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Jessica Siegel sleeps in the bed of her childhood. It is a tidy singlebed with a gleaming brass frame. A trunk rests at its foot and a vanity table sits beside the window. Outside the window, horse chestnut leaves rustle in the breeze from the river. An antique china cabinet stands against the wall opposite the window. Behind curved glass, its hardwood shelves brim with the fans and dolls that Jessica and her mother have bought at flea markets and church bazaars on their special days together.
Jessica wakes with a start. She has forgotten something; she has forgotten to write a term paper. But for what course? At what school? She is unsure exactly what she owes, and to whom. Only the fear is certain. It cripples her and binds her to the bed; she cannot rise. How can I be so stupid? she asks herself again and again. How could I let this happen? It is the last day of the school year, and now she will fail.
When Jessica Siegel stirs at four-thirty on the morning of Monday, September 14, 1987, she is in her own bed, in her own apartment in New York City. It is not the last day of the school year; it is the first. Everything else was a dream, her recurring dream. Tossing, listing, tugging at the pillows, she extracts another twenty minutes of repose. Then, still ten minutes shy of the alarm clock's call, she surrenders and rises. So much, she thinks, for not being nervous after seven years.
In the blink between night and day, the hot water in her apartment has vanished, the way it so often does in a sixty-year-old building with a curmudgeonly boiler and anindifferent owner. Looking out the kitchen window onto the dark, concrete courtyard, Jessica opens the cold tap, fills two pots, and lights the burner to heat her water, like some modern Manhattan version of the frontier schoolmarm. One pot will clean last night's dirty dishes and the other will make this morning's bath.
At five feet three, Jessica is big boned and well proportioned, and a summer of California jogging has tuned her legs and browned her pale arms into a nebula of freckles. But when she looks in the mirror, she can only see her hair and think, Oh, my God! She let a new stylist talk her into a body wave, even though nature gave her a headful of curls, and $105 later she was left with less a coiffure than an aura of excited amber strands. Now she is stuck with the fiasco for six months. The kids'll laugh at me, she thinks, as she rakes through her hair with an Afro-Pik. And what if Prince Charming comes?
She stacks the dishes and irons her dress as the sky outside lightens from black to purple. Still in her morning robe, she types out the year's first assignment for her journalism class. Only afterward does she don her school clothes, hoping to have spared herself a few wrinkles. She collects her brand-new school supplies--a stiff-spined green grade book, cream-colored binder paper, blue ballpoint pens not yet gnawed--and places them in her nylon tote bag. This she stows in the wire basket of her bicycle. She bought the bike on the street from a man who said he built it from spare parts. Of course, he might have stolen it five minutes earlier, but Jessica wants to believe people. She wheels the black five-speed bike out of her bedroom, guiding it between the bookshelves, the chair, and the loom, then out the door and down the hall and finally onto the sidewalk, where she stands alone in the cool, serene daybreak.
From her own block, with its elm trees and brownstones, she pedals east through the jazz clubs and pottery stores of Greenwich Village, then south past the galleries and bistros of SoHo. Turning east again and crossing Broadway, she leaves the world she inhabits and enters that of her students, the Lower East Side. Boutiques give way to garment factories, track-lit lofts to walk-up tenements, gourmet groceries to family bodegas, condominiums to housing projects. Signs now appear in Spanish and Hebrew and Chinese, Hindi and Arabic and Cambodian, for the streets in this single corner of Manhattan form perhaps the most famous immigrant neighborhood in the world, home to waves of foreigners for 150 years. Here lived Jacob Riis's "other half" a century ago, and here live the other half of New York City today, manual laborers and welfare mothers, struggling newcomers and junkies beyond hope.
Jessica rides past Prince Street sweatshops and Bowery flophouses and finally onto Delancey Street, her last leg of the journey toward school. The air reeks of wet trash. Curbside garbage cans are lashed together with chains so the drunks and junkies cannot borrow them for use as braziers on cold nights. She passes Sara Roosevelt Park, a narrow, unkempt strip of playground flanked by sooty tenements. Yet there, amid graffiti and rubble and weeds, three graying Chinese ladies slowly bend and scissor through their daily t'ai chi, unfurling their limbs with an elastic grace, like honey poured on a cool morning. Jessica smiles at the sight. It is such brilliant, fleeting miniatures that sustain her.
At the corner of Delancey and Orchard, two blocks from the school, Jessica hoists her bike onto the curb. She walks past shops selling quilts and work gloves, zippers and threads, the sky ahead of her arching pink and orange above the Williamsburg Bridge. As she enters a donut shop for coffee, Bruce Baskind is just leaving. Small Victories. Copyright © by Samuel G. Freedman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.