New York on Fire – Book Excerpt – Triangle

Book Excerpt: Triangle Shirtwaist Company

New York on Fire by Hilton Obenzinger



* Triangle Shirtwaist Company

* Burning Churches

* B-25 Bomber Crashes Into the Empire State Building

Triangle Shirtwaist Company

March 25,1911

I am drinking tea with a friend across Washington Square Park.
Then I hear bells and sirens so I run across.
Smoke pours out the top floors of the Asch Building!
Oh God, it’s Triangle Shirtwaist!
Only yesterday they throw me out.
I work there and organize but the bosses find out
so Morris Goldfarb comes and tells me
Pack your things and get

Out the windows cotton bundles fall with tails of smoke.
I think they must be tossing out the burning cuttings.
Then a bundle unfurls like a flag.
it’s a black skirt with a girl
and she hits the sidewalk with such a force
she smashes through the deadlights into the cellar vault.
They are jumping, the girls are jumping from the ninth floor!
Oh God, how high up they are!
I grab my throat and don’t let go.

Put up the ladders! the people cry out.
But the tire horses can’t pull up to the building.
The bodies litter the sidewalk, quivering.
The horses panic at the pelting bodies.
Oh God, they are falling, so many falling.

It’s quitting time and I know Joe Wealer rings the bell
ready to search the pocketbooks as the girls leave.
Blanck and Harris must be sure no one steals.
The doors are locked so the girls don’t steal.
Only the elevators can carry them down.
They climb out on the ledges.

Only the elevators can carry them down.
They climb out on the ledges.
The doors are locked so the union can’t sneak in.
Only the elevators can carry them down.
They climb out on the ledges.

One girl climbs out, looks like Gussie Rosenfeld maybe.
She flings her hat into the air.
she opens her pocketbook.
Coins sprinkle down and a few bills flutter around.
No, there’s nothing in it, she dumps it all
even the pay envelope
and she jumps.

The firemen bring out their nets
and they yell for them to jump.
They hold hands and jump and the firemen are somersaulted
down into the nets
and the girls die and the horses scream and kick.
Finally they throw up their ladders.
But they go only to the sixth floor – not to the ninth or the tenth.
They cannot reach
all the way up to the girls on the ledges
who fall in twos and threes holding hands.
A girl waves her handkerchief then leaps
but catches on a hook beside the building a few floors below.
She hangs there until her dress burns free.
A girl and a boy kiss and embrace and drop arm in arm.
I think of the big bossom of the Gibson girl.
All the shirtwaists we cut and sew for the Gibson girl,
the collar held so close, the long sleeves flouncing up.
I cannot even wish the Gibson girl should fall from so high up.

Finally some who escape run out the front door.
Tutti morti! Tutti morti! Maria wails and I
grab hold of her a moment.
Joe Zito, he runs up with the elevator
again and again
, she cries.
The elevator is stuff with girls
they fling themselves in until now he can run up no more
because they jump down the shaft after him
and the shaft is fill up with bodies.
Oh Miriam, each one hit the elevator roof
they even bend the big iron beam!

Then Anna Dougherty stumbles against us screaming
Don’t let them hurt me! Don’t let them hurt me!
until a policeman grabs her to calm her down
the same cop who broke up the picket line only months ago.

Back then Jake Kline stood by his machine and cried out
People! Workers! Look at what they are doing to us!
Get up from your machines
and when Goldfarb lumbered over to him
we all stood up yelling Strike! Strike!
We picket and they break our heads and everyone in America learns
what a sweatshop is and they hear all about the union
but at the end the Triangle is the same
the bosses are the same
and even though the professor across the street at NYU
says he sees unsafe conditions from his window
every day they lock the doors
the cuttings pile up
and the sewing machines drip oil
until now the professor from NYU stretches a ladder
across the alley to the roof
so some of the girls can climb through the smoke
before the books in his library burst into flames.

The crowd is howling at the girls holding on to the ledges.
It’s quitting time and the sun is dropping behind the smoke
but we stay and stare and not thinking reach up with our hands.
I know at home my Papa welcomes the end of the Sabbath
chants Havdalah to separate the rest of the week
and he sprinkles the wine on a platter and sets a match to it
and the quick flame marks the end, the dividing line.
Now the girls in flames plunge to the sidewalk.
Celia Weintraub, Rose Glantz, Julia Aberstein,
Lucia Maltese or Surka Brenman
they are the ones who draw the line
between those who work
and those who own the value of it.

Very soon the fire is out – maybe 15 minutes.
The crowd grows as the news spreads.
Then the survivors and the relatives and the friends
all at once lunge for the building.
The fire chief comes down and talks to the reporters
In the drifting smoke, I saw bodies burned to bare bones,
skeletons bending over sewing machines.
The fire itself was brought swiftly under control.
It was not difficult to extinguish,
from a professional point of view.
Only the furniture
the dress goods
and the employees
were destroyed.

The crowd does not howl but is silent
as it rushes the building again.
The cops beat back the crowd with their clubs.

The ladders of the firemen can only reach the sixth floor
but the garment factories stretch to the ninth, tenth and beyond
with thousands of workers high up in the sky
who everyday climb into elevators
to float above the streets
an endless supply sucked out from Odessa and Sicily
and shot into the sky.
When Europe is dry,
lands I cannot imagine
will float high above the pavement
on the ninth and tenth floors
while their greenhorn fathers like mine will say
At least in America they don’t let you burn.

Max Hochfield the cutter comes up to me in the crowd
with smoke all over his face.
He got his pay and rushed out the one door open
then he saw flames
and raced back to save his sister but he was swept
down the stairs.
Now his sister lies out on the pavement
and he grabs my shoulder to ask if he can borrow some money.
His pay is burned up on the stairway.
He wants to buy a gun.
He will shoot Max Blanck and Isaac Harris
to avenge the death of his sister.
He is innocent enough for a murderer.

I too would like to kill the bosses.
Each day our fingers are stabbed with needles
while the bosses sell blouses as if the blood is invisible
on the crisp white Gibson girl.
Now they push us out of the windows.
Now more of us are ready to kill.
Every day they cheat us
and they don’t let us breath
and Goldfarb comes to your bench ready to hit
everyday we get a mind
to undo the old
to kill all that kills.

All that we do
does not go around in circles.
It is not always the same, no.
Even if we burn up, it’s not always the same.
What we make with our pain spirals up story by story
until the factories in the sky become the thrones
of all creation
and the dividing line between
our labor and ourselves
is killed.
The dead girls will then be living in us
and the living bosses will walk around dead.
I think all this but can’t say it to Max Hochfield the cutter
These are not words but girls falling
I grab my throat and don’t let go.

Review Excerpts