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Where He Found His Neighbor by Jacob A. Riis

 

“Go quickly, please, to No. —East Eleventh Street, near the river,” was the burden of a message received one day in the Charities Building; “a Hungarian family is in trouble.” The little word that covers the widest range in the language gives marching orders daily to many busy feet thereabouts, and, before the October sun had set, a visitor from the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor had climbed to the fourth floor of the tenement and found the Josefy family. This was what she discovered there: a man in the last stages of consumption, a woman within two weeks of her confinement, five hungry children, a landlord clamoring for his rent. The man had long ceased to earn the family living. His wife, taking up that burden with the rest, had worked on cloaks for a sweater until she also had to give up. In fact, the work gave out just as their need was greatest. Now, with the new baby coming, no preparation had been made to receive it. For those already there, there was no food in the house.

They had once been well off. Josefy was a tailor, and had employed nearly a score of hands in the busy season. He paid forty-four dollars a month rent then. That day the landlord had threatened to dispossess them for one month's arrears of seven dollars, and only because of the rain had given them a day's grace. All the money saved up in better days had gone to pay doctor and druggist, without making Josefy any better. His wife listened dismally to the recital of their troubles and asked for work—any light work that she could do.

The rent was paid, and the baby came. They were eight then, subsisting, as the society's records show, in January on the earnings of Mrs. Josefy making ladies' blouse sleeves at twenty-five cents a dozen pairs, in February on the receipts of embroidering initials on napkins at fifteen cents apiece, in March on her labors in a downtown house on sample cloaks. Three dollars a week was her wage there. To save car-fare she walked to her work and back, a good two miles each way, getting up at 3 A.M. to do her home washing and cleaning first. In bad weather they were poorer by ten cents a day, because then she had to ride. The neighbors were kind; the baker left them bread twice a week and the butcher gave them a little meat now and then. The father's hemorrhages were more frequent. When, on a slippery day, one of the children, going for milk, fell in the street and spilled it, he went without his only food, as they had but eight cents in the house. In May came the end. The tailor died, and in the house of mourning there was one care less, one less to feed and clothe. The widow gathered her flock close and faced the future dry-eyed. The luxury of grief is not for those at close grips with stern poverty.

When word reached far-off Hungary, Mrs. Josefy's sister wrote to her to come back; she would send the money. The widow's friends rejoiced, but she shook her head. To face poverty as bitter there? This was her children's country; it should be hers too. At the Consulate they reasoned with her; the chance was too good to let pass. When she persisted, they told her to put the children in a home, then; she could never make her way with so many. No doubt they considered her an ungrateful person when she flatly refused to do either. It is not in the record that she ever darkened the door of the Consulate again.

The charitable committee had no better success. They offered her passage money, and she refused it. “She is always looking for work,” writes the visitor in the register, for once in her life a little resentfully, it would almost seem. When finally tickets came at the end of a year, Victor, the oldest boy, must finish his schooling first. Exasperated, the committee issues its ultimatum: she must go, or put the children away. Dry bread was the family fare when Mrs. Josefy was confronted with it, but she met it as firmly: Never! she would stay and do the best she could.

The record which I have followed states here that the committee dropped her, but stood by to watch the struggle, half shamefacedly one cannot help thinking, though they had given the best advice they knew. Six months later the widow reports that “the children had never wanted something to eat.”

At this time Victor is offered a job, two dollars and a half a week, with a chance of advancement. The mother goes out house-cleaning. Together they live on bread and coffee to save money for the rent, but she refuses the proffered relief. Victor is in the graduating class; he must finish his schooling. Just then her sewing-machine is seized for debt. The committee, retreating in a huff after a fresh defeat over the emigration question, hastens to the rescue, glad of a chance, and it is restored. In sheer admiration at her pluck they put it down that “she is doing the best she can to keep her family together.” There is a curious little entry here that sizes up the children. They had sent them to Coney Island on a vacation, but at night they were back home. “No one spoke to them there,” is their explanation. They had their mother's pride.

It happened in the last month of that year that I went out to speak in a suburban New Jersey town. “Neighbors” was my topic. I was the guest of the secretary of a Foreign Mission Board that has its office in the Presbyterian Building on Fifth Avenue. That night when we sat at dinner the talk ran on the modern methods of organized charity. “Yes,” said my host, as his eyes rested on the quiverful seated around the board, “it is all good. But best of all would be if you could find for me a widow, say, with children like my own, whom my wife could help in her own way, and the children learn to take an interest in. I have no chance, as you know. The office claims all my time. But they—that would be best of all, for them and for us.”

And he was right; that would be charity in the real meaning of the word: friendship, the neighborly lift that gets one over the hard places in the road. The other half would cease to be, on that plan, and we should all be one great whole, pulling together, and our democracy would become real. I promised to find him such a widow.

But it proved a harder task than I had thought. None of the widows I knew had six children. The charitable societies had no family that fitted my friend's case. But in time I found people who knew about Mrs. Josefy. The children were right—so many boys and so many girls; what they told me of the mother made me want to know more. I went over to East Eleventh Street at once. On the way the feeling grew upon me that I had found my friend's Christmas present—I forgot to say that it was on Christmas Eve—and when I saw them and gathered something of the fight that splendid little woman had waged for her brood those eight long years, I knew that my search was over. When we had set up a Christmas tree together, to the wild delight of the children, and I had ordered a good dinner from a neighboring restaurant on my friend's account, I hastened back to tell him of my good luck and his. I knew he was late at the office with his mail.

[Illustration: “WHEN WE HAD SET UP A CHRISTMAS TREE TOGETHER, TO THE WILD DELIGHT OF THE CHILDREN.”]

Half-way across town it came to me with a sense of shock that I had forgotten something. Mrs. Josefy had told me that she scrubbed in a public building, but where I had not asked. Perhaps it would not have seemed important to you. It did to me, and when I had gone all the way back and she answered my question, I knew why. Where do you suppose she scrubbed? In the Presbyterian Building! Under his own roof was the neighbor he sought. Almost they touched elbows, yet were they farther apart than the poles. Were, but no longer to be. The very next day brought my friend and his wife in from their Jersey home to East Eleventh Street. Long years after I found this entry on the register, under date January 20, 1899:

“Mrs. Josefy states that she never had such a happy Christmas since she came to this country. The children were all so happy, and every one had been so kind to them.”

It was the beginning of better days for the Josefy family. Weary stretches of hard road there were ahead yet, but they were no longer lonesome. The ladies' committee that had once so hotly blamed her were her friends to the last woman, for she had taught them with her splendid pluck what it should mean to be a mother of Americans. They did not offer to carry her then any more than before, but they went alongside with words of neighborly cheer and saw her win over every obstacle. Two years later finds her still working in the Presbyterian Building earning sixteen dollars a month and leaving her home at five in the morning. Her oldest boy is making four dollars and a half a week, and one of the girls is learning dressmaking. The others are all in school. One may be sure without asking that they are not laggards there. When the youngest, at twelve, is wanted by her friends of the mission board to “live out” with them, the mother refuses to let her go, at the risk of displeasing her benefactors. The child must go to school and learn a trade. Three years more, and all but the youngest are employed. Mrs. Josefy has had a long illness, but she reports that she can help herself. They are now paying fourteen dollars a month rent. On April 6, 1904, the last entry but one is made on the register: the family is on dry ground and the “case is closed.”

The last but one. That one was added after a gap of eight years when I made inquiries for the Josefys the other day. Eight years is a long time in the Charities Buildings with a heavy burden of human woe and failure. Perhaps for that very reason they had not forgotten Mrs. Josefy, but they had lost trace of her. She had left her old home in Eleventh Street, and all that was known was that she was somewhere up near Fort Washington. I asked that they find her for me, and a week later I read this entry in the register, where, let us hope, the case of the Josefys is now closed for all time:

“The Josefys live now at No. —West One Hundred and Eighty —st Street in a handsome flat of six sunny rooms. The oldest son, who is a cashier in a broker's office on a salary of $35 a week, is the head of the family. His brother earns $20 a week in a downtown business. Two of the daughters are happily married; another is a stenographer. The youngest, the baby of the dark days in the East Side tenement, was graduated from school last year and is ready to join the army of workers. The mother begins to feel her years, but is happy with her children.”

Some Christmas Eve I will go up and see them and take my friend from the Presbyterian Building along.

This is the story of a poor woman, daughter of a proud and chivalrous people, whose sons have helped make great fortunes grow in our land and have received scant pay and scantier justice in return, and of whom it is the custom of some Americans to speak with contempt as “Huns.”

 
 
 

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