Authors: Triss Stein
Then she said, “I have one more for you.”
It was a casual snapshot in bright color, right here at this library, with Christmas decorations. Tall, elegant Savanna was in the back and tiny Deandra stood in the front row, wearing an outfit in startling colors.
“Staff holiday party, last year. I thought you might like to have a copy.”
I almost couldn't get the words out to say thank you.
“I'm holding on to one for Dee's mother, if we can ever find her.”
Ruby and I finally did the interview about girls in Brownsville. Ruby began, “I miss Lillian a lot. My job today is to speak for both of us. I know what she would have said, and I will say it for her.” That was brave of her and it was a great interview, vividly describing the teachers and writers who opened new worlds for these girls, the barriers along the way, the parents who meant well but only encouraged the boys, the fights about staying school or going to work in a factory, the group of girl friends who so bravely supported each other's dreams. I got a lot of kudos for it at work, but to be honest, it was all Ruby.
When we were done recording I turned it off and showed her the lost Espy photos from the library. I thought she would be interested.
She turned alarmingly red and dropped the cup in her hand.
I jumped up, asking if I should call emergency service, but she covered her face, breathing hard, shook her head and finally was able to look up at me.
“Sit down. I have something to tell you. I suppose it's time. No, it's way past time. I never told anyone, not even Lil.” She stopped, gathering her strength. “I should have told her. I was tooâ¦” She smiled bitterly. “I was too something.”
“Can I help?”
“No. Only listen. Do you remember we looked at photos and one showed the window where I used to sleep? When I was a girl?”
I nodded. “You said on nights it was too hot to sleep you'd stay up and look out.”
“Yes. So one night, I was up and my brother and Lil's were hanging around on the steps, talking and smoking. I knew Frank more because of Lil than my brother. They weren't so close, but knew each other forever. They sounded comfortable that night.”
“Like old friends?”
“Yes. Just like that. They talked about the Dodgers and about girls. And this is what I can't forget. Frank talked to him, to Maury, about the meat cutters union. Some bad people were cranking up the pressure. That's how he said it. And he said he wanted to say no, to fight back, but was that possible? I remembered it, but I didn't understand it then. It sounded serious.”
“And did you figure it out, later?”
“Years later, when I learned some history of labor racketeering. And my brother said to Frank, âGood for you. You're tough enough to fight back. We've got to stand up for what's right,' he said. He and Frank saw just the same on that.”
“But your brother, Maurice, was he involved too?”
“Not at all. He wasn't a union man himself, he was a college boy. But Frank liked what he said, and laughed and said âThey can all go to hell, those crooks. And I plan to tell them so.' And I remembered that because he said hell, a very bad word.” She stopped and caught her breath. “I was only nine. And they said good night, and Frank said, âThanks old buddy. I just needed to hear it out loud. Yeah. My road is clear.'”
I looked at her and waited.
“Frank disappeared two days later.” She patted the photos. “Now we know what happened. And Lil was sent away soon after. Maury would cross the street to avoid her and her parents.”
“Did he ever talk about it?”
“Not to me. I was only a kid. What did I matter? But it was impossible to keep secrets in that crummy little apartment. My parents were nagging him to go call on Lil's family. It was the right thing to do, they said. He lost his temper and shouted at them. He felt guilty, I guess.” She sighed. “You understand, some of this is what I pieced together later, trying to make sense of what I knew but didn't understand.”
She stood up then, nervously, and stared out the window. “Well, hell, Lillian, do you think it mattered? That I didn't tell you? What would it have changed?” She turned to me. “She's out there you know.”
“Oh, don't look so shocked. I didn't mean it literally! I don't believe in ghosts and neither did Lil. That is for sure.” She paused. “Some of our parents might have.”
“But she would say to meâ¦”
“Meds, darling, just meds talking. Lil herself didn't believe in a thing. A long life does that to lots of us. But! But, she said she wanted her ashes where she could see some flowers. I sneaked out one night and scattered them in that big flower bed right out there. I owed it to her. She's got tulips now and lilacs soon. She's got a nice view of the Palisades too.”
Then she did laugh.
“When you finish that exhibit? Put a picture of her up on a wall. She would have loved that. Frank, too. And me. And even my brother Maury. Why not?”
I promised I would and I did. And I persuaded the museum director to send a car for Ruby the day it opened.
, like my other Brooklyn books, is a blend of actual history, possible history, and complete fiction.
Like Erica, I was drawn into present day Brownsville by my interest in historic Brownsville. Unlike Erica, it is not entirely new territory for me, as I worked at the Stone Avenue branch library many years ago. None of the characters in those scenes is based on an actual person, though there are a few incidents that come directly from my own experience.
This is not intended to be a full portrait of Brownsville, nor could it be. I am seeing it through the eyes of Erica, an observant outsider, but still an outsider. I hope the small part of the picture described here is an honest and fair one.
In the dialogue, I have tried to suggest, rather than duplicate, street slang. It changes too quickly to catch in a book, has too much obscenity to be published here, and further, only a local teen could be sure of how a local teen should sound.
Some people whose names are mentioned are obviously historical figures. The basic facts of 1930s Brownsville life, and the history of the organization nicknamed Murder Inc, are as accurate as I could make them. I was surprised several times by people I know telling me they had old family connections to Brownsville and the mob.
Beyond that, this is a work of fiction. The historical facts inspired a number of fictional characters and incidents, as some readers will recognize, but they have been re-imagined to suit the story I was telling.
For readers who are especially interested in the history: the Brooklyn Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library was a great source of information. Some of the books that offered useful facts, perspectives or anecdotes were:
The Girls: Jewish Women of Brownsville, 1940-1995
, by Carole Bell Ford;
Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams
by Rich Cohen;
Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 1900-1940
by Jenna Weissman Joselit, and
by Alter F. Landesman. The photographs in
New York City Gangland
by Arthur Nash, and in Weegee's
Like Erica, I began with a book: Alfred Kazin's great
Walker in the City,
first read decades ago, as vivid now as it was then.
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