It's 1894 on New York's Lower East Side. Irish cop Tom McGlory and Italian immigrant Vita Caputo fall in love despite their different upbringings. Vita goes from sweatshop laborer to respected bank clerk to reformer, helping elect a mayor to beat the Tammany machine. While Tom works undercover to help Ted Roosevelt purge police corruption, Vita's father arranges a marriage between her and a man she despises. As Vita and Tom work together against time and prejudice to clear her brother and father of a murder they didn't commit, they know their love can survive poverty, hatred, and corruption. Vita is based on my great grandmother, who left grade school to become a self-made businesswoman and politician, wife and mother.
Vita hunched over her piecework, imprisoned in the numbing toil. A hairy hand clamped down on her shoulder. She looked up at Mr. Strozzoni, or “Wrench Neck” because of the way he strained his neck—a nervous tic or something. Sweat stained his celluloid collar. “Hey. A copper come lookin’ for you,” he rasped in his cigar-gruffened voice. “He wait for you outside.”
He yanked her up by the elbow and dragged her to the door like he couldn’t get rid of her fast enough. Twenty rows of eyeballs followed her out of the workroom. She stumbled, dizzy with fright. Oh, no, Butchie got run in again? Her brother couldn’t stay out of trouble.
Wrench Neck shoved her out into the stairwell. “Don’ you come back here no more. You’re a thief. We don’ wan’ no thiefs here.”
Thief? She’d never stolen a spool of thread. Then it hit her—the blouses she’d dropped in the street. Someone must’ve turned them in—but who knew she’d dropped them?
It didn’t matter now. She was out of a job. Still in shock, she couldn’t think straight.
Her shoes clanged down the metal stairs. She went outside and squinted in the sun.
An imposing figure startled her. Those green eyes, it couldn’t be…the cop from this morning.
He stood before her, arms folded across his chest.
She turned, ready to bolt. But a silent command told her to stay put.
“You dropped some blouses on the street this morning.” His voice was gentler than this morning. So he’d found the blouses! “They have the factory label,” he went on. “I described you to the boss man. He told me he’d never seen you. But I could tell he was lying.” His arms unfolded. His posture relaxed. “I had to wait for you. Why are you out before everybody else?”
She stepped back. Her bottom smacked into the brick wall. “Why do you think? He just fired me. But I didn’t take your wallet. A street arab took it.”
He nodded. “I believe you. I’m not accusing you of anything.”
“Then why are you waiting for me?” She tilted her head, really curious now.
“I just wanted to find you.” He took a step forward. “Look, let me help you get another job. I feel responsible—”
She gaped up at him. The sun formed a halo of light about him. His jawline curved nicely, not too square. “No, you done enough already.” She turned away but needed one last glimpse of those green eyes. As she turned, she tripped over her own feet.
He grabbed her arm to steady her. “I’m just clumsy,” she stammered.
“It’s quite all right,” he said.
No one ever said quite, not around here. A smile frolicked on his lips, as if he knew she’d been staring. Crescent laugh lines cut into his cheeks.
“I really want to help you.” His voice softened with apology.
Shaking her head, she started to leave, but he walked beside her. She sneaked sideways glances at him. The planes of his face weren’t weatherbeaten like the railroad yard laborers. Black hair crowned his head in glossy waves. It reminded her of long-ago nights in Italy, the sky bejeweled with stars. A trimmed mustache rimmed his upper lip. Muscles bulged beneath his blue jacket. His graveness seemed to mask some deeper emotion. She sensed sadness in those eyes that held a spark of streetwise spirit.
Neighbors halted in their tracks and stared with narrowed eyes. Vita Caputo in trouble with the law now? She pictured them saying, Eh, the whole tribe’s a bunch of rowdies…over their purple wine tonight, Mott Street buzzing with gossip louder than the organ grinders. Head held high, she matched them cocked brow for cocked brow. But inside she went on praying—I need another job, I need another job!
“Will you tell me your name? Please?” He drew her from her thoughts. A shiver of alarm coursed through her. Should I tell him my real name or give him a fake one?
“It would be an offense to withhold your identity from a policeman.” He ended that with a smile that sent strange tingles through her belly.
“Miss Caputo. Now goodbye.” She didn’t want him calling her Vita.
His lashes blinked like bats’ wings. “Your father wouldn’t be Lorenzo Caputo, would he?”
“What if he is?” she shot back.
“Then your brothers are Bruno and Vincente.”
He knew them, all right, but not as friends, since they were just Larry, Butchie, and Vinny around here. But cops weren’t on her family’s list of friends, either. To them, cops rated lower than parish priests.
“Does that have anything to do with me?” She steadied her voice.
“No, but they’ve been booked for minor offenses before, and assaulting a policeman twice—my cousin Mike McGlory.” The stern tone returned as he swung his nightstick.
“I know what they did, and I ain’t proud of it,” she admitted. “But here I am, obeying the law, and I get kicked outta my job.”
Her family’s offenses ranged from starting a brawl at a cousin’s wedding to robbing geraniums to assaulting a cop. To them, the first two were none of the law’s business. The fight at the wedding was over whose wine was better. The flower-robbing, in Vinny’s eyes, was legit—“God put them here, so why should I pay for ’em?” was his reasoning. Simple Italian logic.
She looked up at the cop, almost hoping she’d trip again so he’d catch her. But he was still the leatherhead who put her out on the streets.
“I’m Tom McGlory, and I want to help you find another job. Where are you headed, Miss Caputo?” His question sounded innocent enough, but his butting in riled her. She took a deep breath to calm down.
She set her eyes straight ahead at the horse and cart parked by the grocer’s. “It’s none a your business where I’m headed,” she snapped. She didn’t trust cops. Maybe he wanted to use her for something. Cops bamboozled immigrants into doing their dirty work. She wasn’t falling for none of his lowdown schemes.
“Since your visit cost me my job, the only place I can go is looking for another one so I can eat tonight.” Why not sling some guilt his way? Maybe, if he was half human, he’d appreciate what she’d just gone through.
“I’m sorry for the trouble all this has caused you.” Again, his tone gentled. “I can talk to your boss. He should take you back. I’ll head back there right this minute and explain that you stopped a robbery and that’s how you dropped the blouses.”
“Don’t do me no favors, Officer.” She held up her hand. “You don’t owe me nothin’.” She glanced around for a clock so she could figure how much money she’d lost already. She wasn’t about to ask him for the time of day. She had to find another job before she lost a whole day’s pay. Forget a kitchen curtain—that got shoved onto the luxury list. They might have to give up eggs and eat stale bread for a while.
“Then may I escort you somewhere?” he pushed on, his voice casual, yet his eyes sparkled.
She knew hers didn’t, so she avoided his stare.
He gave her agita in her stomach. But he seemed so kind. She’d seen strongarms in action, and he wasn’t one of them. Still, she didn’t need his help. “No, I need to get myself into another wage-paying job. Nobody’s paying me to make chit-chat with a cop.” They halted at the corner as a streetcar rumbled past. “But I have one question first.”
“What is it?” His eyes lit up.
“Why would you wanna help me? I ain’t even Irish.”
She didn’t wait for an answer, cause she didn’t care. She just wanted him to think about it. She turned and walked away, hoping to lose him.
She wished she had a pocket full of rocks, to feast on a sausage sandwich and enjoy this rare stint of freedom. But forget it. Leisure—and big lunches—were luxuries she’d have to wait many more years to afford. Now she had to skip lunch until she found a job.
Walking toward the nearest factory, self-scolding comments fell from her lips: “You’re a fool, letting thoughts of this cop amuse you!” This fantasy was no different from her daydreams at the sewing machine to fight the deadening boredom. But at that rattling machine, she made her lofty plans. In her quest to get ahead, she attended neighborhood meetings for tenement reform with her cousin Baldo, the “mayor” of Mott Street. All the streets down here had unofficial mayors, businessmen on the lookout for the neighborhoods. Baldo, a barber, got along great with everybody. He and Vita badgered the ward heeler, the district boss, and sometimes even a sympathetic reporter for decent living conditions. But she had to do more.
She saw how bosses treated her family, how cops and judges took payoffs from politicians and let criminals off, and how slumlords made their tenants live six families to a flat. But hers was one of the blessed families on Mott Street. They had plumbing.
She dashed down Orchard Street, past the crowded tenements where the poorest souls lived. She had to end the dreaming and get back to the heat, the stench, the real world out there. Hunger for food replaced her hunger for reform.
She pushed Officer McGlory out of her thoughts. The face-off with the cop was over. But his presence still sent tingles down her spine.