Underground Tradition

Son heads underground to keep Mother’s Day floral tradition going

BEEGEE TOLPA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
By David Abel | Globe Staff | May 28, 2015

NEW YORK — For Mother’s Day, my mom and I have a longstanding tradition: We head underground.
We descend to one of the world’s most crowded places, where stagnant air marinates with the whiff of freshly made pizza and sewage, an overly skinny codger who calls himself Sammy sings the same ballads through a tinny speaker, and roving law-enforcement patrols carry radiation detectors and automatic rifles.
While others may luxuriate in the spring sunshine with a lavish brunch or a lilac-scented picnic, we spend the day on our feet in the artificial light of a cramped store in the bowels of Penn Station, among the full mulligatawny of harried commuters.
After all these years together, neither of us would want to be anywhere else.
We go there to sell flowers.
A few years after I was born in the 1970s, my father, who was an accountant, had a client, a florist with a cash-flow problem. In lieu of payment, the florist, who had a shop across the street from Penn Station, offered to make Dad a partner.

Eventually, my dad expanded the business by investing in a concession to sell flowers from kiosks throughout Penn Station. Not long afterward, he put my mom, my sister, and me to work on the big flower holidays — Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, in particular. 
Over the decades, I learned how to pluck the wilted petals from roses to keep them looking fresh, how to bunch bouquets to make the merchandise appealing, wrap flowers so they can be transported without damage, run a credit card, and flash a smile with enough speed and sincerity to ensure our clients made their trains — and returned for future sales.
There have been many lessons from all my time underground.
I’ve learned, for example, to be wary in the public bathrooms, after a man once reached into a stall I was using and grabbed my ankle. I’ve learned how the biggest of the city’s rats can still squeeze through the smallest of holes in the walls. And I’ve learned to pace myself to avoid overindulging in the local delicacies for sale: freshly made black-and-white cookies, hot bagels, doughy pretzels, pastrami sandwiches, wheat-germ smoothies, ice cream cake, anything from oysters to Sicilian pizza.
I’ve learned of the secret fraternity among shop clerks, who barter goods such as a bouquet for a Big Mac. How it can take months to get a light bulb changed in a public area. And why it’s important to please the police and befriend the regular musical acts (so they don’t block our kiosks).

DAVID ABEL/GLOBE STAFF
David Abel, the author, with his mother, Syd, in the family flower shop in Penn Station.

I’ve also seen the best and the worst in the denizens of New York, few of whom are shy.
I’ve watched thieves run off with bouquets, while others have returned after I mistakenly gave them too much change. I’ve received tips for nothing more than sharing a smile and been berated for our prices or flowers that died prematurely.
On holidays such as Valentine’s Day, when lines snake out of the store at rush hour, I’ve watched desperate men bid for a last bunch of red roses, willing to pay any price so they wouldn’t arrive home empty-handed. I’ve heard pleas from besotted beaus to help them choose among the tulips, carnations, or other bouquets to send the right message — thoughtful or hopeful or romantic. Not a few men have shared their expectation, without any prodding on my part, that their investment would yield a carnal dividend. 
On Mother’s Day, the second-biggest holiday in the flower business, there are more women buying. Invariably, they’re more nitpicky about the quality of the flowers, the variety, or color. They often spend at least twice as long as men hovering over the buckets, inspecting and sniffing the offerings, picking out bunches, holding them up to the light, and then often putting them back or asking us to rearrange the arrangements. They usually know what they want and sometimes glower dismissively if we don’t have it.

DAVID ABEL/GLOBE STAFF
Abel’s father, Bill, with Syd several years ago. 

Four years ago, my family’s ritual of gathering to sell flowers in Penn Station changed irrevocably. Shortly before Valentine’s Day, after organizing every detail, my father lost his long fight against colon cancer.
A few days after the funeral, my mom, sister, and I, including our spouses and closest friends, did our best to carry on the tradition. My dad, who continued to make the final arrangements for the holiday while in hospice, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Since then, my mom has taken charge and my sister, my wife, and I do our best to help out.
So this Sunday, like nearly every other Mother’s Day for as long as I can remember, I’ll be standing beside my mom in the windowless labyrinth of Penn Station.
She’ll be making change and conversation with clients and vagabonds at the register. I’ll be wrapping and filling buckets, doing my best to take her orders without telling her what to do.
Most importantly, we’ll be together, remembering my dad and occasionally dancing to Sammy’s tinny ballads about endless love.
09mothersday - The Abel family's flower shop in Penn Station on Valentine's Day. (David Abel/Globe Staff)
DAVID ABEL/GLOBE STAFF
The flower shop on Valentine’s Day.
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.