Excerpt from book:
For Bread Alone
In the year 1860, when the Western Great Plain of America was the home of the buffalo roaming, the cobbled hard pavement of New York City was the roofless and only domicile of thirty-five thousand children. In our hideous number we scraps was cast outdoors or lost by our parents, we was orphans and half orphans and runaways, the miserable offspring of Irish and Germans, Italians and Russians, servants and slaves, Magdalenes and miscreants, all the unwashed poor huddled slubs who landed yearning and unlucky on the Battery with nothing to own but our muscles and teeth, the hunger of our bellies. Our Fathers and Mothers produced labor and sweat and disease and babies that would’ve been better off never born. The infant ones, small as a drop of dew on a cabbage leaf, was left wrapped in newspaper and still bloody on the doorsteps of churches, in the aisles of dry goods stores. Others among us was not older than two, just wee toddlers with the skulls still soft when they was thrust Friendless upon the paving stones of Broadway. These kids dressed in bits and pickings. They begged what they ate or filched it. Many never had known a shoe. The girls started out young to sell themselves and the boys turned to thuggery. Half the babies dropped at the foundling hospital died before they had a birthday. The rest of the so-called street Arabs was lucky if they lived to twenty.
Me and my sister Dutch and my brother Joe was nearly permanent among this sorry crowd, but by the mossy skin of our teeth we got turned from that path by a stranger who came upon us and exchanged our uncertain fate for another, equally uncertain.
The day in question I was not more than twelve years of age. Turned up nose, raggedy dress, button boots full of holes and painful in the toe, dark black hair I was vain of pulled back, but no ribbon. And my father’s eyes, the color of the Irish sea, he always said, blue as waves. I was two heads taller than a barstool. My legs was sticks, my ribs a ladder. I was not no beauty like Dutch, but I managed with what I got. And That Day we three got our whole new proposition. It walked right up and introduced itself.
Hello there, wayfarers.
We stood in the doorway of the bakery. If you stayed there long enough, you could get maybe a roll that was old, maybe the heels they would give you of the loaves. We were not particular. We would eat crumbs they swept out for the birds. We was worse than birds, we was desperate as rats. That day the smell was like a torture, of the bread baking, them cakes and the pies and them chocolate éclairs like all of your dreams coming up your nose and turning to water in your mouth. We Muldoons had not eaten since yesterday. It was February or maybe March, but no matter the date, we were frozen, no mittens, no hats, us girls without no woolies under our skirts, just britches full of moth bites. We had baby Joe warm in our arms, heavy as beer in a half keg. Dutch had my muffler I gave her, she was so cold. We wrapped it around my head and her head both, and there we stood looking like that two-headed calf I saw once in Madison Square. Two heads, four legs, one body. Two heads is better than one, but we children should’ve been smarter that day and seen what was coming.
A customer started in the door. This big fat guy with big fat neck rolls over the collar of his coat, like a meat scarf.
Dutch said, —Mister? with those blue eyes she has, such jewelry in her face, sparkling sadlike eyes.
The Meat Neck Gent said, —Go home to your Ma.
Dutch said back, —We ain’t got no Ma.
—Yeah yeah yeah, he said. —I heard that before, now beat it.
—Please mister, I said. —We ain’t. It’s the truth. (Though it wasn’t exactly.)
Kate Manning has taken a little known nugget of history and spun it into a remarkable novel that is mesmerizing and resonant. Her New York City of the late nineteenth century is passionately evoked, and Axie Muldoon is as fierce and alive a character as I have read in recent fiction. In its exploration of a subject no less pressing now than it was over a hundred years ago, My Notorious Life is an essential novel for our time.”