Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the day the stock market crashed, and the day Evelyn Ford will never forget.
With the untimely death of her parents and the loss of their only income, Evelyn, and her brother, Frank flee to a make-shift hovel built in Central Park.
After Frank mysteriously goes missing, bare cupboards force Evelyn to seek employment anywhere she can find work, even if that means working at a burlesque theater.
Catching the attention of Don Vincent Giovanni, a Kingpin in the New York mafia, Evelyn discovers that Frank is serving time in prison for running hooch and he owes Vincent a lot of money. In order to pay off her brother’s debt, Evelyn is thrown into the world of mobsters and bootlegging.
Between running hooch all over the city of New York and trying to save her brother, Evelyn finds herself drawn to Max Catalano, Vincent’s Consigliere. Even with secrets of his own, he’s the only one she can trust when she entangles herself in the middle of the New York mafia crime wars.
A 2016 Winner of the Crowned Heart for Excellence Award from InD’tale Magazine.
“HARD TIMES MAKE hard folks,” Mrs. Meyer’s weak voice whispered behind me as she leaned against the wall with her arms hugged around her chest.
“It certainly does, but there’s no sense in wallowing in suffrage now.” My words shot back at the woman with a harsh tone that I shouldn’t have used, even if she’d entered my hovel without my consent.
Her eyes followed me as I unfolded my dress and laid it upon the old mattress lying on the ground. The champagne color glimmered in the dim light. The only dress of Mama’s that I couldn’t bring myself to sell, one of her favorites.
“Are you finally going to sell it?” She nodded toward the soft layers of silk and delicate lace. “You might fetch a few dollars, enough to buy a few days’ worth of food.”
“No, I’m not going to sell it. I’m going to find a job.” I stepped in front of the broken mirror in the corner and grabbed a few bobby pins from a basket.
“Evelyn, you’d have better luck selling that dress. That is, if anyone can even afford to buy it in these times.” She coughed into her dirt stained hand and wiped her gaunt cheek. “A woman’s place is in the home. Frank should be the one looking for work, not you.”
“Frank isn’t my husband, Mrs. Meyers, he’s my brother. I doubt I should act as a wife to my own flesh and blood.”
My fingers brushed through my sun-kissed, blonde hair as I pinned up the shoulder-length tresses. In bad need of a trim and a wash, the natural wavy and soft curls rebelled against the style I forced onto them.
“Still you should be home.”
“Doing what? Cooking? We have no food in our cupboards. Washing? We have no clothes to clean. I need some money so I can eat tonight.”
“If you’re hungry, go to the soup kitchen.” Her voice rasped and she began another coughing fit. “Women are supposed to stay home while the men work, plain and simple. Frank should be out finding a job, not you.”
“He is out there.” My lie stung with guilt.
“He’s been gone for a week. Where’s he looking that would cause him not to come home for that many days? Does he not worry about you?”
I spun around, meeting her gaze. Her meddling gossip boiled through my veins as she threatened to cross a line she shouldn’t.
“Not that our business is your business, but my brother is looking for work, as we all are. Perhaps, he’s been gone for so long because he’s actually found a job. I have complete faith he’ll be home soon.”
“Most men who don’t come home are either off hitting the hooch or hauled up in the big house.”
“My brother is not a drunk.” I pointed a finger at her face. “And he’s not a lawbreaker.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “So where are you going to look for work?”
My teeth clenched. I dreaded knowing where I planned to head this afternoon enough without having to admit it to anyone, not that I’d consider telling her, of all people.
“I don’t have any place in particular, yet. Perhaps, I’ll go down to the unemployment office.”
“Yes, because you, out of thousands in this city, will have any luck there. You’re not going to find a job. You might as well just head down to the soup kitchen like I told you.”
I marched toward the battered front door and jerked it open. The old dented tin and broken boards lurched and swung on the rusted hinges with grinding clanks as I motioned her to leave.
“Please excuse me, Mrs. Meyers. I should change my clothes and be on my way.”
She gave an offended nod at my rude dismissal, but I didn’t care, and I slammed the door behind her as she left.
Within moments, I slid the dress up my legs and slipped my arms through the sleeves. The dropped waist fit snug around my hips as I fastened the last button and smoothed out the material before casting a glance toward Heaven above.
Please, Mama and Daddy, forgive me.
Desperation, certainly, had a way of preying on someone.
I’d never been inside a burlesque theater before, but unfortunately, today, I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t know the whereabouts of my older brother, Frank, I didn’t have a dime to my name, and my cupboards were bare.
Yes, hard times made for hard people and caused hard choices.
I glanced around the dirty hovel that took Frank a day to build. Four square walls of dented sheet metal and scraps of plywood. It wasn’t much, but it was home, in some sense of the word, at least.
Certainly, Hooverville didn’t follow city law, but as people lost their jobs and homes, the city had no other choice than to turn a blind eye. Even if, that meant that the once beautiful green grass of Central Park had turned into nothing but dirt that swirled in the wind, stained clothes, and penetrated every deep crevice the fine grains could find.
I slammed the makeshift door as I left, trotting past old man Perry sitting in his rickety chair outside of his own hovel. His ripped and stained clothes hung off his skeleton body as he sipped steaming hot soup from a tin mug.
“The line is a mile long.” His hoarse voice growled under his breath. “Damn near starved just waiting.”
“Thank you for the warning.”
He grumbled some other incoherent words, but I ignored him and continued.
Every facet of my life, every piece that I could cling to seemed to shatter, turn to dust, and float away in a breeze as though it never existed. Not only had I lost my parents, but I lost everything else, and just when I believed I couldn’t lose any more, I lost Frank.
He’s just looking for work. He’s just looking for work.
“Evelyn?” a man’s voice shouted from behind me. Familiar, it forced a groan to my lips.
Of course, the guilt from my thoughts stung. Always sweet and kind, Benjamin, certainly, didn’t deserve my rudeness. However, no matter how casual he began the conversation, his usual longing glances and seductive insinuations exhausted me.
“Evelyn, wait up.” Benjamin panted as he trotted toward me. His brown curly hair bounced with his movement.
“Good afternoon, Benjamin.”
“Well you certainly are togged to the bricks, aren’t you? Where are you going all dressed up? Are you going into the city?”
I hesitated to answer him. “Um, yes, but—”
“I was headed in myself to fetch a hot meal in the soup line. old man Perry said the line was long. I don’t really care, though. I’m starving. May I walk with you?”
While not unattractive by my opinion, his smile matched his sweet nature. Perhaps, in another time, I’d be open to his affections. However, the thought of love with him, or anyone for that matter, weighed heavy on my shoulders with everything else going on in my life at the moment.
“I suppose, but I’m really in quite a hurry.”
“Are you planning on stopping at the soup line?”
“No, not this afternoon.”
“So where are you headed then?”
“Um, I’ve decided to try and find employment someplace.”
“Ah, there’s no work in this apple for anyone, you should just come with me.”
“I’ve got to try, Benjamin. I can’t just sit by and do nothing.”
He chuckled. “You ain’t doing squat, but going on a trip for biscuits. Looking for work is just a waste of time, especially yours.”
“I beg your pardon?”
A horse carriage trotted past as we stepped onto the sidewalk. The clip-clop of the shoes against the pavement mimicked my heartbeat, a pound that thumped faster and harder with every second.
As the carriage rolled around the corner, the horse slid to a halt and reared in fear, nearly colliding with an automobile. The driver honked his horn and swerved, exchanging hand gestures and curse words with the horse owner that made every woman in the vicinity blush.
“Ah, now, Evelyn, come on. I only meant what I said to get you to see reason. Everyone in the whole darn city is looking for work and you think you are going to be the lucky one to bring home some dough?”
“I’ve got as good of a chance as any.” I shot him a fiery glare, my tone sharp and rude, but I didn’t care. How dare he presume me a twit?
“Goodbye, Benjamin.” Before he could utter another word, I scurried off, ignoring him.
Business after business, the city of New York surrounded the park in a vast sea of buildings that spread out like long elegant fingers. With each passing day, however, more buildings became vacant. Abandoned and left behind to a bankrupt city that couldn’t care for them any more than the owners could.
Men, women, and children walked in every direction along the city sidewalks with eyes full of sadness and despair. Every day an air of depression clouded the whole city more and more in a dense fog that left everyone within an inch of sanity and clawing for any escape from poverty.
The few of the stores, lucky enough to remain open, hung signs up and down the streets of New York advertising food and clothes. Five cents for a loaf of bread, seven cents for a bottle of milk, or a few dollars for the latest style of bias cut dresses in silk, chiffon, and lace.
Purchases beyond my means, and yet, ones I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at when my parents were alive or when Frank and I had money. Often these stores also offered free cups of coffee for the unemployed. A nice change to the water they gave at the soup kitchen with the odd musty smell and sour taste.
As I strolled down the alleyway, a couple of men huddled in the corner around a fire lit in a steel barrel. Their clothes ragged and dirt stained, they rubbed their hands as they held them near the flames.
“Been out of work for about three months. Don’t know what I’m gonna do if I can’t find anythin’ soon.” One of the men grunted as his hoarse voice rasped over each syllable.
“Aye, no jobs around here, no more. Been thinkin’ I need to head out of town, go someplace else for a bit.”
“I got a cousin over in Atlantic City. He says findin’ work is just as hard there, too.”
The two men nodded as I passed then continued their conversation with words I didn’t want to hear, and yet ones I couldn’t ignore. No jobs, no work, no money, the same problems felt all over the city.
As I rounded the corner and strolled down another street, I caught sight of two small children sitting on the steps of neglected apartment building. Their mother sat behind them, sobbing as she held a sign that read CHILDREN FOR SALE.
She wiped her tear streaked face and cringed away from my gaze as the kids huddled around her legs. Desperation haunted us all, but for a mother to sell her children proved a level of anguish I couldn’t fathom.
Mounted police officers rode down the street. The trotting clip-clop sound from the iron horse shoes echoed through the brick buildings, and the horses bobbed their heads as the police officers held the reins tight. Anxious energy pulsed through the animal’s muscles as they headed for a large crowd picketing near the rail yard.
Shouts from men in the distance holding signs resonated through my chest. Bold letters painted on wooden signs danced above, the desperation behind the words obvious: WILL WORK FOR FOOD, FAMILY STARVING, and CAN’T FIND WORK.
Their voices bellowed with a hollow sound that mirrored the burden swimming in their desolate eyes. Feelings of hopelessness had chained them to an unknown fate of unanswerable questions.
How long before they would all find work again and how long could the country live while starving?
I continued toward the soup kitchen. Just as described, dozens of men and women waited in the line for a bowl of soup and a small loaf of bread. A saving grace, and yet, a depressing reminder to all of our lives.
A few of the women gawked at me as I passed. My dress sparkled in their envious eyes as the cream silk reflected the sunlight. Just as poor as they, I suppose the dress said otherwise, and I ducked my chin down to ignore their disdain.
Down the last street, I trotted across and around the corner through another alleyway.
My pulse raced.
The anxious butterflies in my stomach fluttered, sickness swirled, and the thought of retching clouded my anticipation.
Even in the daylight, the bright light bulbs of the burlesque theater sign blinked. Yellow, blue, and pink, the pattern nearly mesmerized and made me forget what lurked inside.
Pictures of the different dancers hung along the front walls of the building. Each girl, barely clothed, stared back from the frames. Their seduction glimmered, radiating and enticing men even from paper.
Heat rushed to the shells of my ears and my stomach tightened. A gentle breeze blew through my blonde curls and the silk of the dress rustled against my calves, tickling my skin as the two halves of myself fought a war against one another.
Should I go in or to walk away?
Two men approached as I fought my internal battle. They gave me a sideways glance and nodded before the pictures of the half-naked dames caught their attention and I suddenly became invisible. Their curiosity stopped them in their tracks as they ogled over every frame.
“That one,” one of them said to the other. “That one, right there. Best set of gams you’ll ever see in your entire life. Her name is Rosie and she’ll give you one hell of a night.”
The other chuckled. “I’ll take your word for it. My wife would kill me if she found out I ever visited this clip-joint. Now, come on, we’re already late.”
As the two men continued their way down the street, I inhaled a deep breath to calm my nerves. Here I stood on the precipice of a destiny I didn’t know if I could face.