I'll welcome you home with open arms.
Your loving wife, Elizabeth
They stood in the courtyards behind the buildings, pushing stones over the ribs of their washboards and sighing over the men they'd lost. Elbow to elbow they put their wash on the lines that stretched like cat's cradles over that dark, narrow space.
Our back court was especially unlucky, having only three sides instead of four. The main attractions were one leaky pump and the row of five privies that sat across from it. The walls and roof of the outhouses leaned on each other like drunken whores, all tipsy, weeping and foul. Only one of the stall doors would stay shut, while the other four dangled half off their hinges. The landlord's man, Mr. Cowan, never bothered to fix them and he never bothered to take the trash away either, so all the things people didn't have a use for anymore got piled up in the court. Rotten scraps, crippled footstools, broken bits of china, a thin, mewling cat with her hungry litter of kittens.
The women gossiped and groused while waiting for their turn at the pump, hordes of flies and children crawling all around them. The smallest babes begged to get up to their mama's teats while the older children made a game picking through boards and bricks, building bridges and stepping-stones over the streams of refuse that cut through the dirt. They'd spend all day that way as their mothers clanged doors open and shut on that little prison.
Boys grew into guttersnipes, then pickpockets, then roughs. They roamed the streets living for rare, fist-sized chunks of coal from ash barrels or the sweet hiss of beans running from the burlap bags they wounded with their knives at Tompkins Market. They ran down ladies for handouts and swarmed gentlemen for watches and chains.
Kid Yaller, Pie-Eater, Bag o' Bones, Slobbery Tom, Four-Fingered Nick. Their names were made from bodyparts and scars, bragging rights and bad luck. Jack the Rake, Paper-Collar Jack, One-Lung Jack, Jack the Oyster, Crazy Jack. They cut their hair short and pinned the ragged ends of their sleeves to their shirts. They left nothing for the shopkeeper's angry hand to grab hold of, nothing even a nit would desire.
Girls sold matches and pins, then flowers and hot corn, and then themselves.
By nine, ten, eleven years old, you could feel it coming, the empty-bellied life of your mother - always having to decide what to give up next, which trinket to sell, which dreams to forget.
The most valuable thing a girl possessed was hidden between her legs, waiting to be sold to the highest bidder. It was never a question of yes or no. It was simply a matter of which man would have you first.
There was a whole other city of us, on rooftops, beneath stair steps, behind hay bins, between crates of old shoes and apples. Rag pickers, hot-corn girls, thread pullers.
We got by, living on pennies from a lady's purse or nickels from men who paid us to let them look at our ankles or the backs of our necks for "just a little while longer." Some of us were orphans, most of us might as well have been. "Dirty rags," Mr. Alsop the fishmonger called us, as he stood there waiting with a long, thin stick, ready to crack our shins black. His stall was lined with barrels of salt herring - dried, chewy secrets with lonely little eyes.
In summer we slept sideways on fire escapes. In winter we fought rats and beggars for filthy stable corners.
We came from rear tenements and cellar floors, from poverty and pride. All sneak and steal, hush and flight, those of us who lived past thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, those of us who managed to make any luck for our-selves at all - we became New York.
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