly places have sprung up all over since the war. Too many people, too few jobs. Now there’s fewer. So where do they go? The Poor House. A Panic they’re callin’ it. Seems it all began when Cleveland took over. That was three years ago and I haven’t had a job since. Oh sure, I pick up money here and there, doin’ things most people don’t want to think about, but it’s kept us goin’- until four months ago anyway, now I’m lucky to get a job sweepin’ out joints. It’s not like when I had a steady job with the Philadelphia & Reading. I was makin’ decent money as a conductor. Then the railroads started to crumble. ‘We’re overextended’ they said. The Philadelphia and Reading was the first big one to go- and my job with it.
Before that, ah - good times. Meat on the table at least twice a week, the arcade once a month and picnics too. It was just Nora and me then. Her so beautiful in a long skirt and white blouse with puffed sleeves. When she took her broad brimmed hat off, her light brown hair shimmered in the sun.
“Ned! you been sittin’ there for two hours. Have you nothin’ better to do?
Her voice startles me. I come awake from my lethargy, the late afternoon sun has fallen behind the rooftops, robbing our dingy apartment of the only warmth it possesses. The single glass vase on the kitchen table casts a lengthening shadow on the torn oilcloth. I remember once when Nora had placed a single flower in it, now it’s as empty as our lives. She holds Alice in the crook of her arm.
“She’s burnin’ up, Ned. I’ve given her somethin' for her fever. I’m afraid of the typhoid. It's everywhere you turn.”
I look at Tom. He’s sitting in the same position he was an hour ago. He casts his big brown eyes toward me and they reflect deep insecurity.
These are hard times, worse than I’ve known. Steady work seems out of the question. I’ve walked as far as a man can go in this city looking for a job. Once I thought I had something, but a week later the business closed and I was back to looking. I’ve tried every place I know, except one, the Street Cleaning Department. I’d do the work if it's offered. I won't let it bother me, but...
I awaken on the floor. Nora is asleep with the two children in our bed. We both have been up with Alice most of the night, managing a few hours sleep just before daybreak.
Tom had left over pea soup last night, Alice nothing since the oatmeal. Nora, I know, has had nothing. I have hunger pangs because I’ve had nothing either. It’s cold. I light the kerosene stove for a bit of warmth, then put on my clothes that are piled in a corner. Today I’ll stop by Sullivan’s. Maybe there’s something left over from what he puts out so his patrons will drink more. I’m hoping there is. I’ll take it back to Nora and the children. I close the door behind me lest I wake them, and creep noiselessly down the six flights.
Sullivan’s just opening the doors to clean up and I’m waiting for him.
“Morning, Mr. Sullivan.”
I startle him.
“Gorman! What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to clean up, like you said.”
Sullivan swings the doors of the saloon wide as if to show me something. I notice right away that the place is swept clean and the spittoons emptied.
“Oh yes…that. You can see I don’t need you today. Is that right?”
“But you said…”
“I know, but that little man, Staneski, said he’d do the job when everyone left- and he’d do it for fifteen cents. Looks like I don’t need you. Maybe some other time.”
I stood in his doorway. What will Nora say? I thought.
“Please. I have to close the door.”
“Mr. Sullivan, sir. Would you have any food left from last evening? I have a family and…”
“Nothing now, Gorman. Come around later and I’ll see what I can do.”
There was little to do but leave and hope he’d make good on his word when I returned in the afternoon. I turned up my collar, put my hands in my pocket and headed uptown. The stench from yesterday’s horse manure and garbage was overwhelming. Summer would see it twice as bad. Since I see no workers attempting to clean the street mess up, maybe it’s a good sign. Someone has to do it and get paid for it. It could be me. I turn the corner, in the direction of the Street Cleaning Department. Here I hold little hope for a job. It stinks not only from uncollected manure but from corruption. At least that’s what I hear. But I don’t have to hear it to know it. All I have to do is smell the air and look at the streets to know that whoever is responsible is probably on the Tammany dole. It’s been that way ever since the department was begun fourteen years ago. I ask myself, ‘do I want to be any part of that?’ But I have no choice.
It takes me a half hour to walk there. I come to a three story brick building, the upper facade heavily blackened with the soot of a hundred thousand coal stoves. I decide to enter from a side door. I’m no sooner inside when I hear voices, loud voices, coming from across the garage area. The smell of manure here is almost as bad as the streets since I count four empty wagons that haven’t been cleaned very well. They reek. I walk around them toward the voices and come to a smoke filled office. Inside, four men sit around a table playing poker. One is swearing at another who apparently has just won a hefty pot. They are unaware of my presence until I knock softly.
“What do you want?”
“Excuse me, sir. I heard that maybe there was an opening as a street sweeper and maybe you could use some help.”
Dead silence. Then all four laugh at once. A large man in a bowler derby and suspenders pushes away from the table. I turn to walk away. It’s as I suspected, no work here. I get as far as the wagons when I hear:
“Hey you! Come here.”
That brings me up short. I turn and see that he is beckoning to me. I retrace my steps back to the office.
“What’s your name?”
“You live near here?”
“ Delaney Street.”
Bowler derby turns to the others.
“That’s the 15th precinct isn’t it?”
They nod in agreement.
“It might work. Well. Mr. Gorman, this is your lucky day.”
He shoves a form in my face.
“Here- write your name and address on this and be here at six o’clock tomorrow morning.”
I can hardly believe my good luck. I cannot wait to tell Nora.
“Can you tell me what the pay is?”
“Cheeky fellow, aren’t you? Well, all right. $1.15 a day, 6 days a week, 6 am to 6 pm.”
My mind’s a whir. That’s almost seven dollars a week! In a few weeks, we can pay the back rent, maybe even move out of that hell hole. I can put up with the mess, the long hours. I just can’t get sick from it.