Bowery Girl

Bowery Girl

by Kim Taylor Blakemore

ISBN: 9780990584308

Publisher Kingfisher Press

Published in Literature & Fiction/United States, Literature & Fiction/Urban, Literature & Fiction/Historical, Literature & Fiction/Contemporary, Literature & Fiction

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Book Description

NEW YORK, 1883: The Bowery is a place where you own nothing but your dreams. But dreams are the only things that come cheap for pickpocket Mollie Flynn and prostitute Annabelle Lee. The two women fantasize of starting a new life across the East River. Nothing but a flight of fancy, perhaps, until wealthy Do-Gooder Emmeline DuPre, steps into their lives with her books, typewriters, and promises of honest lives. Is it really possible to be anything other than a Bowery Girl? Mollie and Annabelle will have to decide what sort of women they want to be.

Sample Chapter

FEBRUARY 1883: Release

DOWN THE STREET STRODE a young woman, who could have been anywhere between thirteen and twenty. She didn’t know her own age, so she had decided on sixteen. She was not pretty, nor was she plain. Her hair was brown, not dirty and not clean, and she kept it in a loose bun. Her eyebrows were dark and full, and from beneath them, her winter-gray eyes missed nothing. A matchstick hung from the corner of her mouth, and every so often she shifted it to the other side, then back again to its original spot. She had been told by several do-gooders at several charity houses that this was a reprehensible habit, which was why she never stopped doing it.

Her dress was neither this year’s fashion nor the last; it was patched in places, and frayed along the bottom. The material was coarse brown cotton, solid and indifferent. With each step, the young woman, whose name was Mollie Flynn, admired the black sheen of her new boots. Mollie was quite proud of them. She’d pinched them a week earlier from Friedrich’s Secondhand Shop on Chambers Street. They were bright as black could be, and she polished them every night to keep them so.

An Elevated train rattled above, drowning out the rat-a-tat from the shooting gallery, the shouts of drivers as they jockeyed their carts and horses for a bit of space, the competing songs of violins and out-of-tune pianos floating from saloon doorways.

She walked by an old woman in an alcove, selling buttons she’d probably picked out of trash bins. Another woman trundled slowly past, a huge pile of fabric balanced on her head. Two boys played hoops and sticks, laughing and shouting to each other. The boys’ laughter, the woman’s determined footfall, the call to buy buttons, the wheedling song of pullers-in trying to tempt passersby into the billiard room, the dancehall, the used-jewelry store, the pawnshop—the rhythm made Mollie dizzy.

At Maud Riley’s vegetable stand, a tall man bargained over a rather measly cabbage. He nodded, a deal struck, then fumbled in the inside pocket of his coat for his wallet. Maud wrapped two cabbages and a few potatoes in newspaper and pulled a bit of twine tight.

Mollie sucked a bit on her matchstick and narrowed her eyes. She wasn’t looking at Maud Riley’s slaughter of a poor cabbage. She was watching the man’s wallet, which flapped open, hung about, and generally looked like it was going to jump right out of his incompetent fingers.

Now that, Mollie thought, would be the easiest wallet to pinch in the world. It would only take a second. Her fingers tingled with possibility.

But she was late already. And she had a pocket full of coins, enough at least for a good meal of oysters and beer. For it was time—finally and after so many months!—to collect Annabelle Lee from the steps of the criminal courts, which everyone in New York City called “The Tombs.” The sky above was blue and heavenly, so sharp and new with the beginning of spring that she thought she could single out each crystal that made it.

Mollie bought a hot wine and a bag of chestnuts from a pushcart on the corner of Centre and Worth. “What time ya got?” she asked the cart’s owner.


“One?” She gulped down the wine and set the cup on the pushcart. She peered into the shadows of the thick, dark granite columns of the prison. There were so many people going in and out, so much shouting. Here was a fellow coming out and hugging his wife. And there was a drunk being dragged by a copper up the steps.

A milk cart rolled by, and then a delivery van, and damn if the trolley didn’t block her! She’d best cross over, so Annabelle could find her. She darted across the street, careful to hop over the tracks that coursed the middle of Centre Street—no need to bring bad luck on such a day.

She passed the wrought-iron fence that guarded two scrawny winter-dead trees and a narrow patch of soil and stopped directly at the bottom of the gray steps.

In November, Annabelle Lee had been caught with her hand in a detective’s pocket. Though he was quite happy with the service she had provided him, he was not happy to then be robbed. She had been sent to Blackwell’s Island, and it was noted by the fat judge that she was “incurably saucy and a menace to society.”

Mollie missed Annabelle Lee. It was Annabelle Lee who had held out her hand, had pulled Mollie from the rags she had crawled under to warm herself. Annabelle had walked the streets even then, a twelve-year-old porcelain doll-child. She worked the corner next to the Ragpickers’ Lot. She’d left Mollie bread and beer, like you’d leave scraps and fish bones for a feral cat you wanted to tame. It was Annabelle Lee who had given her the name Mollie Flynn.

They had lived together in a cellar that ran underneath Batavia between Roosevelt and Chambers, just around the corner from where they lived now, close by the brewery, where men gave them free drinks just for a chance to grab at Annabelle’s girlish breasts. Annabelle never let them grab at Mollie’s.

Mollie missed the strolls in the streets during the dead times, those times between the lunch crowd and the evening drunk crowd. Annabelle used to laugh for no reason—they both laughed for no reason. Sometimes they’d sneak into the Thalia Theatre and watch rehearsals. Other times, they’d walk the East River docks, wondering where each ship was headed—Bombay, Barcelona, Cape Town, Buenos Aires. Annabelle said her father’s father had been a deckhand on a slave ship, and he had shown her the shackles once to prove it.

On Sundays, when good Irish Catholics went to Mass, Annabelle and Mollie would visit the psychic who lodged on the first floor of a Batavia Street tenement. Annabelle dressed plainly in gray, though insisted on wearing her wig, for she loved the way the blonde curls bounced around her face as she walked.

The psychic’s name was Hermione Montreal. She was old; the paint she put on her lips bled into the lines all around her mouth. She always told them, in a croaky voice, that they were destined for greatness and would marry well. Each Sunday they came back and told her that neither event had happened and they wanted their money back. But she served them whiskey and cookies and told them the stars never lied.

Now, in front of the Tombs, Mollie thought she might spot Annabelle from her blonde curls, but then realized that the wig hung on the wall at home; Annabelle’s own hair was dark as half the throng.

And then she laughed out loud, for of course it would be easy to find Annabelle Lee! Why, there she was, parading down the hard steps, red leather shoes peeping and teasing from under her skirts.

“You’re here.” Annabelle smiled.

“And I’m early, so what ya got to say about that?”

Annabelle put a hand on her hip and pretended to fluff her hair with the other. “Do you like the outfit? Courtesy of the good Ladies of Charity. Gave me a Bible, too, but it somehow got lost. Tried to take my shoes, but I said I’d claw their eyes out and bite their ears.”

Mollie took her in. She wasn’t at all the Annabelle who’d gone to Blackwell’s Island four months ago. Her skin was pale, almost purple around her brown eyes. And Lord, the clothes she wore were of the roughest material, like sacks, not even the hint of a bustle or corseted waist.

“Was it horrible?” Mollie asked.

“Why, no, oysters and beer and twenty servants to dress you.”

“How grand.”

“No. Not really.” Annabelle slung her arm through Mollie’s and pulled her down the street. “Look at that sky. What a goddamn blue sky. On Blackwell’s it was once around the yard, even if you wanted more.”

Blackwell’s Island sat opposite Sixty-First Street, out in the East River—a small island ringed with pretty green trees. Trees meant to hide all the darkness that sat at its center. A person went to Blackwell’s for one of three reasons: for penance, for insanity, or for death. It was home to the thief, the beggar, the consumptive, the lunatic, the very old and very poor, the incorrigible, the wanton, the depraved, the unlucky. Superintendents, wardens, and turnkeys watched their wretched guests with cruel eyes. Should a new mother throw a fit over the rotten state of the proffered food, her baby was torn from her and sent to another family in the Far West. Should an old woman find herself a widow without any recourse to pay her rent, off she was shipped to the Island, to work at braiding straw until her fingers bled. If a man wandered the wrong street, a “kind” policemen might dislike his look and charge him with vagrancy, and then it was through the court at the Tombs and on to Blackwell’s to be made a “better man.” A third or fourth time at the workhouse—well, then, the penitentiary was deemed your next abode. And life became three square meals of bread and water, striped clothing, and your own cell locked tight at night.

“What’d you do while I was gone?” Annabelle asked.

“Seamus took me to see Annie Hindle do her male impersonation over at Tony Pastor’s club. She sure is a handsome man, what she’s a woman and all.”

“I hear her husband’s really a girl.”

“Do ya?”

“Picked some full pockets?”

“It’s been cold. Did a few sneak thieves for the boys, though, into some liquor warehouses.”

“Let me see your fingers.” Annabelle took Mollie’s hand and turned it back and forth. “Ooh, nice and soft. Keeping up with the butter?”

“When I can afford it.”

“Good girl. Can’t be a pickpocket without nice hands.” She kissed Mollie’s palm, then let go. “Thought maybe Tommy might have come.”

“He’s meeting us tonight at Lefty’s.”

Annabelle’s lips went tight, and then she laughed sharp as a knife. “Shoulda known it’d be you and not him.”

“I kept the place for us,” Mollie said. She did not say that she’d borrowed the rent money from Tommy, for the winter had been bitter and the racket was frozen as the sky. She did not say her hands weren’t as fast as they’d been before, and that sometimes the cold burned them stiff.

“You always take care of me, don’t you?”

“I owe you.”

Annabelle touched Mollie’s cheek. “You don’t owe me nothing. Except for your ever-loving life.”

Mollie looked closer at her friend. Annabelle had always been thin, for she knew the best johns on the streets were those looking for some bit of a virgin to conquer. But now, there was a weight to her cheeks and a heaviness to her walk.

“I want to get cleaned up,” Annabelle said. “I want a bath. You didn’t sell my clothes, did you?”

“Course not. I kept them hanging on the wall, so’s the rats wouldn’t eat them.”

“Good, then. A change of clothes, then a bath.” Annabelle frowned. And although she kept pace with Mollie, her attention seemed to be both inward and then outward, struggling with a disappointment that Mollie had seen many times before. “He got a new girl?”


“Course he does, doesn’t he?”


The tenement at 32 Oak Street was squeezed between two others, and the alley entrance was blocked by boxes of empty liquor bottles. Mollie and Annabelle stayed close together as they made their way through the narrow corridor. They kept their eyes to the ground, for one wrong step would land shoes in offal or garbage. The air held the familiar scent of home: cabbage, potatoes, and rot. Wet laundry hung overhead, untouched by any breeze. They crossed the yard that separated the front tenement from the back rookery, holding their breath against the stench of the outhouses. Mollie pulled hard at the rookery’s swollen front door—one time, two times, three—until the door scraped against the landing and swung free.

A single gaslight, bare of globe or cage, brightened the first three steps; beyond was darkness.

“Remember the way?” Mollie asked.

“How could I forget?”

They lifted their skirts and ascended.

Annabelle stopped at the trough on the second floor and splashed her face with water that dripped from a spigot on the wall. The squawk of a violin came from one of the flats. A pot clattered behind another door. “Give me a second to rest.” She leaned against the wall, and even in the murky light, Mollie saw how hard it was for Annabelle to catch her breath. “Jesus, you think we’d know not to get a place on the fifth floor. At least they could put in railings, so when my legs give out I can pull myself up.”

“Ah, you’re just not used to it now,” Mollie said. “Give yourself a day and you’ll be running up here with your eyes closed.”

“Eyes open or closed, it’s still dark, ain’t it?” She took Mollie’s hand.

“Got some Italians next door now. Sew buttons. Two kids and God knows how many adults. They stink, that’s all I know. Put garlic in everything and don’t never take baths. Seamus says they’re gonna ruin this neighborhood.”

Annabelle blew out a breath. “Think we might find a place on the first floor when leases come up in May?”

“My, how upper-class that’ll make us.” Mollie pulled out the key she wore around her neck and let them in. She crossed the room to the barrel that served as their table and lit the candle, then pulled a shard of coal from a bucket and pushed it in the cast-iron stove. She lifted a jar from the shelf near the coal stove, scooped a bit of tea into a pot, then picked up a pail of water, pouring enough for two cups.

“You hung my clothes.” Annabelle ran her fingers over the fabrics of her dresses. Even in the dim light, the blues and pinks and reds danced. “I’ll have to let these out a bit. No corset, I guess.”

“I even repapered the walls. Got a grand serial going on. I’ll read ya later.”

Annabelle lifted her wig from a hook, pulled it on, and flipped at the fake curls to make them bob. Then she bent to the piece of mirror on a shelf in the corner, and adjusted the wig’s placement.

“Aw, now I recognize you,” Mollie said.

“Do you?” Annabelle pinched her cheeks. “Where’s my rouge?”

“In the box under the bed. I’ll get it.”

Annabelle twisted the lid open and dabbed the red on her cheeks and lips. “Want some?” She held out the jar.


“Natural beauty you got, Mollie.” She opened a small box that held blue powder and a tiny brush, and then ran the color over her lids. “Better, huh?” Annabelle reached to her three dresses. “Now, which color for Tommy? He likes the red, I think.”

“Ya look better in blue.”

Annabelle pulled the red from the hook and shook it out. She held it to her waist, sighed, and sat heavily on the edge of the bed they shared. “God, open a window. Oh, I forget, we don’t have one.” She turned the dress inside out. “I can take some fabric from round the bustle, here, and drape it in front. Make my own style. Give me your knife, Mollie.”

As Annabelle tore at the seams of her dress, Mollie pulled the chair from the wall and sat, crossing her legs. She stuck a matchstick in her mouth and leaned back, so the front chair legs lifted from the floor. This was right; this was like it always was, Annabelle making pretty things and Mollie sitting and watching. The light from the candle spread in a golden circle.

Annabelle glanced up from her work. “Tell me about your world.”

“My world?”

“Your world without me.”

“Oh, that. I became a Protestant. Go to church every day. Bought a horse and carriage to tour the park.” Mollie shook her head in mock sadness. “Being rich is so boring, really.”

“The day I see you in any church, Mollie Flynn, is the day I’ll dance naked at Lefty’s and give all the money thrown at me to charity. Ow. Haven’t done any sewing in a while.” Annabelle shook her thumb, then sucked the blood from the tip. “How’s Seamus?”

“Same as ever. Wanting more than ever. What the hell. I ain’t marrying him.” She stood, and moved two chipped cups from the shelf to the barrel. Using her skirt as a towel, she picked up the pot and poured the tea. “I mean what the hell, ya know? What does he think?”

Someone pounded against the wall. Mollie grabbed for the mirror so it wouldn’t fall. Then she kicked at the wall.

“Shut up, ya filthy”—she kicked the wall again—“stinkin’ Wops!”

More pounding. Annabelle’s dresses fluttered with each hit.

Mollie whirled to Annabelle. “Was I yelling? I don’t think I was yelling.” She made a fist and thumped twice, tearing the newspaper that lined the walls. “I wasn’t yelling, ya sons of bitches!”

Annabelle laughed. She set the needle she worked with on the barrel’s top, and wiped her eyes. “Aw, ya daft bitch. I’m so glad to be home.”


Excerpted from "Bowery Girl" by Kim Taylor Blakemore. Copyright © 2015 by Kim Taylor Blakemore. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Kim Taylor Blakemore

Kim Taylor Blakemore

Kim’s world building is exquisite, and her voice is lovely and effortless. I’d read anything she wrote. – Sharon Lynn Fisher, SilkWords senior editor and RITA-nominated author

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