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No Place Like Home


Jacob Riis Photo

It was hot. Lint swirled in the air like a dream—an enchanted snowy day— only instead of meltin’, it stuck to your skin, clothes, and hair. You didn’t try to catch it on your tongue. While standin’ amidst this peculiar blizzard, I realized that I had become further removed from home, because usually on days like this, we made snow angels. One was never enough.

I kept on runnin’ and tried to ignore that my shoes were drenched from splashin’ in the shallow, murky puddles that oozed out from beneath endless rows of tenements.

I gagged at the sight of rotten food and other sour things that were carelessly strewn about. The vile odor strengthened as we crawled deeper into the maze. I tried to keep up my pace while rummagin’ through my reticule for my handkerchief.

“Will you please slow down?” I hollered defiantly against the relentless roar of the mills.

I stumbled around the corner and found myself facin’ a cluster of outhouses and open sinks. I backed away cautiously, nearly bumpin’ into a young girl fillin’ up her pail at a pump. Her dress was nothin’ more than a collection of scraps held together by a thread that was about to let go. A grungy, tattered ribbon attempted to rest neatly on her strawberry colored hair, which was carelessly chopped, barely reachin’ her small shoulders.

The squeakin’ stopped when she turned to face me. “They went in there.” She nodded in the direction of a narrow gap between the buildin’s. “Ya gonna’ follow ‘em?”

I stared at the outhouses and then at her. “Uh, yes… I am,” I said.

Without expression, she started in pumpin’ again, and the steady squeakin’ resumed.

Rebecca and Mercy did not listen, in fact, they ran faster. I stopped in front of a pile of discarded odds and ends and slowly looked up. Patched linens and threadbare garments hung on pulley lines from open windows, strung between the buildin’s, goin’ all the way up to the roof and flappin’ in the slight breeze.

Meanwhile, the girls entered through an already opened door. I held tight to my bags and followed. Met with an unexpected stench of fried fish, boiled cabbage, peppery soap, smoke, and general foulness, I quickly covered my nose with my handkerchief. It still smelled like home.

A pale, ragged girl of about our age, clearly expectin’ to give birth at any time, stood in a doorway with a baby perched on her hip. Behind her was what looked like a common kitchen and dinin’ area. I squeezed by her and nodded, but may as well have been invisible, as she remained expressionless, even when her red-faced baby squirmed and started in cryin’.

There was an awful lot of commotion comin’ from a darkish nook under a flight of stairs. I gasped and nearly collided with a group of children pitchin’ pennies. They barely noticed me and continued to play.

Mercy burst in through a door at the end of the hallway and stood inside with outstretched arms and a smile brighter than a hundred candles. “Welcome to your new home.”

“It ain’t much, but we make do,” Rebecca said, standin’ erect with her hands folded at her waist and her eyes dartin’ about.

Surprisingly winded and damp with sweat, I stopped abruptly when I detected at least one source of the filth that I had smelled earlier. I scanned the room for any sign of welcome, validation that I had made the right choice.

A single ray of light streamed through a hole in the wall at the end of the hallway. The only window in the room had been nailed shut with boards on the outside. Along with three beds haphazardly shoved in a corner was a long crate stuffed with musty hay and covered with a soiled bedtick. A swarm of flies buzzed around the oily surface of a small desk that sat squarely in the middle of the room. Basic cookin’ utensils, a rusty tin coffee pot, a jar of sugar, and a stack of unclean dishes were scattered about on a little pine table. A washtub was turned over, covered by a torn gray cloth with a well-worn Bible in the center of it, lyin’ open, and set beside it was a crumpled tobacco pouch. There was a single rocker, much like that of Mother’s, beside a small barrel that served as a table with a lamp upon it. Although fragile and a bit queasy, I refrained from sittin’ on the nearby chair without a back, fearin’ it would collapse beneath me.

Mercy pointed to the bed closest to the worthless window. “This is where you’ll be sleepin’,” she said. “You can share with Rebecca and me. We washed it up ‘specially for you. Cora slept in with us before. She up and left more than a week ago, and we’ve heard no mention of her. The police came by and took a statement. I’m not worried though. I think that she left with the boy she’d been meetin’ for a time. In fact, I believe that they were familiar, but it isn’t right to say. She was blacklisted, so it’s likely that she won’t return. All that matters is that she’s gone, and should she come back, she’ll have to make other arrangements. It’s your bed now. I mean, we’ll share it of course.”

“You don’t need to go into such great detail,” Rebecca said.

“Never mind,” Mercy said. “Let’s put your things away.”

She pulled back a sooty patched curtain, revealin’ a stack of three trunks with mine bein’ on top. “Take your time. You must be so tired from all that travelin’ and the emotional toll of losin’ your mother. As you recall, it wasn’t long ago when Father passed.”

The combination of putrid scents and the lack of decent light emphasized that it felt more like a grave than a home. Sarah Hodgdon

September 7, 1872

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