“Ollie, have you seen what their car spits out into the air?” Gertie asked, hands on her hips. “The smoke, Ollie! Every time that damn Model T cranks up it sends columns of smoke up just like Fourth of July fireworks. Every day, Ollie, every day. How can that possibly not be dangerous?”
Ollie sighed and took Gertie’s hands. “It’s not good for us, Gertie, I know it’s not. And you know it’s not. But nobody else sees it.”
“Because they don’t want to see it,” Gertie replied. “All people care about is speed and money. At least, that’s all men care about.”
“But women are smarter? Or just more civic minded?” Ollie smiled tenderly.
“True,” he conceded. “But in this situation, does it matter? Ford has the vision, the support of the masses and the drive.” He grinned.
Gertie rolled her eyes at his pun. “Ford only has the support of the masses because he makes his cars cheap.”
“And ours cost three times what his do,” Ollie pointed out. “It’s not a good marketing strategy.”
Gertie shook her head and studied her husband. He still had the raw, muscular look of the auto mechanic he was before he got his degree in electrical engineering. But now that energy was coupled with a studious expression and a desire to slow everything down and study it. The combination drove Gertie crazy.
“Marketing isn’t always the most important thing,” she pointed out, moving closer, unbuttoning Ollie’s shirt.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter at all,” he agreed.
“Do you really think you’ll get anywhere?” Ollie asked as he buttoned Gertie’s girdle the next morning.
“Ugh!” she said. “Why must it be so restrictive? Don’t men realize we can’t do any of the things you like us to do if we can’t breathe?”
Ollie started to unbutton.
“No!” Gertie protested. “If I don’t look like the perfect lady, Ford won’t believe a word I say. And, apparently, ladies aren’t supposed to breathe very often.”
Ollie laughed and finished buttoning. “There you go, my dear, very proper.”
Gertie added a grey skirt and nondescript blouse over the girdle, stepped her stockinged feet into black pumps and studied herself in the mirror. “Yes,” she said finally. “This should do.” She tiptoed to kiss Ollie. “Will there ever be a day when women can wear trousers and comfortable shoes everywhere?”
“There will be if you have any say in the matter.”
Gertie laughed and blew him a kiss as she left.
She didn’t feel nearly so bold as she stood outside Henry Ford’s office. It loomed over her, three stories of grey stone, modern windows, a massive wooden door. Gertie turned the knob and the door swung open more easily than she’d expected. A silvery bell announced her arrival. In the broad reception room off the entrance hall, an older, bespectacled woman sat behind a desk shuffling papers. She stopped shuffling and stared at Gertie.
“Hello,” Gertie said in her friendliest voice. “Is Mr. Ford available?”
“Do you have an appointment?” the woman asked without smiling.
“I have something terribly important to tell him.”
The woman at the desk raised her eyebrows. Gertie supposed she thought there was something illicit about Gertie’s news, like a bribe or a scandalous pregnancy.
“Yes,” Gertie said, walking toward the desk and staring suggestively into the woman’s eyes. “Something that cannot wait any longer.”
“You’ve waited a while already, have you?” the woman asked, sounding annoyed. “Why?”
Gertie crossed her arms. “My delay is really not worthy of your worries. Please, just announce me and let me see Mr. Ford. I am Gertrude Freundlich.”
“All right,” the woman said, not even the slightest recognition of Ollie’s surname registering in her expression.
“And I called weeks ago to schedule this meeting,” Gertie said, hoping her desperation didn’t register in her tone. “I think I spoke to you.”
“Yes, all right,” the woman repeated. But still she didn’t pick up the phone or press the intercom button.
“Will you announce me, please?”
The woman looked at Gertie suspiciously. “I don’t have you in my book, Mrs. Freundlich.”
“We scheduled it last minute. It’s concerning a very important subject, and Mr. Ford said I should come as quickly as I could. There wasn’t time to schedule a formal appointment.”
“Exactly when did Mr. Ford tell you to come quickly? Before or after you spoke with me on the phone to schedule this appointment?”
“Miss, Mrs., er…” Gertie smiled sweetly at the woman, who was studying her papers again. “All right,” Gertie said, sitting in one of the ornate wooden chairs across the room from the nameless woman. “I can wait.”
“Suit yourself,” the woman replied without looking up.
Gertie hated sitting when she was tightly buttoned up, especially when her nerves were on edge. She stood and crossed the wooden floor to read the framed articles on the wall. Ford Pays Workers Five Dollars an Hour. Workers in Henry Ford’s Plants First to Work Only Five Days a Week. TENS OF THOUSANDS OF MODEL Ts ON AMERICAN ROADS THANKS TO LOW PRICE. Taxi Drivers Will Need Model Ts Soon! She wished she hadn’t talked Ollie out of coming with her.
“We’re only going to be in Detroit for two days,” she had said the night before they left Denver. “You should use them to promote our cars!” Ollie’s cars were popular among the elite in Denver and other western cities, and the car of choice for New York City taxi drivers despite the headline hanging in Ford’s office, but the middle of the country still clung stubbornly to the Model T. “Since Ford is paying his workers so well now, they can all afford to buy a Freundlich! All you need is a Detroit partner.” Ollie, following her advice as usual, was meeting with the wealthiest men in Denver, asking them to invest in his cars.
Gertie began worrying. Everyone said she could talk a fish out of the water, and she’d been confident that she could convince Ford to work with Ollie instead of competing against him. Pairing Ford’s massive factories and workforce with Ollie’s brilliance, they could make Ford’s cars less toxic and Ollie’s more affordable. Everyone would win!
But that all depended on Ford seeing her. She paced the reception area until the woman at the desk scowled, her paper rearranging disturbed by the click of Gertie’s heels.
“Sorry,” Gertie mumbled, sitting down again. She tried to breathe very slowly, counting with every inhale and exhale. One two three four five, inhale, six seven eight nine ten, exhale, eleven twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen, inhale.
“Yes, Mr. Ford will be happy to see you next Wednesday at 9:00. And the subject is the New York taxi contract? Very good.”
Gertie stopped counting breaths. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing. Is Mr. Ford going to supply taxis to New York?” That was Ollie’s market! “How exciting!” she lied.
The woman stared at Gertie, unsmiling.
“I mean, um, I’d love to be able to congratulate him.”
“That might be a bit premature,” the woman said, returning to her papers.
“He still needs to find new drivers,” the woman said without looking up from her papers.
Gertie resumed counting and breathing. Sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty, exhale. Ford hadn’t arrived by the time she reached one hundred eighty-five.
“Excuse me.” Gertie waited for the woman at the desk to look up.
“Do you expect Mr. Ford to come into the office at all today?”
“No,” the woman replied, returning to her reading. “He rarely makes it in on his factory days.”
“Why on earth didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
“You didn’t ask earlier.”
Gertie turned abruptly and stormed out of the building.
She arrived back in their hotel room to find Ollie packing his suitcase. “How was your meeting?” she asked. He kept packing.
“Not so good,” he said.
“What? Did you tell them about the Italians and how they’re already designing cars that don’t use gasoline?”
“I didn’t get to that.”
“How about the story of the little boy who coughed for three hours after he rode in his grandfather’s Model T?”
“I didn’t get to that either.”
“You told them about the debutantes in Denver who drive their Freundlichs to all the parties, didn’t you?”
“No.” He shut the suitcase.
“How about the New York taxi drivers who depend on a fleet of Freundlichs for their livelihood?” She had been thinking of them since she left Ford’s office.
“No, Gertie! No! I didn’t get a chance to tell them about any of that because none of them came!” Ollie sat on the bed and put his head in his hands.
“But...” Gertie stopped. She sat beside Ollie and laid her hand on his back. They sat silently until Ollie said, “We can’t make it, Gertie.” He lifted his head and turned to her, tears in his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
Gertie whispered in his ear, “Walk me through it.” They said it whenever one didn’t understand what the other was feeling.
“For the past few years, since the start of the decade basically, we’ve been losing money, more and more every year.”
Gertie nodded. She knew this. It was why she’d spent the morning waiting in vain for the almighty Ford.
“I’ve had to borrow money, Gert, lots of it. And you know when you borrow money, you have to put up collateral. And if you can’t pay, the bank takes your collateral.” Ollie took a deep breath. “We have two choices Gertie. Either we close the business and sell the factories and everything in it, or the bank will. And that won’t be the only thing they sell.”
“What else will they sell?”
Ollie closed his eyes. “Our house.”
That evening Gertie left Detroit alone on a train bound for New York City. She’d watched Ollie depart an hour earlier, her eyes never leaving his straight, broad back as it moved away from her down the platform to the train that would take him home to Denver.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he’d asked again before he left.
“I have to do it. I know it seems crazy, but if I don’t try, we’ll never know. We’ll wonder forever, forever, whether my crazy idea could have saved us.” He’d made her promise to phone him as soon as she arrived, and every day after that until she came home, no matter the expense.
Gertie loved the luxury of the train, even though she felt guilty enjoying it knowing its cost. She purchased a small salad in the dining car for her dinner, and she gobbled down the free basket of warm bread that accompanied it. More than once during the few hours between when Gertie boarded and when the lights dimmed for sleeping, a porter or passenger asked about the whereabouts of her husband. Gertie answered with vague statements like “He’ll join me soon” and “He’s terribly busy at the moment.”
The world outside her window was black when Gertie woke. She wondered whether Ollie was in Denver yet. Reaching into her pocket, she fingered a folded paper, grateful it hadn’t slipped out. That paper held everything—the name of the taxi company, the address of the garage, directions for walking there from Penn Station.
Penn Station buzzed like an international hive, people rushing about shouting, chatting, and questioning in Italian and German and Russian as well as English. Gertie searched for someone who seemed comfortable in the craziness, someone who could help her interpret the directions.
“Excuse me,” she said, approaching a man speaking in heavily accented English to a woman who looked confused. The man abandoned the woman and turned to Gertie.
“Can you tell me how to get to Seventh Avenue?” Gertie asked, reading the address from the heavily creased paper.
“You here all alone?” The man started to smile.
“No,” Gertie answered firmly. “My husband went to make a business call,” she lied. “He asked me to get directions.”
“Oh.” The smile disappeared. “Seventh Avenue exit’s that way.” He pointed over his shoulder and walked away.
Clutching her directions, she wandered through the crowd in the direction the man had pointed until she saw the “To Seventh Avenue” sign. The people rushing down Seventh Avenue pulled Gertie along, and by the time she realized she was headed the wrong direction, she’d reached 42nd Street. She passed signs for peep shows, and Girls! Girls! Girls! in neon lights and heard twice as many languages as she’d heard in Penn Station.
She left Times Square, turned and went back through it more quickly, eager to get to the Electric Vehicle Company, known for its fleet of Freundlichs. EVC had to be the company Ford wanted to take over with his smoke sputtering cars.
The EVC building on Broadway was smaller and more hectic than Gertie expected. The narrow shop had three parallel sections. In the first, a line of Freundlichs sat ready and waiting. The noisy second section contained cars recharging their batteries, and in the third section a group of men stood, sat, and leaned, smoking, reading the Daily Mirror and playing cards. Gertie approached the men.
“Excuse me,” she said. The men continued reading, smoking and playing cards. “Excuse me!” she repeated loudly. One of the card-playing men looked up, gave her a puzzled look, and leaned over to whisper to his card-playing opponent. His opponent glanced at Gertie and whispered a reply. They snickered and continued playing cards. Gertie approached a man leaning against the wall smoking. “I’m Gertie Freundlich, of the Freundlich Electric Cars.” She held out her hand, but the man nodded and continued puffing on his cigarette, keeping his free hand hidden in his pocket.
“These electric cars?” asked a voice behind her. Gertie turned to face a man with wire-rimmed glasses, book in hand.
“Yes, these cars.”
“What are you doing here?” The man’s directness surprised her, and Gertie forgot the speech she’d prepared.
“I, there’s a problem, and I . . . I think we can work together,” she stuttered. The man stared at her. Gertie blushed.
“What sort of problem?” he asked.
Gertie tried to remember the pitch she’d planned on the train. “Mr. Ford wants to take over the taxi business. He wants a monopoly on taxis all over the country,” she said gravely, hoping the man would take her more seriously than his card-playing co-workers had.
“So what?” He shrugged and started reading his book.
“Mr. Ford doesn’t only want new, gasoline powered taxi cabs,” Gertie continued. “He also wants a completely new team of drivers, his own drivers.”
The man looked at Gertie. “Says who?”
“I heard it straight from Mr. Ford’s assistant.”
The man closed his book. “Why would she tell you that? Aren’t you the competition?”
“She didn’t realize that.”
The man shook his head. “You ladies with your afternoon teas and evening cocktails, gossiping about things you know nothing about.” He turned away from Gertie and started reading again.
“She told me while I was in Mr. Ford’s office,” Gertie clarified. “I wouldn’t have tea or cocktails with Ford or any of his underlings.”
“Oh, and why is that?” the man inquired without turning or looking up from his book.
“First off, their cars send smoke into the air that will probably make it hard to breathe on earth by the time our grandchildren come along. Second, they’re bent on taking over this company and getting rid of you and everyone else who works here. And third . . .” Gertie thought just a few seconds. “Third, Ford is incredibly self-righteous!”
“Ha!” The man took his head out of his book and looked at Gertie. “The man who established the five-day work week and pays his employees better than anyone in the industry, including your husband, is self-righteous? You don’t know what you’re talking about, girlie!”
Gertie felt her blush deepening but continued. “Sure, Ford treats his workers well, and he makes affordable cars. But it’s all at a great cost. And it’s going to cost you your job if we don’t do something about it!”
By now the men had stopped playing cards and were staring at Gertie and the man with the book.
“We?” asked the man with the book. “There’s no ‘we,’ girlie. This is your crusade.” The other men laughed, and Gertie spun around, face flaming, and marched out of the garage. She continued marching through throngs of people, with no destination, turning occasionally when the crowd became too thick to accommodate her brisk pace.
Gertie crossed beneath a broad stone arch into a park dotted with people reading, selling ice cream and hot dogs from carts, walking, talking, even sleeping on benches. She sat on an empty bench and put her head in her hands.
Chanting started behind her. Turning, Gertie saw a small crowd of people holding hand-painted signs that read “Protect Our Park,” “Robert Moses Won’t Part These Trees,” and “Roses Not Roads!” They marched through the arched entrance to the park, bobbing their signs up and down and repeating “Roses not roads! Roses not roads!”
The woman leading the crowd reached the bench where Gertie sat. She faced the others and raised one hand in a Stop! Motion, raising a megaphone to her mouth with the other hand. “We will not allow Robert Moses to put a road through this park!” she exclaimed. The crowd cheered. “Roses not roads!” she shouted. “Roses not Roads!” the crowd repeated. They started moving again, and Gertie rushed to catch up with the woman leading them.
“What are you all doing?” she asked.
“Trying to save this park. Robert Moses wants to replace it with roads.” She lifted the megaphone to her mouth again. “Roses not Roads! Roses not Roads!”
“Will this really stop him?” Gertie asked between chants.
“Those bigwigs can’t ignore all this noise. Roses not roads! Roses not roads!”
Gertie watched the crowd until it disappeared around a turn in the park’s path, considering what the woman had said. If making noise could save a park, maybe it could save the Freundlich company too.
She found a Woolworth’s and spent some of her precious travel funds buying paper, paint and brushes. She stayed up half the night in her rented room making flyers. Model T Taxis will fill your streets with noise and smoke! When Henry Ford closes the Electric Vehicle Company where will your husbands, sons and fathers work? I FAVOR FREUNDLICHS – A CAR FOR MEN AND WOMEN ALIKE! Every flyer provided the details: Rally Tonight! Washington Square Park at 6:00!
The next morning Gertie walked from the park to the EVC hanging and handing out flyers to anyone who would accept one. She returned to the EVC garage, slipping in to stick a flyer on the bulletin board and leaving before anyone noticed her.
The setting sun had just started painting the sky over the stone arch crimson when Gertie walked beneath it into the park. Apart from a pair of lovers wrapped together on a bench, the park was empty. Gertie had left the boarding house early, so it couldn’t be 6:00 yet. And New Yorkers were always late.
Gertie sat on a bench and mentally rehearsed what she’d say to the crowd. You deserve cars that start easily. You and your husbands and your fathers and sons deserve to keep their jobs driving taxi cabs in the best city in the world! Your grandchildren deserve air that hasn’t been destroyed by Ford’s Model T. She closed her eyes and imagined the cheers.
“Hey, what happened to your rally?”
Gertie opened her eyes and tried to wake up fully.
“Wasn’t it starting at 6:00?”
The man with the book who’d laughed her out of the EVC garage stood above her. She rose quickly and said, “It’s not 6:00 yet.”
“Actually, it’s half past six.” He showed her his wristwatch. Gertie scanned the park. Nobody.
“They must have come while I was asleep!” Her weakness may have cost them the last chance to save Ollie’s business.
“Nope,” said the man. “I’ve been here for more than thirty minutes. Nobody else came, Girlie-Q.”
“Did you tell them to leave?”
“Nobody else came.” He said it slowly, as if she were stupid and needed time to digest each word.
“Why did you come?” Gertie spit out. She wanted the man to leave. His rudeness at the garage had been more than enough.
“I saw that flyer you put on the board at the garage, and I started thinking about what would happen if I lost my job.” He reached into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes, pulled one out and put it in his mouth. “It would be rough.” He lit the cigarette, inhaled, blew out a circle of smoke. “Ma’d have trouble making the rent, Ida would have a hard time paying for her beauty supplies . . .” He paused for a drag. “And I’d have to quit college.”
“College? Aren’t you a taxi driver?”
The man laughed bitterly. “So, you don’t think taxi drivers are smart enough to go to college, huh, Girlie-Q?”
“No, I didn’t mean—”
“Doesn’t matter.” He took another drag. “I know I’m smart enough.” He started to walk away.
“Wait!” Gertie cried. The man stopped but didn’t turn around. “I’m sorry. I . . . I need . . . What do I need to do to get people to care about what Ford is doing?” She needed help, and he was the only person she knew in New York.
He turned and walked back to Gertie. “I don’t know,” he told her. “But I know someone who will.”
Gertie had to nearly run to keep up with the long-legged taxi driver. He said nothing as they walked, and as Gertie struggled for a conversation topic, she realized she didn’t even know his name.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”
“I didn’t tell you my name, Girlie-Q.”
Gertie said, “I’d like to at least know your name before I meet your family.”
“I’m Bobby,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Bobby.”
“Likewise, Gertie Q.”
“You remember my name?” she asked, surprised.
He pointed to his head. “College boy.”
Walking into Bobby’s house, Gertie was greeted by a cornucopia of sounds and smells, pungent, bright and inviting. Bobby led her down a narrow hallway to a large kitchen seeped in the savory, spicy scents of tomatoes, garlic and onion.
“Bobby! Finally, you come home in time for dinner!” exclaimed a short, plump woman with Coke bottle glasses and a floral housecoat. “And you bring a girl!” she added, hugging Gertie. “Come, dinner is on the table already!” She gently pushed Gertie and Bobby through an arched doorway into the dining room.
Three women sat around a table covered with steaming dishes of pasta, sauce, and vegetables. The woman who had greeted them in the kitchen, whom Gertie assumed was Ma, sat at one end of the table and Bobby sat at the other.
“Who’s your friend, Bobby?” asked one of the dark-haired women.
“This is Gertie. Gertie, these are my sisters, Antoinette, Ida and Kate.”
“Nice to meet you,” Gertie said. The sisters chewed their food and stared at her.
“Ma, Gertie needs some advice,” Bobby said.
“Ah! You need a little help with my boy, Bobby, eh? Want to know how to keep him happy?” She grinned.
Gertie felt the all too familiar blush crawling up her neck.
“No, Ma, this is a serious problem. A business problem.”
Bobby’s mother stopped smiling, and Gertie feared the woman was judging her for having unfeminine business concerns.
“Okay.” She studied Gertie. “Okay,” she repeated. “Gertie, you eat with me in the kitchen so we can talk. Bobby needs to spend some time with his sisters, anyway.” Gertie obediently filled her plate and followed Bobby’s mother into the kitchen.
Ma pulled two glasses from the cabinet and filled them from the bottle of red wine on the counter. Handing a glass to Gertie, she sat at the table wedged between the refrigerator and wall and motioned for Gertie to sit across from her. “Salute!” Ma said, lifting her glass toward Gertie. Gertie clinked her wine against Ma’s glass and sipped, enjoying the feel of the liquid against her tongue and throat.
“Better already, yes?” Ma laughed. “The wine’s grapes are good. From Napoli, near where I was born. One of the best vineyards. And do you know why?” Ma leaned forward, lowering her voice. “The women choose the grapes, not the man. Women know wine!” She laughed again, and Gertie joined her as they clinked glasses.
“So, you have a business problem, eh? That’s good. I like women with business problems better than women with boy problems. Those three in there,” she pointed her thumb at the dining room, “barely have a single brain among them. I love them, sure, but growing up in this country has ruined them.” She wagged her finger at Gertie. “Believe me, I’d be back in Naples if my husband hadn’t loved this city so much, God rest his soul.” She made the sign of the cross.
“It’s been almost two years now. I miss him every day.” Ma poured more wine into their glasses. “Okay, so now, Gertie, you tell me about this business problem.”
Relaxed by the wine, food and warmth of Ma’s voice, Gertie told her everything. Ma asked an occasional question, but mostly just listened and nodded.
“Okay,” she said when Gertie had finished. “Okay. You need to keep the Electric Vehicle Company open and using Freundlichs, and you need Freundlichs to be cheaper so more people buy them. Okay.” Ma put her chin in one hand and tapped the table with the fingers of the other. Gertie poured them each another glass of wine, draining the bottle.
“Hey, Ma, have you solved Gertie’s problem yet?” Bobby walked in from the dining room. “We’re about finished with dinner. Can we start bringing in the dishes?”
“Not yet.” Ma stopped tapping the table long enough to brush Bobby away. “Pour your sisters more wine and ask them about their new boyfriends. Keep them out of here a little longer.”
“Okay, Ma.” Bobby took a bottle of wine off the counter, winked at Gertie and returned to his sisters. Gertie pretended she hadn’t seen the wink. Ma returned to tapping her fingers for a few minutes, then said, “Here it is, Gertie. We make the Freundlich a symbol.”
“A symbol? Of what?”
“Who drives Freundlichs?” Ma asked.
“Um, taxi drivers?” Gertie wasn’t sure making the Freundlich a symbol of taxi drivers would get them very far.
“And who drives taxis, mostly?”
“Men?” Gertie had no idea where Ma was going.
“Not just men! Italian men and Irish men, mostly. Men who come here a few years ago, or men whose parents come here from the old country. Who else drives Freundlichs?”
Gertie was still lost. “Germans?”
Ma laughed. “Sometimes, yes, sometimes.” She took Gertie’s hand. “What do you drive?”
“A Freundlich of course!”
“And what do your girlfriends drive?”
Gertie thought. Only two of her female friends drove, but they both drove Freundlichs. “Freundlichs.”
“Of course!” Ma said. “Women drive Freundlichs. But how many women do you know who drive those stinky, hard-to-start Model Ts?”
Gertie couldn’t think of a single one.
“But what does any of this have to do with making the Freundlich a symbol of something?”
“A-ha! This is why it’s good Bobby brought you to me. I see things sometimes that nobody else sees. So, taxi drivers from the old country, they drive Freundlichs. Women, they drive Freundlichs. And what do men from the old country and women have in common?”
“They care about family?” Gertie guessed.
“Yes, they do. But that is not all!” she exclaimed, pointing toward the ceiling with a wagging finger. “The Freundlich will be the car of opportunity. Opportunity for immigrants who make a better life for themselves and their family.” She winked at Gertie, and for the first time Gertie saw clearly the resemblance between mother and son. “Opportunity for women who are becoming independent. They now have the right to vote! And more women work now. Yes,” Ma made a fist in the air, “Freundlich symbolizes Opportunity for you and me! Capisce?” She grinned at Gertie.
Gertie was skeptical. “How will we make everyone believe this?”
Ma’s smile broadened. “For that, we go to the priests. They make us believe we eat the body of Christ and drink His blood, they can make us believe the Freundlich gives everyone Opportunity!” She nodded. “Yes, it is a miracle car! Father Paulie’s coming for coffee in the morning. You make papers for another rally, Sunday evening, and I’ll talk to Father Paulie. He’ll know how to get those papers to every priest on the Lower East Side in time for Mass Sunday morning, and they’ll get everybody to your rally.”
Ma leaped up from the table more quickly than Gertie expected she could, given her size and age, and shouted into the dining room. “Bobby, we have a plan for your friend! We have a good plan!”
Gertie had no trouble keeping up with Bobby’s long-legged pace on the way back to the boarding house, fueled by her excitement. “You were right about your ma!”
“Ma’s the smartest person I know. She’s the reason I went to college. She said, ‘Bobby, you got too good a brain to drive a taxi your whole life.’”
“If Ma said it, it must be true!”
Bobby chuckled. “Ma really cast her spell on you, Girlie-Q. You see how she’s going to get every priest in the neighborhood to bring their people to your rally, right?”
“Do you really think it will work, Bobby?” Gertie stopped walking and looked up at him.
“Yes, Girlie-Q.” He ran his finger from the top of her forehead to the tip of her nose. Gertie blushed and stepped away from him. “Don’t worry. Ma will make it work.” As he began walking again, he reached for her hand. Gertie pulled away from him.
“Bobby, I . . . I’m married.”
“So? Your husband’s at home, and you’re here, and I’m here, and the night is lovely and young, and you are lovely and young.” He put his hands on Gertie’s waist.
She removed them gently and took a deep breath. “Bobby, I appreciate how you’ve helped me more than you can know,” she began. “And I am very flattered. But I’m married.” She looked up at him and said, slowly, “and I love my husband, very much.” As much as she needed Bobby’s help, she couldn’t pay the price he seemed to want.
Bobby said nothing for a few seconds, then shook his head and grinned. “Well, Girlie-Q, he’s a lucky man!” He lit another cigarette and put it between his lips, sticking his hands in his pockets.
“What are you studying in college?” Gertie asked, starting to walk again, eager to move on to safer topics.
Bobby laughed. “You were hoping for something more exciting, huh, Girlie-Q?”
“No, I . . . it’s just that you don’t seem very, you know, buttoned-up.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. I’m not getting a business degree to wear a suit and invest other people’s money. I want to learn how to run a restaurant.”
“Ah! Now, that seems to suit you!”
“I’m glad you approve,” he said, a teasing note in his voice. “I considered cooking school, but Ma said it was crazy to go to school to study something I already knew how to do. She said if you want to make money cooking, learn how to run a restaurant.”
“Your ma is a very wise woman.”
“So, this is it, huh?” he said.
“What?” Her pulse quickened. What was he saying? If he were dismissing her because she rejected his advances, would Ma still help her?
“This is where you’re staying, isn’t it, Girlie-Q?”
“Oh! Yes, yes, of course,” she said, relieved. “Thanks for walking me.”
Gertie spent the next afternoon visiting all the Catholic churches on the Lower East Side with Father Paulie, who disabused her of her notion of priests as somber intellectuals. Father Paulie spoke loudly, joked almost constantly, and even had his own nickname for her, calling her “Gertie Girl” as they walked from church to church. Every priest they visited received them warmly, inviting them into their house, which Gertie learned was called a rectory, and more often than not offering them wine. For the most part, Gertie declined, but Father Paulie had a glass at every visit. She was amazed at how well he conducted himself by the time they reached the final parish.
“There you go, Gertie Girl,” he said as they headed back to Ma’s house. “Your rally is all set.”
“Do you really think they can get people to come?”
Father Paulie stopped walking and turned to Gertie. “Do I think they’ll get people to come! Gertie Girl, they will get parishioners to come, and the parishioners will get their neighbors to come, and the papers will notice and say, ‘Where are all those people going?’ and they will come too!” He put his arm around Gertie and started walking again. “Don’t worry, Gertie Girl. They will come.”
“I hope so, but when I tried to have a rally the other night—”
“They will come,” Father Paulie said emphatically. Gertie walked silently the rest of the way to Ma’s house.
“What did they say?” Ma asked. “Will they announce it at Mass?”
“Of course!” Father Paulie told her. “Why wouldn’t they do what I ask?”
Ma laughed and hugged him, then hugged Gertie. “It’s good I’m friends with such an influential person, eh, Gertie?” Ma winked at her.
“Dinner’s almost ready. Here, we have some wine while it cooks.” She poured glasses for Gertie, Father Paulie and herself.
“Oh, I really should get going back to my room. I need rest for tomorrow,” Gertie said, worried that dinner at Ma’s two nights in a row seemed like an imposition.
“You rest better after a good meal and a little wine,” Ma said, handing Gertie her glass. Gertie thought it would be rude to object again, so she smiled and took a sip of wine. It felt good to sit and drink wine after a day of walking the streets of the Lower East Side.
Antoinette, Ida and Kate were already seated at the table when Gertie walked into the dining room. Father Paulie joined them, and Ma sat across from him, motioning to Gertie to sit so they could say the blessing.
“Almighty Father, we thank you for our family and for the food we eat. Amen.” Father Paulie looked up and reached for the bowl of pasta.
“Manga!” Ma said.
Gertie did her best to make small talk with Bobby’s sister and follow the heated debate Ma and Father Paulie were having about whether nuns should stop wearing religious habits, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the next evening’s rally. As agreeable as all the priests had been, and as confident as Father Paulie was, she worried it would be no better than the last time.
“Don’t you think so, Gertie?”
She stared blankly at Father Paulie.
“Of course she does!” Ma said. “Gertie knows that with men of God supporting it, the rally will be a big success!”
“Oh, yes!” Gertie agreed, grateful for Ma.
“Hey, did you save any food for me?” Bobby walked into the dining room. “Girlie Q! You’re back!” Bobby grinned at her as he settled into the chair beside Ma and filled his plate. “All ready for the rally?”
“Yes, we are ALL ready,” Ma answered. “Father Paulie and Gertie visited all the priests today, and by the end of Masses tomorrow everybody will be talking about Gertie’s rally!”
“Oh, it’s not my rally,” Gertie sputtered. “I mean, it’s for everyone, it’s for the taxi drivers and the mechanics who work on Freundlichs and—”
“Opportunity!” Ma shouted. “Freundlich is for you, for me, for everyone who wants to have better opportunity!”
Gertie smiled. “Yes, it’s so people will have better opportunities.”
“Opportunity! Opportunity!” Ma repeated. “Opportunity for you and me!”
Bobbie followed suit. “Opportunity! Opportunity!”
“Opportunity for you and me!” Ma shouted with him as he banged on the table.
Gertie smiled again and glanced at the clock. She needed to get back to the boardinghouse. Ollie would be waiting for her call.
“Tomorrow’s a big day and I need to get good rest.” Gertie stood. “Ma, thank you again for your wonderful hospitality, and Father Paulie, I can’t tell you how much your help means to me.” She hugged them both.
“You can’t walk home alone, it’s getting dark!” Ma declared. “Bobby! Finish eating and walk Gertie home.”
“Eat, Bobby,” Father Paulie directed. “I will walk Gertie Girl home.”
“Father Paulie, do you think Ma’s plan will work?” Gertie asked when they reached the boardinghouse.
“Gertie Girl,” Father Paulie said, “ I’ve known that woman for over three decades. Do you know how many plans she’s devised in those years?” Gertie shook her head. “Neither do I!” Father Paulie laughed. “But believe me, she’s come up with more than her fair share and somehow, they’ve all worked.” He squeezed Gertie’s hands. “Don’t worry, Gertie Girl. Everything’s going to be okay!”
Gertie didn’t sleep at all that night. She tossed and turned until after midnight, worrying that nobody would come to the rally, that Bobby and all the other EVC taxi drivers would lose their jobs, and that Ollie’s company and their finances would be destroyed and they would be homeless.
When the sun rose at 6:30, Gertie was already wide awake. She bathed and dressed and walked to Father Paulie’s church, wanting to see for herself that at least he was encouraging his parishioners to attend the rally. When she arrived, the church was empty and dark. Her heart raced. Had Mass been canceled? If every Mass had been canceled, how would they get people to the rally?
“Can I help you, miss?” A nun in full habit approached her from the dark corner of the church. Gertie thought about Ma and Father Paulie’s debate, and smiled.
“I wanted to attend Mass. Is there Mass today?”
“Of course! But you’ve missed sunrise Mass, and the next Mass isn’t until 9:00. That’s not for another hour and a half.”
“Oh!” Relief flooded through Gertie. “I’m just visiting. Thank you.” She smiled at the nun and walked out into the sunlight.
The park was empty when Gertie arrived that evening, except for an old man sleeping on a bench beneath a copy of the New York Times. She immediately began to fear that this rally would be just like the first.
“Gertie Girl!” A familiar voice called out behind her. She turned, hoping to see a throng of people, but Father Paulie was alone. “Don’t worry, Gertie,” he said as he approached. “They will come.”
Gertie and Farther Paulie continued to walk through the park. One by one, other priests joined them, but none brought parishioners with them. Finally, Gertie saw Ma walking down the path.
“Nobody is here,” Gertie said when Ma reached her.
“Come,” Ma said, taking Gertie’s hand. She led Gertie towards the stone arch that marked the entrance to the park, and as they approached it, Gertie saw them, standing in the circle beside the arch. Ma led Gertie to the center of the circle, through the growing crowd of people, and handed her the megaphone that sat on the ground.
“Freundlich is . . . opportunity!” Gertie started uncertainly. Ma cheered, and the people gathered around cheered back. Gertie’s hand began to shake, and her mind blanked. She handed the megaphone to Ma.
“Freundlich cars are opportunity for you and me!” Ma started. “They’re cars you, your husbands, your sons and your brothers drive to make a living!” The crowd cheered louder. “They’re cars you, your wives, your daughters and sisters drive to do all the things they need to do to take care of the family!” The cheers continued. Ma handed the megaphone back to Gertie, who tried to give it back immediately. Ma stepped away and pointed at Gertie, smiling.
“The more Freundlichs you buy, the more affordable they will be, and the easier the buying will become!” Gertie said, voice slightly shaking.
“Yes!” someone in the crowd yelled.
Gertie stood straighter and raised the megaphone to her mouth again. “Freundlichs are cars for the people, for your people, for you and me!” The circle of people around Gertie grew larger and louder. “Demand Freundlichs remain on the road!”
Father Paulie took the megaphone and shouted into it. “Do not take taxis that aren’t Freundlichs! Do not ride in smoke spewing Model Ts!”
Gertie took the megaphone back from Father Paulie. “And ladies, don’t let Henry Ford take away your independence by forcing your car off the market! Freundlichs are opportunity for you and me!” she shouted.
“Freundlichs are opportunity!” someone in the crowd shouted back.
“Opportunity! Opportunity! Opportunity for you and me!” Ma chanted, grabbing the megaphone. “Freundlichs are..." Ma shouted to the crowd.
“Opportunity! Opportunity! Opportunity for you and me!” the crowd replied.
Gertie took the megaphone back. “Freundlichs are . . .”
“Opportunity! Opportunity! Opportunity for you and me!” the call and response continued, drawing people from the streets, and drowning out the sputtering of the Model T that stalled on the street outside the park.