Thanksgiving is a strange holiday when you break it down to its essence. If you consider the facts, it's basically a holiday with its roots tinged with genocide and basically revolves around gluttony. Two really big sins in anyone's religion. Not to mention that it also acts as the starting pistol for a shopping free-for-all which has become something of a reality show to see who can drive themselves deeper in debt. Yes, I am cynical. But I am also right. Sure, there are other aspects such as spending time with family and friends, watching the Macy's Day Parade, and volunteering for those less fortunate. But my experience with this holiday has never been a positive one. At least until last year.
Last year, my boss, who is a wonderful woman, asked me if I could work the next day, Thanksgiving, and I was a little put off. First of all, it is a national holiday, and secondly, who the hell is going to order flowers on Thanksgiving? I asked her why and she told me she had a very special delivery that day and no one else would do it. I saw the look in her eyes which was one that I had never before seen. It was a look that told me this was really important to her. I cursed the fact that she was so nice to me all these years and I begrudgingly accepted, mumbling as I left so she would feel bad at having the audacity to ask me to work. She said thank you over my babbling vitriol and told me to arrive at 6:00am, which is 2 hours before I work on a normal day. Now I was incensed at stupidly agreeing to this.
On Thanksgiving I came into the shop to see my boss, working alone, preparing almost 50 arrangements by herself. Her eyes, dark circles from handling this order all evening. I thought to myself: "What sort of jerk orders this on Thanksgiving?" She asked me to help her decorate the vases, something I've never done before, but seeing as this was Thanksgiving and no one else showed up, I didn't have a choice. I helped put the ribbons on the ceramic vases and would occasionally mutter something like "This is a great Thanksgiving" and "I can't wait to meet these assholes". She never said a thing but diligently kept on working, exhausted and silent.
Once we finished the arrangements, we loaded them into a car and drove to the Bronx where we proceeded to unload them at a homeless shelter. A woman came outside to greet us with a warm embrace and thanked my boss profusely. "She does this every year! It's nice to see someone finally helped this poor woman! It means so much to everyone that they have these on the tables. It just makes the entire day so special." To say that I wanted to crawl into a hole and die would have been like saying Florida is a normal place; a gross understatement. On the ride home neither of us spoke very much, me from abject shame and she from not wanting to start a conversation where she would have to listen to my abject shame spiral out. When we arrived back at the shop I helped her clean, again in silence, and as I left I thanked her. She looked confused. I told her that I was thankful for showing me that whatever Thanksgiving used to mean to us, can change if we choose to be generous to others. Now it's my favorite holiday.
Most New Yorkers take the subway and most New Yorkers understand that this is just the price we have to pay for living here. We complain about them never being on time, that they are inhabited by the mentally insane, and that many times we have to watch the performances of those asking for money or a mariachi band. Still, I've lived in San Francisco where their idea of a transit system is more theoretical than actually existing. Los Angeles' transit system is your car, and Boston's is something that should be avoided altogether. So while we complain about our MTA, it's still the best in the country.
Last week I had an order, and for the years I've been doing this, I've never had one this specific. I was told to be at the northbound track of the 23rd Street station at 10:07am and to deliver a bouquet of white roses to the conductor of that train. This felt more like a hit than a delivery, but I was up for the challenge. I paid the fare and went to the platform and sure enough, at exactly 10:07 the C train rolled in. An attractive woman, and yes, I was surprised that an MTA subway driver would be attractive, sorry for my closed-minded attitude, was at the helm.
I knocked on her window with the flowers and she looked at me as though I were there to hijack her train. She opened the window with a slight bit of terror and said: "I don't give information." I handed her the flowers and she laughed knowingly. "Is this from that guy the other day?" I told her I had no idea, but that I was given very specific instructions to deliver these to her at this time and place. She opened the card and read it smiling. "Yep. These are from that guy who I saw running for the train and I kept the doors open for him. I've been driving for five years and no one has said as much as a thank you. I guess this makes up for it." Someone suddenly yelled out from the idling train: "Hey! Can we get moving?" She snapped back to reality and drove away. The ever turning wheels of New York have no time for sentimentality.
I was raised to be a Roman Catholic, but in all honesty, I haven't gone to church since I was old enough to actually object to going to church. Which was about age six. I'm not particularly proud or embarrassed by this, it's just the choice I made in regards to my relationship with God. I prefer the Tesla model of religion; just buy it yourself and cut out the middle man. I write this because I recently had a delivery to a church in the lower East-side and when I left the shop, I had no feelings about this one way or the other. It was just another delivery.
I've never made a delivery to a church before and it was odd to me that such an abstemious institution would be the recipient of what some might consider a decadent gift. I entered the Father's office and nonchalantly told him he had a delivery. I placed the arrangement of white roses and white lilies on his spartan desk and he stared at them as though I had just thrown a gift card for a strip club in front of him. He looked at me, his face straining with questions and said: "Who would send me flowers?" I shrugged, not being familiar with his social circle. The Father read the card and smiled. "Oh. This is from an old parishioner of mine. I never thought they would remember me. Especially on my birthday. The world is full of wonders." I couldn't help but be touched that this man was still so in awe of something as simple as a flower delivery and I suddenly felt like a used up, jaded, spiritual whore who had long ago given up on being a human being.
He called in his administrative assistant and told her: "Can you please put these in the rectory? Such beauty shouldn't be enjoyed by just one person." She carefully took the vase and bustled out of the room. I left the church and remembered that such people do exist, even in a city as cynical as New York and in an organization that had seen so much personal turmoil as the Catholic Church. Maybe that's what organized religion is meant to be: a reminder of the good to which we can all aspire.
There are a lot of smart people that live in NY, not all of them, mind you, but we've got a lot of people who are above average intelligence. You more or less have to be just to survive here and adapt faster than most other places just because everything changes so fast. When the aliens come to study us, (and really it's only a matter of time) they'll perhaps view Manhattan as their own Galapagos Islands and study all the different states of human evolution. I think another reason why so many people with exceptional intelligence gravitate to our fair metropolis, are the schools, of which we have many world class institutions. And many of those institutions have students who are away from home for the first time which can be trying for someone who's never been out of Indiana.
We got a rush order from somewhere in the Hoosier State, Clinton, I think, "that needed to be delivered immediately" to a private, very large and expensive learning institution near Washington Square. I was down there, with the Vanda orchids, Sweet William, and purple hyacinths in an hour and buzzed into the dormitory. A girl who can only be described as an extra in a movie about New York in the 80s answered, complete with black eye-liner, Anarchy in the UK t-shirt, streaked blue hair, and a studded collar. When she saw me she just rolled her eyes and invited me in. The room looked like a photo after the Berlin Wall was taken down: one side was completely covered in clothes, toiletries, books and papers and the other looked as though it were trying desperately to hold back the encroaching chaos with a clear delineation right down the middle. I could only imagine the late-night negotiations that had prompted this diplomatic state of affairs. Tucked in the corner of her bed, as though terrified of being consumed in the dark matter, was a young woman who could have stepped out of an Laura Ashley catalogue. Her eyes lit up when she saw the arrangement and squealed: "Oh my God! Daddy!" I handed the flowers to the bright-eyed midwesterner while the Queen of the Goths looked disgusted with this transaction. "Flowers. That's original." The Dark Poet of the Underworld sneered. The perky Red State refugee simply narrowed her eyes and retorted: "I guess we can't all invent a new fashion statement that's never been seen before, can we?"
I left the young women to work out their issues and it occurred to me that some people are tougher than you think. It also helps when you have a Dad in your corner.
I grew up in New York so I've seen it change. A lot. I remember the millions of "original" pizza parlors, the barber shops, the strip clubs, the countless bodegas, and I have to be honest, I really miss it. I don't want to sound like Old Man Rivers here, but for those of you who also remember what the City was like, you can't deny that for all of its problems, it had a unique character. So I was surprised the other day when I got a delivery for a pizza parlor on the West Side, near Chelsea. I rarely get to deliver to that part of the city let alone to a pizza parlor.
It was a simple order, sunflowers, that's all. Just a bunch of sunflowers. I entered the pizza parlor, on the walls were photos of famous people, their illegible signatures scrawled with messages of encouragement to the owner as music from a by-gone era played at just the right volume. Behind the counter was a man in his 50s twirling dough while two other employees worked the counter or placed the toppings. I walked to the register and was greeted with a response that could have been scripted in a movie about a pizza parlor. "Hey buddy, I'm married!" And then everyone burst out laughing. I would have laughed too, but I honestly believed I had traveled through time.
"These are for ..." I read the card now convinced I was being pranked, "Tony."
The man in his 50s turned around after sliding a pie into the oven. "No sh--! Those are for me?"
I handed him the bouquet and his eyes widened as he read the card. "These are from Janice! Remember that woman who was stuck on the BQE the other night? The one I helped? I told you she was giving me the eye!" His two employees slapped his back and wished him well on his new romance as I tried to imagine how it was possible that this place survived gentrification, rising rents, and the war on gluten. The Brooklyn-Queens Express Lothario turned to me and said: "You want a slice? On the house!" I may have my pride, but I'm not about to turn down a slice of pizza from a place that was obviously in some sort of time warp experiment from 1978.
I sat down and ate the greasy slice with a can of Coke and for one brief moment, I had the feeling that I had better get home and finish my homework in time to watch Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.
There's a side to flower delivery that is seldom spoken of in polite society. It is the dark, seedy, under-stamen of an otherwise colorful world filled with natural beauty. On occasion, at an event, more than one flower shop will be commissioned to furnish flowers and that means more than one flower delivery person will show up, often at the same time. Normally, this is uneventful; two delivery persons nod their shared respects and go about their business, but once in a while I run into my arch nemesis, who I will call Lara. She is beautiful, young, and what most people would call a "go-getter" and what's worse is that she always has a comment for me. Once, at a delivery where we both arrived at the same time she told me: "Usually you don't meet people your age who still deliver flowers." Another time, she made the observation: "Wow, you got here and your flowers still look pretty fresh." The final straw came last month we both arrived at the same funeral and she went too far, even by flower person delivery standards. Lara leaned in and whispered in my ear: "That arrangement looks more presentable than you do."
The gloves were now off.
There was a big event in New York last week for a gala. As Lara pointed out on more than one occasion, I am probably a little older than her which I have accepted as being the result of chronological physics. I can't help that, but with age comes wisdom. I had delivered flowers to this event almost every year and I know it's a byzantine complex of corridors and heightened security. If you manage to wind up in the wrong area of this particular building, you will be detained and questioned. They're not kidding around here. I made sure I delivered this arrangement first thing in the morning and confirmed she had not signed in at the front desk yet. On the way through the security labyrinth, I also made sure that all the signs reading "deliveries for such and such event" were placed strategically over the DO NOT EXIT sign on the door. I made my delivery and on my egress from the building I saw my perky nemesis carrying her bouquet of roses. She smiled and said: "Wow, I guess it is true! Age does come before beauty." I nodded and smiled and waited outside for roughly five minutes before I heard the screeching of the security alarm and imagined Lara being escorted to a cramped office to answer questions about her background.
The great flower delivery turf war had begun.
I enjoy the museums of New York. The Guggenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Frick. They're all enriching to the artistic and cultural fabric of New York, and a large reason why this city is the greatest in the world. But that's not to say I understand all art. In fact, I have discovered I'm really a bit of a snob about art, which is strange because I have been wearing the same jeans for six days straight. I don't quite understand what most contemporary artists are trying to say. I mean, show me a landscape or a still life of a bowl of fruit and it may not be a revolutionary idea, but I get that the artist is attempting to show me something of his world. After Warhol, art sort of lost me. So when I was given the task to deliver to a local visual/performance artist I was intrigued and thought maybe I could ask her a few questions. Sometimes we delivery persons can do that if the deliveree isn't too busy or too unwilling to speak to the unwashed masses.
The address was a loft space (of course) in the Lower East Side, a four flight walk up over a restaurant and it reminded me of the Old New York. I entered the space and it was filled with everything I imagined an artist's loft would accommodate: canvases, easels, mannequins, tons of old artifacts like typewriters and horseshoes and, of course, paint tubes littering every surface.
The woman who approached me was well into a pregnancy and wearing one of those mouth-germ protectors. She took it off indicating her belly and said matter-of-factly: "Fumes." I nodded solemnly, the way I thought a doctor would for some bizarre reason. She signed for the flowers and I gathered the courage to ask her: "What sort of art do you do?" She simply gestured around the loft as though that would explain anything. When she saw my expression, which bore no sign of recognition that this gesture was, in fact, an answer, she unceremoniously took the flowers out of the basket and laid them out on a canvas where she pressed them with a rolling pin before finally pouring paint on them. She must have noticed the new expression on my face which looked like I had just seen someone kill my dog for fun. I shouldn't have cared, but I walked those flowers for three miles only to witness their utter destruction with as much care as someone ripping up a flyer handed them on a street corner advertising a sale on suits. My look prompted her to explain: "People have been sending me flowers all month to congratulate me on my pregnancy, so I thought I'd do something useful and make an art piece out of it."
As I left I couldn't help but think that if I sent someone an $80 bouquet of hyacinths and cymbidium orchids and they immediately crushed them to death on a canvas, I might be a little put off. But then it occurred to me if I sent someone flowers and they included it into an art piece that would perhaps live years longer than the actual flowers, that might actually be the best thank you I could get. But I still probably wouldn't understand it.