Talia Lostch worked as a courier. She took deliveries all over Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Her job had no real organization, it was catch as catch can. Sometimes she worked as a subcontractor for the post office. Sometimes she delivered fabric for the blouse factory, where her older sister Ayala worked. She could have worked there too, alongside her sister. The pay would have been almost double, but Talia had no aptitude for sewing and she liked traveling around the city.
On any given day her deliveries sent her ricocheting through the five boroughs, by subway and elevated train and then running through the streets to the final destination.
She often stopped at the library in the middle of her day to read the latest science and engineering journals. She had grown up with an interest in engineering. Her father Reuven had been a famous engineer in Prague and her earliest memories were of sitting next to him on his workbench doing little tasks that he assigned. He would ask her to pull a bit of wire a gauge thinner, or polish brass struts and cogs for his automata until they gleamed.
Reuven was a pipe fitter now, building networks of pneumatic tubes and air ducts at construction sites around the city. His work had assured their family some stability and kept them from desperation. Desperation and starvation were always present in the tenements, haunting them like baleful spirits. There were many who couldn’t find a job, or who couldn’t work, and those who did have jobs held dubious contracts with factories in the Bowery that stipulated that they could be fired without notice. It was standard corporate practice when hiring immigrants, a measure of distrust. There were thousands of immigrants in the Bowery looking for jobs. The corporations made sure they could replace their immigrant workers at any moment, keeping their wages low. In Talia’s building a tight-knit community had formed; neighbors looked out for each other. In the tenements, altruism was an insurance policy. If someone lost their job, their neighbors would remember past generosity and help them survive.
The Lostches had lost everything when they fled to the New World, but they found little ways to hold on to their old identities. In the evening, after his long shift, Reuven sat at a little workbench near the window and built automata. He even built a tiny oxyacetylene welding rig, repurposing discarded steel canisters from his job site to hold the pressurized gas. His creations now were mere toys compared to his work in the old country, where he had devoted his entire energy to his craft, but still they were prized by wealthy collectors. Selling Reuven’s toys supplemented the Lostch family income. Talia delivered them all over the city.
Today she rode on the elevated train uptown to deliver one of his creations, a little brass golem with a wind-up spring mechanism that made it walk. She wore an oversize wool peacoat that had been given to her by the owner of a second-hand store who lived in their building. She slouched low in her seat and the coat formed an architecture around her. She wedged the canvas rucksack that held her deliveries between her feet.
She liked to construct little objects while riding long hours on the train. She always carried leftover parts and fittings from Reuven’s worktable in her coat pocket and she kept a little kit of miniature tools in a leather wallet. She was shaping a bit of brass with a miniature file, carving the body of a fox. A simple gear mechanism allowed the legs to move. She collected the metal filings in her hand as she worked and transferred them to a little glass vial. Reuven would melt the shavings back together to reuse the valuable metal.
At her usual stop at the library she had read an article that theorized that some essential particle of light might exist, something similar to the electron. The author had called this theoretical particle a “light quantum.” She thought about light quanta as she sped along in the elevated train, imagining herself moving at 186,000 miles per second, hurtling away from a distant star. She was falling asleep inside the warmth of her coat.
She forced herself awake and found a little boy staring at her. He was sitting with his mother on the opposite side of the train. They looked dirty and disheveled, dressed in rags. The mother held her identification papers from Ellis Island. They were new arrivals, just beginning their relentless search for another life. She held the fox out to the little boy and turned the gears. He shied away from her, clinging to his mother warily.
“It’s a present for you,” she said in German. He looked at his mother who smiled encouragingly. He took the fox from her hand and beamed at her, revealing a gap-toothed smile.
“Danke,” he said.
Just then, the train emerged from the maze of buildings to run along the west side with a view over the Hudson. The wind whipped across the channel, shredding the clouds. Racing yachts with broad white sails sped over the glassy water. A flock of pigeons rose and wheeled across the bright sky, scattering the prismatic morning light with their wings.
Talia was filled with a sense of optimism. New York was a system of fast-moving energy, and she was part of it. There was a sense of dread that hung over the tenements all the time, but out here riding the elevated train on delivery, she felt free.
The present was tangible; she could hold it in her hand, it was as solid and intricate as the little fox. There was no reason to think of the past. Her memories only held danger and violence, but she had survived, just as the little boy would survive. She felt lost here in America, but within that feeling there was a sense of newness, of discovery. The structure of their old lives had been broken years ago, and the pattern of life in the New World had not yet been set.
The construction site for the new post office on 34th Street was a gleaming cage of steel girders looming high above the avenue. The sun had just risen, and a perfect beam of morning light projected along the wide street to illuminate the structure. The dawn made the steel look as though it were still molten, glowing red, throwing off flares of reflected light.
The girders formed the skeleton of the new post office, a massive cubic grid. In a few months the building would be finished in concrete and Italian marble in the style of an ancient Greek temple, with Corinthian columns and a triangular capital. In its current state, it was just an abstraction, pure geometry. Reuven preferred it this way. The concrete, marble and stucco would conceal the true form of what they had built. Not only that, the simulacrum of ancient Greece seemed disingenuous to Reuven. It wasn’t a temple; it was a post office. Its function was more important than the façade.
Reuven shielded his eyes when he looked up at his work: the largest pneumatic system ever created. Its brass tubing gleamed gold in the morning light, winding through the open girders like a strange tree clinging to the steel grid. Small tubes terminated in individual offices and fed down into larger ones to form the internal communication system for everyone who would work at the post office when it was finished.
The pneumatic system also powered the basement sorting factory, an innovation Reuven had designed. Letters and packages organized by zip code would be placed in large cylindrical chests and sent along to access points on the subway. Once the system was running, it would facilitate the intermediary deliveries between central distribution and individual carriers. This would increase the efficiency of the entire system, given that currently, intermediary deliveries around the city were still largely made by horse and cart.
Reuven peered down at the hulking central compressor, the heart of his system. It was so large that it needed its own support structure, essentially just a fifty-ton steel block set into the foundation. A crane had lowered the steel into the pit and then mounted the compressor on top of it. The concrete foundation had been poured around the steel block. During those early phases of construction, Reuven had been a low-ranking pipe fitter, only a journeyman in the union, but his contributions to the design of the post office had earned him a promotion.
In his old life, in 1901, Reuven had been the head engineer of the Prague post office. A flood had damaged the pneumatic system and Reuven had led the repair project. He had designed a new coupling for the system that would keep it water-tight. His boss, Jack McHale, had learned of his expertise and shared the architectural plans for the 34th Street post office with him.
Reuven had immediately found unexpected problems. Though the central compressor supplied plenty of power, the design didn’t account for pressure differences when many points of access were used at the same time. The system needed balance, regulation. Reuven designed a simple regulator, a ball made of aspen wood that floated in a glass chamber when the pressure was correct. When the pressure dropped, the ball dropped in the chamber and activated a switch which powered an auxiliary compressor to mitigate the difference. The system had been re-designed with Reuven’s switches and auxiliary compressors had been installed at a few key junctures. The mail-sorting system in the basement was Reuven’s addition, based on the design of the Prague post office.
After this, McHale had immediately promoted Reuven to crew captain, and now he had his own team: Thompson, Scott, and Jones. He’d been working alongside them for years, and now he was their captain. They were great welders and loyal friends. As captain, his pay had increased, and what was more, he was on a new salary track with a scheduled raise every year.
He flipped open his reporter’s notebook and jotted some calculations with a square carpenter’s pencil. His next raise would take effect in the new year, just a few months away, and at the new rate the family could afford to allow his daughter Ayala to quit her job at the blouse factory. The work was grueling and dangerous, and he hated how it changed his daughter. She seemed disaffected, robotic.
At the moment his crew was assembling a large section of pipe for the pneumatic system; they were still new to working with brass. The metal was softer than steel, so the pipes had to be thicker and they were much heavier. Scott and Thompson braced the section while Jones handed Reuven the torch. He ignited it and got to work. He didn’t use solder when he worked on brass, instead he heated the metal until it fused. The seam glowed white-hot, then it liquified; the coupling and new section became one. Reuven moved on to the base of the section, and when he was finished, he snapped the valve closed and pulled his welding goggles up so that they sat above the brim of his gray cap.
Jones wrapped up the torch and trundled the oxy-acetylene tanks on their cart over to the next pipe. Reuven expected Thompson and Scott to move the next brass pipe section into place, but they were distracted by something. They were watching McHale open the gate for a couple of visitors. This was strange because McHale never let in visitors, aside from the city officials who were overseeing the project.
McHale was guarded about union secrets: schedules, team structure, workflow. Anyone walking along 34th Street could look up and see Reuven’s pneumatic system, but that didn’t mean that they knew what they were looking at. Just yesterday McHale had seen someone taking photographs outside the dig and he had stormed through the gate to knock what was probably a tourist to the ground and smash their camera.
Every worker wore the union uniform: a black canvas jacket with the UA logo emblazoned on the back. McHale had had secrets stolen before, by other unions and rival construction gangs. The uniform wasn’t enough for him. He required every crew to have their own shibboleth, usually just a quick gesture with their fingers arranged a certain way, and he expected each worker to respond when he gestured to them. The shibboleth for Reuven’s crew was crossing their middle finger over their index and then pointing their fingers downward. It was a quick motion; nearly impossible to notice without knowing what to look for.
McHale’s security practices turned out to be justified when he had caught two spies from the New Jersey Local on one of their digs last spring. The spies had done their research, they wore the UA uniform, but they didn’t know the shibboleth. Construction was big business, other unions and corporations were always looking for an edge. That was why it was surprising to see McHale letting in visitors. Earning his trust was close to impossible, and it was clear that they weren’t municipality officials. The city had access since they had commissioned the project and were funding the work.
Dressed all in black, the visitors looked more like artists, bohemians from the village. As they approached, Reuven saw that one was a woman, though she was dressed in a man’s suit. Her long blonde hair fell over her shoulders and she wore round tortoise-shell spectacles and a bowler hat. She wore a man’s watch chain on her vest.
The other had an ungainly way of walking that nonetheless had its own strange grace, like the walk of some nocturnal animal. The man looked warily around as he walked, as though there could be danger at any turn. Reuven realized he had seen that walk before, that he knew the man somehow, though he couldn’t quite place him.
They were heading straight for him, and the woman gestured the shibboleth correctly as she took his elbow and led him away from his crew. They walked towards one of the canopies that kept their materials dry. She drew him into the shadow.
“Reuven,” she began, and suddenly he knew her. She had purchased one of his pieces in Prague, a lifetime ago. She was a client. And he knew the man too, or at least he had known him when he had been a boy. Václav, his best student.
“We’ve been looking for you. We’d heard of the Jewish engineer who designed the post office. When we heard your name, we had to come see for ourselves.”
Václav embraced him, then stepped back to look at him. “You’re alive,” he said in German. “You sent no word back to Charles University. We didn’t know.”
“We were afraid. Afraid for our lives,” German was easier for Reuven. “They destroyed my shop. I’m sorry. We couldn’t look back.” The memory was like a hole in his mind. A space where something had been erased.
“Reuven, I’m a director at New York University now,” said Václav, “You must come to my lab! It will be just like old times.” Václav smiled, revealing his crooked teeth.
“I can’t. At least not until the pneumatic system is finished,” he replied. “Every day it is exposed McHale grows more fearful. How do you know him?”
“He’s part of our association,” the woman responded. She had a British accent. “Elizabeth Whitcomb.” She proffered a black gloved hand to Reuven. He shook it.
“You purchased my starling,” he recalled.
“Yes, a lifetime ago.” She thought for a moment, twisting her watch chain in her fingers before she continued, “We’re here about your daughter.”
“Ayala,” he replied. “She’s struggling. Her work. The people there. There’s something wrong. It’s sick. The building is sick.” He struggled to find the right word in English. “Geshaltn.”
“Yes. The blouse factory. It’s cursed,” Elizabeth went on. “And we have a plan. We already have several operatives there. Hannah Milkus, the head cutter, and Clara Lemlich, a designer. We need Ayala to join them, to gather information. We’re constructing a case against the owner, Max Blanck, and we need witnesses who are willing to testify in court. We need evidence. Your older daughter will join the others. It is dangerous but not life-threatening, and they’ll be watching out for one another.”
“Hannah Milkus,” Reuven recalled. “She lives in the next building. They are close friends; spend their evenings together.”
“You see?” Elizabeth laughed. “Our plans are already in place. No need to worry. No one would suspect these young girls of being part of the Anarkhos.”
“The Anarkhos...” Reuven repeated.
“It’s what we call ourselves,” Elizabeth explained. “We effect change, but we work in secret. We are aligned with the Anarchist movement but not with its bombast and violence. We are concerned with changing the structure, not making a lot of noise.”
“So you want to transform Ayala into a suffragette?” Reuven asked.
“Not a protester, a spy,” she answered. “But our main concern is with your other daughter.”
“Talia? What do you want with her?” This worried him.
“I need someone I can trust,” Václav said, “to work with me in my NYU laboratory, as an assistant. One of our members is in a very dangerous position, you see. He is in the public eye. You might say he’s famous, or perhaps notorious. He can’t complete his work because he fears he is being watched. There are spies in his laboratory. He’s afraid of having his work stolen. You must know what that’s like?”
Reuven looked up at the gleaming branches of the pneumatic system. “Yes. I do.”
“Your younger daughter, Talia,” Elizabeth began. “I saw her in your workshop in Prague, when I bought the starling. She couldn’t have been more than four years old. I was impressed by her capability. She must be an accomplished engineer by now.”
If only things had been different. Talia would have been a brilliant engineer, the head of her class at Charles University, just like Václav had been. Reuven could picture this mirror version of his daughter, the bright young student, working hard in her classes, staying late to finish a project. In some ways the image seemed more real than their life in the tenements.
“She works as a courier. We don’t have the resources to continue her education,” he said. “Perhaps that will change once the post office is finished. I have been promoted, and my wage will increase in the new year.”
“Reuven,” Elizabeth caught his arm and grinned conspiratorially at him, “Why wait? Carpe noctem.”