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
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
Now that, Mollie thought, would be the easiest wallet to pinch in the
world. It would only take a second. Her fingers tingled with
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
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
“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
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
“Was it horrible?” Mollie asked.
“Why, no, oysters and beer and twenty servants to dress you.”
“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
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
“I hear her husband’s really a girl.”
“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
“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
“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
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,
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.”
“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’
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
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.