Chapter 5: Are We Going to Starve?

Summary: Mama and Aggie look for work in Brooklyn, and the family survives on meager meals. Papa asks for a divorce, and Mama decides to refuse his request. With no work and hunger ever-present, the future looks bleak.

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Mama was certain she could get a job on a newspaper. She started out every morning, dressed in her velveteen suit and matching toque, with a veil that covered her graying hair. I insisted that she buy a tiny box of rouge and put it on her cheeks to give her a more youthful look. The first two papers she went to, the editors refused to even see her. When she finally did get in to see editors, they had not even heard of her sob-sister name.

Meanwhile, I was making the rounds of the women’s magazines, showing my Vitagraph letter, but the editors just shook their heads. One office boy refused to bother the editor with me. He just asked my age. I wore a skirt of Mama’s and a jacket of my own that I was sure made me look older than sixteen. I said “twenty” but he yelped scornfully, “Aw, twenty-three skidoo! You’re just a kid.” Next I went to the Ladies’ Home Journal and showed the office boy my letter. He was impressed and took me to see the editor. She was a very prim looking elderly woman who told me the magazine didn’t approve of motion pictures. They were dangerous for children and demoralizing for young people. She looked at me as though I was some kind of degenerate because I had written a scenario.

This took the wind out of my sails. I didn’t have the courage to try another magazine. I just strolled down Fifth Avenue, and went home in the middle of the afternoon. To my surprise, Mama had already come back and was having a cup of tea. She said the new editor of the Hearst paper had never heard of her. “I gave him a good talk about my reporting but he said it was against his policy to have ladies on his staff. And the next paper I went to, the editor wouldn’t even see me.”

But we kept trying, although our life at Mrs. Epstein’s was not much help in keeping up our morale. Two of us slept together in the single bed and we took turns using the Morris chair. We cooked our breakfasts over the gas jet, always nervous that Mrs. Epstein might smell the odor of coffee or tea and come up to investigate. We made toast spread with the beach plums that grew wild near our beach shack. For lunch, we had plum sandwiches with milk in empty jelly glasses. And for dinner, we’d go to the cheapest restaurant in the neighborhood, where we’d each order one dish, such as soup, potatoes, and fried flounder. Then we would divvy it all up, ignoring the scornful looks from the waitress.

It didn’t take long until we were out of magazines and newspapers to try. The only thing left was to answer the want ads. We didn’t want to spend money on buying newspapers so we had to wait until Mrs. Epstein had discarded hers. And that made us late; several times the positions were filled by the time we got there. Everyone wanted recommendations, which we didn’t have. We tried applying to factories, but they wanted only people who had experience. It was the same with household help. We’d never had jobs before so we had no recommendations. Mama talked one family into taking her on as a cook, but she burned the food repeatedly and only lasted a week.

Before we left Stony Brook, Mama had talked to a man in the village who was going to Watertown, and she’d asked him to try to find out something about Papa. His letter was forwarded to us, and he wrote that Papa was keeping company with a notorious woman who had dyed red hair and wore a beautiful fur coat and large diamond ring that people said he’d bought for her. Mama cried for a long time and said she was sure Papa wanted her to take the second mortgage on Holly Tree House not to invest in the motion camera but to keep “that woman.”

“I’m going to write and tell him he can go about his wicked ways, but he has to provide for his children,” she said. Papa’s answer soon came: he wrote that he was in love with another woman. If Mama would divorce him, he would give her an allowance of twenty-five dollars a week.

Mama cried over this for a long while and then read her Bible. Finally, she put it down and said, “There’s never been a divorce in my family and there never will be. Not if we starve.”

Izzy sat up. “Are we going to starve?” She asked.

Mama went and cuddled her. “We certainly won’t,” She said. “God will take care of us.”

“I wish he would hurry up,” Izzy said. “There are bed bugs in this room.” She had been resting on the bed and her face was pale with two red blotches on her cheeks.

I didn’t sleep that night. It was my turn to sleep in the uncomfortable Morris chair. No matter which way I twisted and turned, I couldn’t seem to avoid a bump or broken spring. Wide-eyed, I stared into the dark and conjured up dramatic pictures. I didn’t have Mama’s complete trust in God. I saw all of us dying of starvation, slowly and painfully. (As usual, I squeezed every drop of drama from a situation.) I pictured the news being brought to Papa where he sat in a bright restaurant with “that woman,” who wore an enormous fur coat and lifted a glass of champagne with a huge diamond ring on her finger. He would rush to Brooklyn, find our slum room and see our lifeless figures—Mama and Izzy on the single bed and me in the Morris chair. (I was determined to be self-sacrificing to the last.) Papa would hide his face in his hands and sob aloud. But it would be too late. Toward dawn, I fell asleep.

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