Though I didn’t know a carnation from a chrysanthemum, I wasn’t nervous before starting a new job in Manhattan’s flower district. I hadn’t known anything about farm work, but survived two months harvesting lettuce in Arizona. More recently, I had endured a crash course in the art of slaughtering and processing industrial chicken. A vegetarian since grade school, I didn’t even know what a chicken breast looked like before working the graveyard shift at a poultry plant in rural Alabama. By the second week, I was tearing apart more than 7,000 breasts a night—by hand.
In comparison, I figured that working at a flower shop would be, well, like a flower shop: pretty, colorful, and pleasant smelling. It had to beat sweating in lettuce fields or spending eight hours with bits of chicken fat stuck to my cheeks. Sure, some things about the shop struck me as odd. During my informal interview with Helen, a middle-aged woman who looked in need of several deep breaths, she refused to answer my question about pay.
“Can you at least tell me what I’ll be doing?” I asked.
“You do whatever Tony tells you—just show up tomorrow morning at five,” she snapped.
The next morning Tony walks through the door a quarter after five. I’ve already met Lucas, a burly Mexican with long black hair, and am helping him move pots of plants and bales of decorative tree branches onto the sidewalk for customers to peruse and trucks to carry away.
“Mister!” Tony yells into my face, letting me know he hasn’t brushed his teeth. “Mister, take the pear and put it in the corner.” He points north, in the general direction of a truck, and is off.
I have no idea what pear tree branches look like. Have I missed some sort of orientation? By now dozens of bales are leaning against the storefront window. Lucas passes by and points out the pear, which I hoist over my shoulder. “Put it in the corner,” Tony said. I assume he means the corner of the truck. About to heave the branches, I turn back to double-check. Tony is standing outside the store, staring at me.
“In the corner of the truck?” I yell. He doesn’t respond. “Here?” I shout. Nothing, though I’m certain he can hear me. Okay: I toss the bale in the truck.
Tony walks over quickly. “Mister, what are you doing? Mister, why didn’t you listen? I said in the corner.” I look at him blankly, my early-morning brain still foggy.
“Forget it. Hand it to me.” I pass him the branches. “In the corner, in the corner. That’s what I told you! You need to use common sense.” He mutters to himself as he carries the branches up the block to the corner, dumping them in the middle of the sidewalk. Apparently someone is coming to pick them up. “Common sense, mister,” he tells me when he returns. “In. The. Corner.”
Thus I become acquainted with Tony’s managerial style, which combines maximum intensity, enigmatic instructions, and insults. He paces back and forth, his faded jeans drooping low and the grimace on his face indicating the likelihood of cardiac arrest. There is nothing here that should be so difficult: We are moving bales of branches outside, arranging plant and flower displays on the sidewalk, and loading and unloading trucks. But with Tony as our boss, even the simplest task becomes damn near impossible to understand. So whenever he passes, he tells us to use common sense, to pay attention, to wake up. “What are you doing?” he shouts, even when I’m doing what he’s just instructed.
“Su abuelito es loco,” Lucas counsels after one outburst. He’s saying that Tony, whom he’s calling my grandfather evidently because we’re both white, is crazy.
“Any idea how much money they will pay me?” I ask. Lucas explains that when he started, he earned between $300 to $350 for a 60-hour week. I do the math—that comes to about five dollars an hour, without factoring in overtime.
After a few hours I start to understand the rhythms of the store. Customers are mostly interior designers, of the sleek and skinny sort with spiked hair and too-tan skin. Some are friendly, but a few are pushy and whiny and make no effort to get out of our way when we’re balancing heavy loads of branches. Twice I spin ever so slightly after passing customers of this second type, giving a gentle tap to their heads with the back end of whatever I’m carrying over my shoulder. No one seems to notice, or care, that they’re buying flowers from a man who won’t stop yelling at his employees.
“You can’t let him bother you,” Lucas tells me at midday. We’re standing behind a truck stripping leaves from birch branches, out of Tony’s line of sight. “He’s always like this. No one knows what he’s talking about.”
As the day wears on, I am relieved to see that Tony isn’t singling me out. By now I am working with four others, all immigrants: Lucas, Israel, and Carlos, in their late 30s or early 40s, are from southern Mexico; and Antonio, a powerfully built 27-year-old, is from Honduras. None is safe from Tony’s tirades, but though they make faces to each other when Tony isn’t looking, they seem to be taking it in stride. They have grown accustomed to a workday in which nothing is ever sufficiently explained, in which they are expected to jump from one random activity to another whenever Tony opens his mouth. I realize that I’m going to need to develop thick skin, and quickly.
The next day I spend most of the morning hours making deliveries around the flower district—one dozen bales of various branches to G. Page Wholesale Flowers, a shop located in the heart of the district on 28th Street; large pumpkins to an advertising agency on 26th Street; a collection of flowers for a nearby floral stylist.
I was too busy yesterday to get much of a sense of the flower district, though I had done some reading overnight and learned that the once sprawling region has been shrinking. In the 1960s the district was home to more than a hundred wholesalers, but today there are only about two dozen running along 28th Street from Seventh Avenue to Broadway. (When it was formed in the mid-1890s, the district’s borders went from 26th to 29th Streets). Still, these two blocks are unlike anywhere else in the city; the urban bustle remains, but pedestrians pass beneath archways of ferns, forming single-file lines as they snake through endless rows of cut flowers and potted plants.
The main threat to the flower district has been real estate, especially since the 1990s, when the area was rezoned to make it easier to build residential buildings. As luxury buildings and hotels have displaced merchants, some advocated relocating the district to a cheaper neighborhood. A couple of years ago, the Flower Market Association—headed by Gary Page of G. Page Wholesale Flowers—believed they had enough support to move to Queens, but some merchants refused, forcing the association to scuttle the plan. As a result, Chelsea still has a couple of blocks left that remain interesting and eccentric, a reminder of what the city was like before the proliferation of generic luxury developments.
When I make my first delivery to G. Page Wholesale Flowers, it’s not yet 6:00 a.m., but already dozens of Latino workers—mostly men—are frantically arranging bouquets and wrapping up flowers for customers. I make my way toward the rear with two bales of maple, passing rows of flowers bursting with color. (I am not a flower person, but I later log on to the G. Page Web site, which testifies to the global economy of cut flowers: They sell hydrangeas from Colombia, echeveria from New Zealand, roses from Ecuador, and orchids from Vietnam and Malaysia. The workforce is also geographically diverse: I speak briefly with men from Mexico, Ecuador, and Guatemala.
Once I’ve completed the deliveries it’s back to the same routine of trying to decipher Tony’s orders. Around 10:00 a.m. one of the commercial trucks pulls in, driven by Helen, who shouts at Lucas and me to begin unloading. I walk to the back with Lucas, who pulls the rear door open.
“Stay here and I’ll hand the bales to you,” he says.
Five seconds later, as Lucas is climbing into the truck, Helen rushes up. “What are you doing?” she shrieks at me. “Grab these, grab these!” She pulls out two bales, nearly tripping up Lucas, who is now standing in the truck, and slams them over my shoulder. “Go! Go!” I turn around and notice a man standing several feet from me, waiting to cross the street.
“Whoa,” he says softly. “What’s up with her?”
I wonder the same question the rest of the day. As tiresome as Tony can be, Helen proves to be even more of a despot. When I bend down to tie my shoes she shouts for me to “hurry-hurry go-go!” I pause to pull a thorn from my hand—the shop doesn’t provide workers with gloves—and am instructed to “wake up-wake up!”
A few hours later, Lucas and I are walking back from making a large delivery of flowers and maple branches when I hear him mutter, “Oh shit.” I look up to see Helen charging at us furiously.
“Where have you been?” she screams. I half expect her to clock Lucas and me in the face. “It’s been 30 minutes!” I check my watch to confirm that it certainly has not, but follow Lucas’ lead and hang my head in silence.
“I don’t know why you want to work here,” he says in Spanish after Helen has stomped off. “If I had papers, I would move on.” With the constant badgering from Helen and Tony, I’m soon experiencing waves of paranoia and anger, and though I try to keep a smile plastered on my face to mentally distance myself from the misery, I have to admit that the possibility of a quick exit has already entered my mind. By now I knew that I could handle hard physical labor. I had learned to put my head down and grit through tough shifts. But what I wasn’t accustomed to was the relentless verbal harassment while I worked. This was an entirely new experience, and it left me drained and feeling defeated.
By 4:00 p.m. the store is closed and the workers have gathered inside, drinking Coronas and trying to figure out what to do on this Friday afternoon. After an eleven-hour day without a break I’m exhausted and ready to head home, but I’m waiting in the doorway of the office. Helen is sitting in the cramped space with another woman, evidently the bookkeeper. At Helen’s desk is a checkbook, in her hand a pen. “I’m having a problem because we didn’t decide on how much to pay you.” She sighs, grimaces, and sighs again, as if this is a burden I ungraciously placed on her shoulders.
I’ve been standing in the doorway for at least two minutes, watching her agonize over my payment. “A lot of the time you look lost, like you don’t know what to do.” She continues to finger the checkbook. Finally she writes out $150 for my 21.5 hours. That’s less than $7 an hour; minimum wage in New York is $7.15. “Maybe if it was the summertime . . .”
I start to realize that I’m being fired. “I’m all set to come in tomorrow, just tell me what time,” I say, trying to change the direction of the dialogue. “I’m still learning, but I’m getting it.”
“But I can tell that you are not made for this work.” Helen looks over at the bookkeeper as if for assurance. “You’re like a happy chicken out there. Always smiling.”
What the fuck is a happy chicken? I leave the question unasked. “That’s just how I am,” I say. She shakes her head slowly, looking disgusted that I might be enjoying my life.
“If it was summertime and slower maybe we could use you.”
Now I’m shifting from shock to anger. “How am I supposed to know everything? It might seem like common sense to you and Tony but I’ve only been here two days. When I started I didn’t even know what a magnolia tree looked like.”
She shakes her head again. “It’s not just the magnolia trees. If you don’t know something, you should ask Tony.”
Hysterical. What world is this woman living in? I quickly learned that asking Tony a question—any question—was useless. He ignored my questions; only once did he actually answer. Yesterday afternoon he told me to sweep trash into a bag. I did, and then made the mistake of asking where he wanted the trash placed.
“What should you do with the trash?” he asked. “You should call UPS and have them pick it up. Come on, mister—common sense!”
“You must know that Tony doesn’t answer questions,” I tell Helen. I consider reciting a list of the responses Tony has given me—beginning with the UPS anecdote—but can already sense the futility of arguing with her.
“You just don’t fit in here. You can call Tony tomorrow and see what he says.” I stand up, wanting to curse her out. Instead I walk away, tell the workers I’ve been fired—they are all equally incredulous—and bike home. I call Tony the next day and plead to be rehired, but he doesn’t budge.
In 2007 the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive think tank, published a report on the unregulated economy in New York City. Although the underground economy is vast, they wrote, it is “a world of work that lies outside the experience and imagination of many Americans”:
It is a world where jobs pay less than the minimum wage, and sometimes nothing at all; where employers do not pay overtime for 60-hour weeks, and deny meal breaks that are required by law; where vital health and safety regulations are routinely ignored, even after injuries occur; and where workers are subject to blatant discrimination, and retaliated against for speaking up or trying to organize.
I found low wages and grueling conditions in Arizona and Alabama, and judging the work by degree of difficulty alone, the flower shop was an “easier” job. I wasn’t stooped over in the sun or lifting and dumping tons of chicken breasts. But there is something qualitatively different about my short-lived stint in the flower district. They didn’t pay overtime or grant lunch breaks—and paid me less than the minimum wage—but these are not the abuses I will remember. What leaves a lasting impression is the incessant string of accusatory comments, the assumption that we, as workers, merited zero respect. In sum, I will remember being in an environment where the workers were treated as chattel—a more difficult phenomenon to quantify with statistics than wages, but a key component of the work experience for many undocumented immigrants. Just as certain occupations are physically unsafe, certain workplaces are psychologically unhealthy (often, of course, they are both). On some level, then, I ought to be grateful to Tony and Helen for granting me direct access to a world hidden to most Americans—if only for a brief period. But gratitude isn’t the first word that springs to mind.
And either way, Tony and Helen are now behind me. I’ve been fired twice in the last three months, and I’m back where I started: in need of a job.
Adapted from the book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do by Gabriel Thompson. Excerpted by arrangement with Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010.