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The Answer of Ludlow Street by Jacob A. Riis

 

“You get the money, or out you go! I ain't in the business for me health,” and the bang of the door and the angry clatter of the landlord's boots on the stairs, as he went down, bore witness that he meant what he said.

Judah Kapelowitz and his wife sat and looked silently at the little dark room when the last note of his voice had died away in the hall. They knew it well enough—it was their last day of grace. They were two months behind with the rent, and where it was to come from neither of them knew. Six years of struggling in the Promised Land, and this was what it had brought them.

A hungry little cry roused the woman from her apathy. She went over and took the baby and put it mechanically to her poor breast. Holding it so, she sat by the window and looked out upon the gray November day. Her husband had not stirred. Each avoided the question in the other's eyes, for neither had an answer.

They were young people as men reckon age in happy days, Judah scarce past thirty; but it is not always the years that count in Ludlow Street. Behind that and the tenement stretched the endless days of suffering in their Galician home, where the Jew was hated and despised as the one thrifty trader of the country, tortured alike by drunken peasant and cruel noble when they were not plotting murder against one another. With all their little savings they had paid Judah's passage to the land where men were free to labor, free to worship as their fathers did—a twice-blessed country, surely—and he had gone, leaving Sarah, his wife, and their child to wait for word that Judah was rich and expected them.

The wealth he found in Ludlow Street was all piled on his push-cart, and his persecutors would have scorned it. A handful of carrots, a few cabbages and beets, is not much to plan transatlantic voyages on; but what with Sarah's eager letters and Judah's starving himself daily to save every penny, he managed in two long years to scrape together the money for the steamship ticket that set all the tongues wagging in his home village when it came: Judah Kapelowitz had made his fortune in the far land, it was plain to be seen. Sarah and the boy, now grown big enough to speak his father's name with an altogether cunning little catch, bade a joyous good-by to their friends and set their faces hopefully toward the West. Once they were together, all their troubles would be at an end.

In the poor tenement the peddler lay awake till far into the night, hearkening to the noises of the street. He had gone hungry to bed, and he was too tired to sleep. Over and over he counted the many miles of stormy ocean and the days to their coming, Sarah and the little Judah. Once they were together, he would work, work, work—and should they not make a living in the great, wealthy city?

With the dawn lighting up the eastern sky he slept the sleep of exhaustion, his question unanswered.

That was six years ago—six hard, weary years. They had worked together, he at his push-cart, Sarah for the sweater, earning a few cents finishing “pants” when she could. Little Judah did his share, pulling thread, until his sister came and he had to mind her. Together they had kept a roof overhead, and less and less to eat, till Judah had to give up his cart. Between the fierce competition and the police blackmail it would no longer keep body and soul together for its owner. A painter in the next house was in need of a hand, and Judah apprenticed himself to him for a dollar a day. If he could hold out a year or two, he might earn journeyman's wages and have steady work. The boss saw that he had an eye for the business. But, though Judah's eye was good, he lacked the “strong stomach” which is even more important to a painter. He had starved so long that the smell of the paint made him sick and he could not work fast enough. So the boss discharged him. “The sheeny was no good,” was all the character he gave him.

It was then the twins came. There was not a penny in the house, and the rent money was long in arrears. Judah went out and asked for work. He sought no alms; he begged merely for a chance to earn a living at any price, any wages. Nobody wanted him, as was right and proper, no doubt. To underbid the living wage is even a worse sin against society than to “debase its standard of living,” we are told by those who should know. Judah Kapelowitz was only an ignorant Jew, pleading for work that he might earn bread for his starving babies. He knew nothing of standards, but he would have sold his soul for a loaf of bread that day. He found no one to pay the price, and he came home hungry as he had gone out. In the afternoon the landlord called for the rent.

Another tiny wail came from the old baby carriage in which the twins slept, and the mother turned her head from the twilight street where the lights were beginning to come out. Judah rose heavily from his seat.

“I go get money,” he said, slowly. “I work for Mr. Springer two days. He will give me money.” And he went out.

Mr. Springer was the boss painter. He did not give Judah his wages. He had not earned them, he said, and showed him the door. The man pleaded hotly, despairingly. They were hungry, the little kids and his wife. Only fifty cents of the two dollars—fifty cents! The painter put him out, and when he would not go, kicked him.

“Look out for that Jew, John,” he said, putting up the shutters. “We shall have him setting off a bomb on us next. They turn Anarchist when they get desperate.”

Mr. Springer was, it will be perceived, a man of discernment.

Judah Kapelowitz lay down beside his wife at night without a word of complaint. “To-morrow,” he said, “I do it.”

[Illustration: “HE TIED HIS FEET TOGETHER WITH THE PRAYER SHAWL, AND LOOKED ONCE UPON THE RISING SUN.”]

He arose early and washed himself with care. He bound the praying-band upon his forehead, and upon his wrist the tefillin with the Holy Name; then he covered his head with the tallith and prayed to the God of his fathers who brought them out of bondage, and blessed his house and his children, little Judah and Miriam his sister, and the twins in the cradle. As he kissed his wife good-by, he said that he had found work and wages, and would bring back money. She saw him go down in his working clothes; she did not know that he had hidden the tallith under his apron.

He did not leave the house, but, when the door was closed, went up to the roof. Standing upon the edge of it, he tied his feet together with the prayer shawl, looked once upon the rising sun, and threw himself into the street, seventy feet below.

“It is Judah Kapelowitz, the painter,” said the awed neighbors, who ran up and looked in his dead face. The police came and took him to the station-house, for Judah, who living had kept the law of God and man, had broken both in his dying. They laid the body on the floor in front of the prison cells and covered it with the tallith as with a shroud. Sarah, his wife, sat by, white and tearless, with the twins at her breast. Little Miriam hid her head in her lap, frightened at the silence about them. At the tenement around the corner men were carrying her poor belongings out and stacking them in the street. They were homeless and fatherless.

Ludlow Street had given its answer.

 
 
 

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