by ML Paul
Like a photo plucked from developer too soon, she appeared underdeveloped to herself as she looked in the mirror of the third floor bathroom. To correct this problem, she opened her laptop, selected a self-portrait, cut out her head, and digitally replaced it with a pineapple, avocado, full moon, or antique five-franc coin: “Viva la France.” A painter friend said it reminded him of the work of Alexander Rodchenko, the Russian photographer: images in eyeglasses, eyes on open hands. Kiara would look into his work; she needed a destination.
Living illegally in a small artist studio within an old downtown Providence building, Kiara had to hide her stovetop, microwave, and other signs of daily living. Also she had to forage for showers, but here she could do her photography and make rent with occasional work on a catering wait staff. With the help of her many artist friends in the building, she organized street-level photo shots of her Westminster Street window in various time of day and light, sometimes including herself in the shots. These were inspired from a book of historical Providence photos, which included images of female workers in workplace windows from the 1920’s and 30’s. She took and scanned photos of the women and shopped them into her window. She sought out existing windows in the photos, shot them, and shopped the women’s faces into the same window, only eighty years later. She said she felt reverential. As she looked through the book, Kiara searched for her window.
Unable to find it, she searched the Special Collections Department of the Providence Public Library. There she found pictures of parades, crime scenes, political rallies, and celebrity sightings, and often there would be workers starring out the windows. She captured the pictures with women in the windows with her phone. Finally, she found her window: “Dolores Hat Shop” was stenciled on the four windows of her floor. It was Columbus Day, 1930. At home she enlarged and studied it.
In the séance of sleep, these women talked to her about their lives, as she became a worker, too. On this late January night, they watched the sun set through groups of buildings, watching colors change, having no vocabulary to capture it. When she woke, she remembered the sky, and poured over her Dolores Hat Shop collection without even making coffee. No one spoke now, but in their eyes was recognition. Then she remembered something one of the women said, “Don’t forget this.” Or maybe it was “Don’t forget us.” As the shadow world was slipping into the light, she repeated both lines.
She studied more now: payroll records, census tracts, and city event notices: the events when the women would lean out the windows to watch. At the Special Collections Office, she found a diary and letters from early 20th Century women, event posters, and other “ephemera.” It became her favorite place to go.
Back on the studios, everyone was buzzing about a rent increase. Some feared that this was an attempt to make way for condos. OK, she needed a real job.
That night in another hypnagogic hallucination at the hat shop, the women were all calling her Helen. There was nothing special about her, just one of women who hailed from Italy, Ireland, and Sweden. The women wore hats adorned with silk flowers and ribbons, while they created new ones.
She thought about asking her artist friends to call her Helen, but she knew that they would think her eccentric. Already some had given her the moniker, “etc. etc. eccentric.” But they were sympathetic about a job. One knew someone, an operative in Democratic Party politics, who could help her.
On her fourth visit to the Dolores Hat Shop, Kiara/ Helen was making hats, repeatedly pricking her fingers with the needle. She cried out, and Aline, an Irish immigrant, showed her the technique of pushing the needle bit by bit instead of all at once. Then she held Helen’s hand and kissed her fingers, wrapping the injured one in gauze. Aline jerked her head over to the group of six Italian women: “To hell with Enrico Caruso; those girls are giving me a headache.” The Italians entertained the women singing opera along with Caruso records at the top of their lungs.
Helen said, “I rather like it. It makes the day go by faster.”
Aline said, “We all love Nona, but the old hag has a terrible voice.”
“Don’t call her a hag.”
“I say that with reverence. Nona is the wisest one here. May she pass that knowledge down to us.” Aline walked over to her bench, and pulled out a book from her bag. She came back and handed the open book to Helen. It was open to a poem called “Witch –Women.” Helen flipped to the book cover and saw that it was Edna St. Vincent Millay. “She’s one of yours, an American,” said Aline. “Only the old hags can save us; they know everything.”
Kiara awoke to throbbing fingers. It was her first day as a Special Project Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent in the city school department, where she used pieces of old grants to rough out new proposals. While she didn’t know the field of education, she did have a college education (RI School of Design, 2011) and she could figure a lot of it out. And she could type well and move electrons around with alacrity.
At night in dream-suggestopedia, she worked in the hat shop with needles, thread, glue, felt, silk, ribbon and bird feathers, while the Italian women sang opera. The women laughed a lot, cried sometimes, and always worried about money and children. But all the women agreed: work was better than stuck behind four walls. Once Helen asked, “Do you work because of the money?” Someone answered, “No, it’s because we have each other, women-time.”
One of the shop opera singers, Mamie of Genoa, explained that in these bad economic times, they were lucky to be in the hat business. “Every woman needs hats, one for summer and one for winter at least. Everybody is equal in this country, they say, but if you don’t wear stylish hat, ladies, you find that a lie.”
Nona spoke to Kiara: “What’s you name, dearie?” Nona was big everywhere, and fearless. She was the only one who would speak up to Albert or “Albertino” as she called him. “If he tries any of that hanky-panky, you let me know. He maybe the owner, but I am the boss!” She said, yelling out the last part. “He’s lucky to have hard-workers and beauties, too.”
“It’s Helen, Nona.”
“Really? Did the girls put you that name? That’s a movie star name. That name is a trick to make war, send sons to die. You have ‘nother name?”
“Like the thing girls put on their heads?” She gestured her hands placing something on her head.
“No, Nona, that’s a tiara. It’s Kiara.”
“OK, I like that better. You listen to those girls they make you crazy. When we do the good thing, we helping, helping everyone.” Nona spread her hands to show how much capacity we have to help.
One day on her lunch break, Kiara was working on a new art project: sunset in the city. She was shopping sunsets into sewer drains, windows and tree trunks, and taking over whole houses and busses. The back of a garbage trunk was her favorite. She was thinking of submitting them to a local gallery. Then the Deputy Superintendent walked by, stopped and looked. He flashed a smile and asked her to explain what she was doing. She was proud that he showed interest in her work. “Maybe you can help us on another project.” He said.
Later he explained that he needed “readily consumable media platforms” that could be used in a labor dispute. He wanted her to shop in some differently worded signs carried by teachers at a rally. “Blogs are the new battlefield, “ he said. She was asked to shop in Longchamps bags and expensive-looking coats on teachers leaving work. What did she think?
Shocked, she didn’t know what to say, but she was able to come up with, “why are you doing this?”
“I guess you could call it “slew-footing”?
“What’s that?” She asked.
“It’s hockey, tripping an opponent with your feet. Just a two-minute minor penalty, so no big deal. You know, we want to authenticate some of the discordant members of the teacher’s union.”
She was intrigued with the work, something for which she was highly-skilled, but said, “I’ll think about it.”
“Did I mention that there is some extra money for this?”
After work Kiara was walking home on Westminster Street. She looked up to the window that once held the Dolores Hat Shop, and was blinded by the reflection of the sun. Nature, maybe the grand mentor of their artist community, doing her own art. If she was in dreamland last night she couldn’t remember. She was thinking slew-footing workers wasn’t minor. With the helping, helping of others, Kiara had it figured out: she remembered the shop that mattered.
About the Author:
ML Paul’s work has appeared in Pure Slush, Postcard Poems and Prose, Black Heart Magazine, Lockjaw, Right Hand Pointing, and KYSO Flash, and is a member of Hi-Fi, a historical fiction writers group.