I grew up in a house without many books. Each volume in the single short bookcase my family owned stands out in memory, I suppose because each one had to be singular in some way to earn its place, something like a cabinet of curiosities. By the time I left home at 17, the bookcase had been relegated to an out-of-the-way corner, and I was invited to carry its contents away with me, seed-stock for the too many bookcases now burdening my household.
Only in America, a collection of essays by Harry Golden, a child of New York’s Lower East Side who moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to edit his own Jewish newspaper, had pride of place. I think this was because it validated my family’s position as misplaced Jews (northern California substituting for North Carolina), and because this homely volume in a hamishe voice had made it to number one on the New York Times best-seller list in 1958 (an event deemed as uncanny as a kosher pig). It actually had a foreword by Carl Sandburg! As with the other age-inappropriate books I found in my childhood home, I read it many times.
The episode that always has and ever will stand out in my memory comprises a mere five pages, an account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25,1911, in which 148 garment workers, almost all Jewish and Italian girls, died of greed.
The factory occupied three floors, employing 600 workers in all. Those who worked on the highest floor were the last to hear of the fire. Their employers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Place and Greene Street (just off Washington Square) had locked the exit door—to reduce pilfering, they said, so employees could be checked for contraband as they left for the day. Unable to exit through either the locked door or the only other way out, a smoke-filled stairwell, many girls hurled themselves from ninth-story windows, dying of the fall rather than burning to death. Shrewd defense attorneys steered the factory owners to acquittal, but the case excited a tremendous outcry that led eventually to almost all the legislation governing occupational health and safety (and to the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, Harry Golden wrote).
As a child, I lacked the vocabulary for politics. I knew we were different from a lot of the people around us: “we” voted for Norman Thomas and Adlai Stevenson, “we” thought Joe McCarthy was a monster. I was trained not to use nasty words for people’s skin color or religion, to honor the golden rule. But that little essay by Harry Golden taught me which side I was on. It set my political education in motion long before I’d read any conventional history or theory. I want to share a bit of it with you. He described how worn-out and uninspected fire hoses rotted in the hands of those who hoped to fight the fire from inside the factory, then:
In desperation they tried to flood the place from the standpipe but found that they could not turn the valve. One of the long tables had been used for cleaning and was saturated with highly inflammable cleaning fluids and chemicals. In another minute a sheet of flame was pouring out of the eighth-floor window. The girls were now panic-stricken. In those days they wore their hair long and many of the less hysterical girls ran to the wash stand and covered their heads with wet cloths and garments.
A few were able to reach the fire escape and go up the roof to safety across another building, but soon the whole front of the factory was a sheet of flame. The elevator man had fled in panic, but a passer-by ran into the elevator and made trip after trip, thirty girls at a time. He brought two hundred girls down to the street until the elevator shaft itself was ablaze. Some of the girls tried to slide down the elevator cables. They found nineteen bodies on top of the elevator cab.
From the ninth floor three girls huddled together and jumped into the fireman’s net. They died instantly, pulling the firemen into the shattered net. They said that three girls jumping, arm in arm, from a ninth floor were equivalent to a solid mass of fourteen tons when they hit the net. The girls who could not reach the windows ran toward the rear exist door and they found it locked.
Now the wonderful artist Annie Lanzillotto has sent me notice of a group of artists and others who have joined together to plan a commemoration of the fire’s centennial in 2011. This March 25th, as on every other, a group of people will chalk the names of victims at the sites of their homes across New York City. There is also a Facebook group you can join, called “Remember The Triangle Fire.”
Sometimes people ask me why I care so much about and write so much about the work of artists of social conscience. It is because their memories are long, their hearts are huge, their gifts are shared generously in the cause of justice and healing. Through their capacity to express love, evoke beauty and awaken awareness, they play indispensable social roles—and they continue to do it even though their work is portrayed by politicians as what my friend Dudley Cocke calls a “toxic amenity.” I am honored to be part of this cohort.