Okay, so I wrote yesterday that I spent the day in Manhattan with Emily and others; what we were doing was going on a book group field trip to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East side. This book group likes to read books that have some local connection and then visit the place. We read (or were supposed to read) two books, Triangle, about a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 where 146 workers, mostly immigrant women, died, and Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, a novel about an immigrant girl growing up in the NYC tenements. I’d read Bread Givers a few years ago for a class, but didn’t have a chance to read Triangle.
The museum consists of actual tenements that tour guides will take you through; we saw two apartments, both of them tiny. Each apartment consisted of a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom, all of them very small, and each apartment housed a family with five or so children. One of them was also converted into a garment shop during the day, when several women would come in and piece together dresses. The building was dark and claustrophobic; in some rooms electric lights had been installed, but in others they had only gas lights to give us the sense of the gloom people lived in until electric lights became available. I spent the tour trying to imagine what it would be like to live in these conditions; what’s most memorable about it is how cramped the housing was and how impossible it would have been ever to be alone. As someone who values privacy very highly, I simply can’t comprehend what it would be like to have none. This is an important theme in Bread Givers, which describes the crowding in the tenements and the streets and the main character’s striving to find some space for herself — both physically and mentally.
There’s a little bookshop across the street from the museum, and although I didn’t buy anything (I really don’t need it!), I was tempted by its collection of books about NYC.
After the tour, we went on a trek to find lunch; Emily and her husband Bob knew of a very authentic, neighborhood Chinese place where lots of good food could be had for very cheap. This was one of the nicest parts of the day as we sat around for what must have been a couple of hours talking — a bit about the books, but as not everyone had completed the reading (in fact, I don’t think anybody had completed the reading), we wandered off into other topics. Is there anything nicer than sitting around for a couple hours with a group of smart, friendly people, talking about books and about life? In that moment, at least, there wasn’t.
I often say that I should spend more time in NYC, although when the weekend comes and I have the chance to go, I begin to feel lazy. The city is close enough to be easily accessible for day trips, although far enough for the trip to take up most of the day. But there is so much to see …
If you’re in the city and have the time, I do recommend the Tenement Museum tour, and if you’re interested in the area and in immigrant histories, you will probably like Bread Givers.