The Escort - By Gina Robinson

The Last Honest Seamstress

The Union


New York 1898

The Barge Office was choked with people. Immigrants seeking entry into the United States nervously waited their turn in ragged columns, shuffling, looking longingly out through grimy windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of Manhattan's Battery and Castle Garden. The United States waited just beyond the tired, overworked officials at the end of the line.

Angelina Allessandro glanced frantically back toward the men's examination room where Paolo, her brother-in-law and escort, had disappeared hours ago.

Where is he? Why hasn't he come out yet? Without him, she would be deported. If you didn't have a man with you, or one waiting in the building to claim you, they sent you back. A woman alone was no good in the United States.

The line pushed her relentlessly toward the officials. She pushed back, trying to delay her fate as people shoved past her. Despite her efforts, her turn came up. Paolo was nowhere in sight. Her heart raced. She forced a smile as she approached the interviewer, wondering whether he could possibly be as corrupt as the Italian officials were. Or was America truly a place of honor and freedom? Would he press for intimate favors, force himself on her, demand a quick tumble in his office perhaps? She shuddered. What if she needed to bribe him? She had no money.

The blue uniformed immigration translator looked genuinely sympathetic as he asked her something in English.

"Non parlo inglese." I don't speak English.

That wasn't exactly true. She spoke a little.

He switched to a slow, careful southern Italian dialect. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I must detain you. Do you have a male escort or sponsor?"

"My brother-in-law, Paolo Allessandro, came with me from Naples on board La Brezza Marina. But he has not come out of the men's medical examination room." Though she tried to sound calm, her voice pitched in near panic.

The official said something in English to another blue-clad worker, who disappeared into the men's room and returned a few minutes later shaking his head in the negative. He called back a single English word, one that she recognized and filled her with dread. Trachoma, an eye disease certain to get Paolo deported.

"He has been sent back?" Her fear gave her words a gentle, unintentionally sensual rasp. Horrified, she cleared her throat. Don't show fear. Don't encourage the man's attention.

"I'm sorry, ma'am. Your paperwork says that you are married. Where is your husband? Is he in the city? Can he be contacted?"

She fought down her panic. "He is in Idaho."

The official shook his head. "He's not here? In the city waiting for you?"

"No." She saw the look of pity and skepticism in his eyes and raised her chin to cover her shame. Her husband had never intended to come to the city to claim her. Paolo, his brother, was supposed to bring her to him. "He is very busy, an important man in the mines there."

The official perused her paperwork again, then gently picked up one of her hands, and turning it palm up in his, ran his free hand over it. She flinched and tried to pull it back. His grip held her firm.

"Don't be afraid. I'm only looking for calluses." His tone was kindly but his hand trembled as it held hers.

She didn't believe him. She knew when a man was attracted to her.

"What sort of work did you do in Italy?"

"I was a cook in the household of a nobleman." There, her voice was steadier now.

He shook his head. "No good. Look at you. Wide-eyed. Pretty. Innocent." He released her hand and sighed. "I'm sorry. I am. But I cannot admit you without a male protector. It's the law. You wouldn't last a day alone in the city before some pimp would have you under his protection. I have to send you back." He sounded resigned. He pointed away. "If you would please step aside."

"No. Please!" She grabbed his arm. Images of the cramped ship, hours of confinement and illness haunted her. Being sent back was almost certainly a death sentence. The ill treatment of returns was notorious among the immigrants.

"My papa's cousin Mario is here in the city." Angelina pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. "He didn't come to meet us. We were supposed to hire a ride to his apartment. I have his address."

"Can he be summoned? Can he meet you here?"

"Yes." Angelina nodded, not at all certain that Papa's cousin would come for her. He had a precious commodity—a job. She had no