Neighbors Pitch In And Pull Out All The Stops

This is a different kind of love story. It happened a long time ago, in the early 1930s. Twelve families lived in a tenement slum in Brooklyn and were bonded to each other by poverty, trouble, and love. A great deal of love.

This particular Monday morning, April 1, Mama was changing newspapers on the shelves. The ones she removed were gummy and revealed dead roaches. Mrs. Newman's voice was a robust echo in the damp hallway. She lived one flight below, on the second floor. "Annie," she called, "send Davdela down. I'm heating water for a bath for Rosie. They'll bathe together."

Before Mama could answer, I pulled my threadbare nightgown from the bottom drawer. It was once fluffy and pink and had belonged to Bessie Goldberg, who lived on the first floor. "Could I, Mama? Please, could I?"

"All right, all right, but don't slide down the banister."

I walked past the first section and slid down the second. Warm, wonderful smells came from Mrs. Newman's apartment: potato kugel, gefilte fish, sponge cake.

"At least he makes a living," Mrs. Newman would say of Mr. Newman, who seemed to spend his time off work staring at the wall. He wasn't one for conversation.

Mrs. Newman was plump, pretty as a ripe tomato, and loved a good joke. "Talk to him, talk to the wall." It would be hours before her husband would get home.

Rosie and I splashed in the water and sailed the soap until Mrs. Newman carried us out, wrapped us in big towels, and set us on the kitchen table. First she combed Rosie's hair, which was fine and coiled like yellow ribbons. Then, gently, she combed the tangles out of mine. "Black curly bushes, you got, just like your Papa."

She deposited Rosie on the floor and picked me up on her right arm. In her left she had a whole potato kugel and a jar of fish. On such nights we had enough to eat, Papa, Mama, my three-year-old sister, and I. Papa had no trade and no job.

We could hear the junk peddler come around with his horse and wagon, singing in a forceful baritone, "Old clothes, old rags, old newspapers, old junk."

The train rumbled overhead, and the frightened horse whinnied as our mothers ran down the stairs with their rags and newspapers. Minutes later they'd walk up the stairs, a few pennies richer.

On this first day of the month, the landlady came to collect the rent. She was a tall, thin woman, with waxy fingers that drummed incessantly on the round oak table of the front room. We kids walked around with our index fingers to our lips.

Mama rushed to bring her the ink. Then Mama went to the closet to get the $20 for the rent. The money that Mama borrowed from Tanya Beckie the week before was gone. Mama finally found one $10 bill, but the other bill was missing. The landlady kept drumming on the table as Mama searched and cried.

Finally, with the pince-nez at the tip of her long thin nose, the landlady rose to her full height and said, "I'll come tomorrow. I'm sure you'll have it by then."

Mrs. Newman helped Mama to search the closets; nothing. Mrs. Rosen heard Mama crying. She came in and helped her look. One by one the neighbors learned what was happening and joined the search.

Outside bolts of lightning struck, and the thunder was loud. The tiny apartment was crowded with women searching through the clothes, taking down pots and pans, and moving aside mattresses. It was no use. The rain beat angrily against the windows. The money was gone.

Now Mrs. Levy, who hardly ever spoke, said shyly, "Annie, maybe you threw it out when you changed the papers on the shelves." Tearfully, Mama agreed.

"So what are we waiting for?" declared Mrs. Goldberg. "In two hours they'll be collecting the garbage."

En masse they filed down the stairs, in the lashing rain, and marched into the alley. Systematically, they turned over every one of the three huge garbage cans. Then down on their hands and knees they went. They searched and searched.

It rained and rained, and Mama wept. Hair dripped like shoe strings; water ran down noses, eyes, and chins. We knelt and went through every bit of moldy, water-soaked garbage, every bit of paper.

Suddenly, Mrs. Levy began to cry and rock in ecstasy, "I found it, I found it!" There it was, rolled up intact, wet and filthy, a real $10 bill. Mama kissed her and cried. She kissed Mama and cried. Soon everybody was kissing everybody else and crying.

"Gutzidanken, gutzidanken," one woman said. The poor children will have a roof over their heads, gutzidanken."

"Go inside, go inside, you'll get chilled," they said to us little ones. The ladies from the ground floor got towels and briskly dried us, "Dry up, fast fast, we must bless God."

For weeks, Mrs. Levy was the heroine. Over and over she was made to tell just how she found it. "It was a miracle...."

It wasn't too long after this incident that my family had good news. We'd be moving into a free apartment. In exchange for rent, Mama would wash hallways and Papa would stoke furnaces.

"How can I leave you all?" Mama cried.

"Maybe it's for the best," the neighbors said, "Maybe...."

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