Flower delivery job not all roses
Work as teen had drawbacks
Editor’s note: Former State University of New York at Fredonia professor and OBSERVER columnist George Sebouhian was preparing to write his life story when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. He died three years later, having left behind hundreds of pages of research notes, poems and memoir vignettes. His son, Damian Sebouhian, has taken it upon himself to complete and share his writings through a series of theme-based articles, each of which represents a chapter in the life and times of George Sebouhian, in his own words. (Note: During childhood, his father was known as Roy).
During the mid 1940s, Roy Sebouhian was living with his biological father’s family in Astoria in New York City and attending high school at William Cullen Bryant. Roy’s own father, who had abandoned him as an infant (and later forced by the state to take him back), told Roy that in order to live with them, he had to pay his “fair share” of the rent. So, at the age of 13, Roy took a job with a florist named Pete Papa. The following excerpt describes what it was like for Roy as he would navigate the bustling city to deliver flowers at the same time he was battling his own inner demons of loneliness and alienation.
Every day after school and on weekends, I worked at Papa’s Florist, for $3 a week, less than I made when I was delivering papers while living at the Norcias. Pete’s wife was a no-nonsense type. She didn’t like dirty fingernails, blackheads, gray crevices in the ears, mothers who didn’t work, fathers who didn’t support their kids and kids who didn’t appreciate anything.
She didn’t like the other delivery boy, Jack, but for whatever reason she liked me just fine. She was efficient. Beautiful bouquets grew under her hands.
There were a lot of deliveries locally, which I walked, trying to manage several bouquets, dodging the pedestrian traffic on the shop-filled streets.
I also traveled by bus and subway. One afternoon I had to take the Long Island Rail Road to deliver a wreath to Huntington. It was dark when I got there, not even any street lights, the heavy snow that day had turned into a blizzard and I had to navigate two-foot drifts of snow to find the number and then I saw a huge building whose numbers glared at me and rang the doorbell right next to a sign with the word “crematory.”
It was useless. No answer. Closed. Probably because the city was in the midst of a blizzard. I left the wreath outside leaning against one of the huge metal doors.
Another time I delivered a wreath I walked from the florist along Grand Avenue almost to Steinway, about a mile under a sweaty sun. The door to the funeral parlor was open, but no one was around. I started to place the wreath at the door when a man appeared near the coffin gesturing for me to place it near the head of the coffin. I tried not to look, but did, and saw a face bloated and bruised — almost like the face of a classmate who had drowned whose coffin we had to file by when I was in third grade.
I didn’t like the work and I knew I would never like any work whatever it meant. Starting from the most ordinary corners of ordinary afternoons in the last class, English. Sunlight bright on glass and dust and desk and floor. And nothing more. Nothing. No thing. NOTHING-nothing.
Back to the beginning, from floor to desk to dust to glass to light. And a feeling in my stomach, writhing slowly, alienation growing. It was the same every day. After the classroom came the florist shop. Hello, Pete, hello customers, hello flowers.
In the basement alone with the gladioli in newly arrived boxes for me to trim and place them in huge containers half my height and pour water in to three-quarters full, then find room for them in the refrigerated stainless steel vault. I sat on a metal folding chair while I trimmed, raising my head every so often, staring at the vault, the walls, the floor as the feeling twisted itself into shape. Every slice of the sharp knife against the ribbed stalks at a sharp angle against my thumb cutting tiny marks into the flesh that blackened with time, criss-crossed scratchings defined like some ancient image.
“Hey Roy, got a delivery.”
And off I’d go.
I liked Manhattan, the “city.” A long lulling subway ride, especially comfortable during rush hour when everyone holds up everyone else. Travelling around the city — buses, subway, sidewalks — and not in a classroom, not in the basement of a florist and without that stuck feeling, feeling only motion, movement, yet calm, peaceful. Between rush hours the train clacked and whipped.
Into the tunnel under the East River, in the tunnel under the river, with the rushing air and the sound of the wheels screaming every foot of track in a rhythm moving fast and faster, farther into the depths, lurching from side to side with forward swaying almost dizzy-fright and wind almost hot, whipping wet hair, diving into darkness until there is nothing deeper left. Roaring past the low point to the other side flying upward carrying everything, free, with no effort, toward a nothing-something and a thrill that made me glad, glad to be clean, pure, simple. Almost like the way I felt walking the sidewalk as fast as I could fixing my eyes on open spots in front, dodging bodies eating up the spaces. Oh god, I could run, hurl, throw, like a javelin, a jet, burst, thrust, through — all the way through — penetrate, clean and explosive, I a big bang beginning, a cosmic core creation, ab ovo ecstasy, motion-emotion.
But I had to return to class and the florist shop and summer and winter and spring and sweat and …
Damian Sebouhian, former OBSERVER staff writer, is a Dunkirk resident.