18. Economics

MARIA MASTERED the economics of Lehigh Row. The cement company paid the workers $10 a week and charged $8 a month rent for each home, regardless of the number of people living in it. Therefore, renting beds to boarders became a valuable way for families to supplement their incomes.

Maria’s boarders paid her half their wages—$5 a week—for full room and board. That included a bed, hand-washed laundry every day, and three homemade meals a day.

For laundry, Maria pumped the water from the earth. She lugged the pails inside and boiled the water on the stove. She scrubbed the men’s work clothes on washboards and sterilized the garments in the boiling water. She hung the clean laundry on clotheslines strung inside or outside the house, depending on the weather.

For meals, Maria served the men more than they thought they could eat. “You better finish everything,” she warned them every night, “or else I’ll have to throw away the leftovers!” The men could have rented beds elsewhere on Lehigh Row, but they gravitated toward Maria’s munificent meals.

She calculated the tantalizing implications in her head. Typically, there were four boarders at a time, meaning that she collected $20 a week—twice as much as Serafino brought home in his paycheck. If she could save at least half the money after deducting for the costs of coal, soap, breakfasts, sack lunches, and dinners for the boarders, then she could at least double the household income of $10 a week. At that rate, she could save the astounding sum of a thousand dollars every two years. Money for the electric flour mill in Farindola. Money for an emergency on Lehigh Row. “Maybe someday,” she dreamed, “we could buy our own home.”

Maria did not deposit her savings in a bank account. She put most of the savings in a cigar box. She hid the cigar box behind a pile of pillows that stuffed the opening of an otherwise unusable chimney in her bedroom. To reduce the risk of storing all her money in one place, she wedged some of the $5 bills into the tight coils of the metal spring beneath her mattress.