What follows are some stories about David Brown and his flower shop. But before I tell you about him, I have to explain why, whenever I look into the store window I now see, in addition to all the flowers, a face.
For a period of several months David Brown was absent from his own store. He wasn’t well. He’s back now, but in the interval, while he was away, the spectacular flower theater that is his store became less theatrical, and I noted this absence on a little segment I did for a radio show, and not long after that I got a call from a friend of David’s asking if I would appear in housing court to testify on his behalf. There was some sort of dispute with a landlord. All I had to say was that he had not been well.
I showed up and made my way to the exact same area where I’ve been a number of times previously, as a prospective juror. The long wooden benches, the grey marble floor, were familiar. A lawyer met me, along with a friend of David’s who thanked me for coming. David I would only glimpse in court.
The actual proceedings were fairly uneventful, except for the drama of swearing to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God.
There is an immediate wiping away of personality in this ritual. You can’t discuss the fact that you don’t really believe in God, except in extremely stressful situations, or that the truth is very difficult to come by, whole. And once your personality has been messed with, well, everything becomes a bit unsettled. Memory, for example.
David’s lawyer asked me several very straightforward questions, along the lines of, "David used to always be in his store… but now he is not… and you were told this is because he not well…"
Yes yes yes. Easy.
Then the opposing attorney begins to speak. He is wearing a dark suit and a grey shirt and a grey tie. His hair is thick and black and looks either like a weave or maybe hair plugs. There is a mole beside his nose. His face has a snarly cast. All in all, an unsympathetic character.
Somehow, he asks me more or less the same questions, but they are phrased in such a way that I feel like I am being lead down a narrative alley. I keep waiting for him to say, "Ah ha! But you just contradicted yourself!"
But he did not do this. He only sat down at the end of his questioning with a slightly sour look on his face, as though it was obvious I was full of shit.
And that was the end of my day in court on behalf of my favorite florist. I gave a nod to David, who, I couldn’t help noticing, was looking ever so slightly like a criminal sitting there in his suit and his hair slicked back with uncharacteristic neatness. But mostly it was the simple fact of being in court. Context is so important! He and his lawyer gave me a nod. His friend smiled. And I walked out into the hall.
The thing about that building, I recalled from jury duty, is that the elevators are incredibly slow, and are generally jam packed. Such was the case that day, and I waited a long time for the elevator to come, standing amidst the municipal marble, the greyness, the coffee stained feeling of government work. When it finally arrived I piled in with every one else. We were shoulder to shoulder or, as this army guy I met not long ago put it , "nut to butt."
I barely managed to get in and turn myself facing forward, when the prosecuting attorney ran up to the elevator and stuck his hand in. The door opened. He stood there, hair weave and grey shirt and little mole to the side of his nose – and surveyed the jam packed elevator. The door began to close. His eyes met mine. He lifted his eyebrows. Logically, the expression should have related to this moment. "You can’t catch every elevator," he might have been saying.
But for some reason that is not how I took it. Our eyes met, his eyebrows shot up, and he nodded his head once, one single beat, as though to say, "Not bad." As though he was saying, "OK, I tried to trip you up, you did pretty good. No hard feelings. All in a day’s work."
It was such a vivid little moment – the elevator door closing on this guy, the sudden revision of my feelings for the man (scumbag shyster into another human being) – that now when I pause in front of the flower shop I can’t help but think of it, and see his face. The face of a landlord’s lawyer.
A flower shop opened around the corner on Bleeker Street, and the neighborhood hasn’t been the same since. It’s not a normal flower shop. For one thing it is very small, maybe the size of a newstand or a place that only sells soup to go and, for another, the flowers are highly unusual.
So is the owner. His name is David Brown. His shape, generally speaking, is round. He is a very large man in a very small space. He wears two piece and three piece suits. Sometimes they are tweed, sometimes charcoal black with broad chalk stripes. He looks like a dandy or a gangster or a comedian. He has the light footed, sharp tongued, short tempered aura of Jackie Gleason or W.C. Fields.
After the flower shop ( phone: 352-1224) opened I got in the habbit of standing in front of the window and staring at the exotica on display. One day it might be thin twisting branches that seem dead, but at the end of which are tiny pink buds that look like mouths that are wide open and screaming. On another day maybe it is tulips whose petals are so long and white they make you think of swans. Standing there staring into the window I can sometimes see David Brown amidst the dense fabulous foliage, moving within his scented habbitat like a restless animal. The vases inside are all bunched together and teeming with flowers in different stages of life, and David Brown is usually moving flowers around or ordering one of his assistants to do so, in Spanish.
His manner is not kindly, though it turns out he is kind. His face is often a bit flushed, his blue eyes bloodshot, and his voice seems perched on the edge of irritation. It adds to the store’s general sense of drama. He has ginger hair that spills over his ears and eyes and gives him the appearance of some sort of eruption.
His main business is provding arrangements for fancy parties, fashion shows, special clients with special floral needs. In his office, a tiny kitchen in the back, I have glimpsed post-it notes with messages like: "Call Lou Reed tommorow." He regards street traffic as either a bother or an amusement. David Brown and I have developed a brusque neighborhood friendship. He knows my face. I often buy one stem at a time–each one cost more than the bouquets you get at the grocer–and it looms with austere beauty back at my house for a week or so.
Recently I’ve been walking in and saying, "I’ve got twenty dollars."
"You’re always placing restrictions on me," he says.
"It’s what I have," I say.
"What’s it for?" he asks.
"It’s for a girl," I say.
"A girl, or the girl." he says.
"And what are you doing. Appologizing? Are you trying to get in her pants? What?"
He seems to take some pleasure in the thought that he is helping me get laid. There is something devilish and beautifully corrupted about him.
"Just a little something," I say.
Flowers, because they are cut, and temporary, and beautiful, and will die in front of your eyes, are usually viewed as an extravagence, but David Brown’s attitude towards them is more like a pharmacist’s towards his medicine.
"Just a little something," he says meditatively, as though that were a very particular kind of order. Then he whips together just a little something–a stray stem here, a few greens there, a couple of pansies. He treats them roughly. He holds the fragile things in his heavy brutal hand, making them seem even more frail and tremulous than they are, and the next thing I know there is this incredibly lovely arrangement tied in string, a little floral poem. He’s really good at it.
I’m really getting along with the girl. I bring her David Brown’s flowers often. Every now and then he refuses to take my money.
"Come on. Take it!" I say, and wave the twenty, or sometimes just a ten.
"Get out of here," he says.
Whenever he has one of his huge commisions the sidewalk outside the store fills with buckets and crates stuffed with various flower all wrapped and ready for delivery. Exotic flowers–like exotic dancers–are a bit lewd. People often stop and gawk, the same way they gawk at a model during a fashion shoot. A lot of them are brought up from a storage space in the basement. It’s weird seeing such creatures of light emerge from the metal trap door from which you usually see people hauling bags of grabage.
As the flowers age, they became more and more strange. The odd-shaped glass vases in the store’s window cradle flowers perched uncertainly between a spectacular life and death. When they die they get thrown out.
They are usually discarded while they still have some life in them, as though they are only of interest while approaching their prime, or during that fleetingly brilliant moment when they had have achieved it, but as soon as they show signs of wilting, of losing the luster of youth, they get thrown into the trash can at the end of the block, on the corner of Bleeker and 11th Street.
It’s strange to see a garbage can brimming with exotic flowers. Heaps of them get piled in, making the wire mesh of the garbage pale into a surreal kind of vase. The other day I stood next to an old man who was picking some out and making a bouquet.
"They’re like abondoned pets or lost children," he said. "They’re wounded but beautiful. Go ahead, take some."
At first glance he seemed like a crazy person. I stared at the man’s withered hand, shakey from age or maybe drinking or disease, reach into the garbage and gently tug out the stems. Petals fell around him on the sidewalk, but the bouquet he was putting together was starting to look impressive.
"Go ahead," he said. "They’re free."
THIS JUST IN FROM DAVID BROWN
"I don’t mind if I get killed. But I’d rather be annihilated."
It was Good Friday, an afternoon of ferocious skies and warm, moist air. It was raining in an apocalyptic fashion that makes every man-made structure seem extremely temporary. Amidst the dark grayness the window of the flower shop was bright and florid. I went in. There sat David Brown amidst his flowers, with opera on very loud.
A large puddle had developed on the curb outside, and when cars swooped down Bleeker Street, they smashed into the puddle and sent a dramatic wave of water crashing onto the pane-glass window that looked out onto the street.
I started looking at the flowers.
David Brown began to discuss the Spanish coup in 1975, just after Franco fell.
Don’t ask me how he got onto that subject. But somehow he was suddenly going on about the outfit the king wore when the general came in to tell him he had to abdicate the Spanish throne because the castle was surrounded by tanks.
Apparently, the military aspect of the situation had been resolved. All that remained was the formality of turning over the…keys to the city? throne? Scepter? Property rights? What?
The King had to abdicate, was the point; a certain ceremonial giving up had to take place.
You have to remember it was pouring rain and these amazing crashes of the water, and that the opera was blaring at a high volume, and the flowers were bright and eager under the lights on the shop, which felt a bit like a jewel exhibit in a museum just then, the whole thing enclosed in glass, and it was Good Friday, and two days earlier it was Passover, and it was hard to keep track of the story because of the usual display of exotic flora and fauna crammed into the tiny store and because I hadn’t at all expected to be immersed in a narrative of Spanish style and character (with a distinctly catholic undertow).
But the point was that for this last great appointment, the King of Spain got dressed up. He went all out. He put on his best king outfit, and his crown, and his incredible ring from the 12th century, and various robes, and sat himself down on his throne in an enormous hall all by himself. He had the general walk in alone, as well.
The general was all set to tell him he had to abdicate the throne, it was all over, the jig was up, etc. But what he encountered, said David Brown, was the king sitting in all his finery. This included a scepter in his left hand, and in his right… and here David Brown, whose face was flush and who had been pacing around irascibly alternatingly gesturing wildly and grabbing bunches of stunningly beautiful flowers and moving them in their wetness from one place to the next, and who had also been also instructing one of his assistants about one thing and another, now stopped and held his hand out:
"In his right hand there was an orb."
It was raining like crazy and I was hearing about the King of Spain from David Brown. Apparently the general was considerably intimidated by the king’s presence. But the general never the less managed to ask the king to abdicate his throne.
"And the king…" and here David Brown stopped his various movements around the store attending to his flowers and the papers on the kitchen counter/desk he has in the back, and again got really focused on the story and the King of Spain and Easter Sunday and the opera blaring etc.
"The king said two sentences: ‘I can not Abdicate. I AM SPAIN.’ And the general was so blown away he just walked out of the room and went up to all those tanks and said, ‘That’s it, deal’s off, go home, it’s over.’"
It was like a fairy tale from David Brown.
And when it was over, he took on that what the hell do you want? attitude he often has, and I got down to the business of selecting a flower.
"You always go for these feminine perfections," said David Brown. I was poking around the shop. There were some strange looking poppies in buckets, their stems twisted and tortured. Poppies are very weird, all the more so when you consider heroin. It’s a peculiar enough looking flower, not so much after it’s bloomed, and its soft, papery leaves flop out lazily, but when it is all knotted up and closed, vaguely Muslim looking, a little mosque of possibility.
"But if you’re a man, you have to accept toads and stones," he continued.
And he gave me this odd, staff-like thing, very much like a scepter.
Here it is: