Published in The New York Times, April 15, 1896
FLOWER BOYS AT “HOME”
THEIR UNCARPETED, UNFURNISHED, AND CHEERLESS ROOMS.
Large Colony of His Countrymen in the Employ of “George the Greek” –
Work from Morning Until Midnight on a Dish of Stew and a Sandwich –
Often Arrested and Fined – Evils of the System –
Magistrate Wentworth’s Suggestion.
In a rather dilapidated tenement in the rear of a building on Thirteenth Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, are four rooms on the first floor that are occupied every night by thirty or forty swarthy boys and men. They are strewn about the floor, some on mattresses and others with a single blanket between their bodies and an uncarpeted floor, but all sleeping as soundly as though stowed away in one of the rooms of the Hotel Waldorf.
In one of the rooms there is a large ice chest, with rows of shelves, on which stand vases of flowers divested of so large a share of their natural bloom and fragrance that they emit a sickly odor. The atmosphere of the four apartments is so deeply tainted with this odor that the visitor shrinks from entering. The occupants do not, however, seem to mind it.
A canvas cot in one room, with a rug in front of it, denotes the resting place of the master of the premises. He is known as “George the Greek.” The little colony represents a large proportion of the “flower boys” of New York. They are the peddlers who sell roses and violets along Twenty-third and Fourteenth Streets, at elevated stations, and along Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Park Row, and Sixth Avenue.
They are all Greeks, and they are nearly all in the employ of “George the Greek” and another enterprising Greek. They range in age from fourteen to forty. They know very little English. Their monthly wages seldom amount to $7, and are more frequently $4 and $5.
“George the Greek” has amassed a fortune of nearly $20,000 in the last five years. He is now able to pay $4,000 a year rent for the flower stand in front of the Grand Central Station. George started in an unpretentious way. By living frugally he was enabled in a short time to buy a stand in Twenty-third Street. That was in the days when street hawkers were allowed to have stands on the sidewalk and to sell from a pushcart at one place as long as they cared to.
George secured another stand in Twenty-third Street, for which he paid a monthly rent of $100. He sold that stand to take the one in Forty-second Street, but regrets the change now, as the New York Central Railroad Company raised the rent for the stand.
The street trade in flowers has been usurped by the Greeks, because they are able to live on less than Italians or Americans. The latter have consequently been driven out.
When Spring comes George wends his way to Bleecker Street and inspects the newly arrived Greek immigrants, who find temporary lodgings in that part of the city. He picks out several score of those who know the least English and the least about the value of American money, and takes them up to his quarters, where they are instructed as to the proper way to induce pedestrians to buy flowers, the various methods of eluding the police, and the way to wire flowers.
The last point is the most important. If the flowers are not wired and arranged correctly they lose in value. The process of wiring consists in thrushing a fine steel wire down through the stem of every rose, violet, or any other flowers that may be on the market, in such a way that it is concealed from the buyer. The advantage of this is that the stem may be bent so as to make the flowers assume any position. This enables the boys to make half a dozen flowers occupy the space in a bunch that a dozen unwired flowers would occupy.
The flowers are purchased at the Cut Flower Exchange in Thirty-fourth Street and of several commission floral merchants in Twenty-eighth Street, from Broadway to Sixth Avenue. These men sell the flowers which come in every morning from Long Island, New Jersey, and New York State. The florists and big stores get the first pick. After they have taken what they want for the day, George and other street dealers get what are left, or the “dreck,” according to the technical term.
The flowers are taken to the rooms in Thirteenth Street, where each boy wires his own stock for the day, and starts off to sell them. No particular districts are allotted to the boys, the object being to keep out of the clutches of the police, for, though required by law to have licenses, none of them are citizens and, therefore, cannot obtain them.
They start out about 10 o’clock in the morning and scatter through the shopping district. Toward evening they move up in the theatre district. Their last stand is taken along Third Avenue and Twenty-third and Fourteenth Streets. They stay out, as a rule, until they have disposed of their stock, returning shortly before midnight.
Before leaving their “home” in the morning the boys are given a breakfast of “Greek stew,” the concomitants of which vary, and a cup of weak coffee. They exist until evening on this, and a roll each is stowed away in a coat pocket and munched between sales. In the evening they are served with a meal of fruit and wine.
This is, in brief, the daily life of a “flower boy,” as described to a reporter for THE NEW YORK TIMES by P. P. Coppel, a dealer in novelties in Ann Street. Mr. Coppel was at one time in the flower business, and is thoroughly conversant with all the details of the trade.
“The greatest injustice,” he said, “in the street-hawking business lies in the fact that no discrimination is made among the hawkers. All the men I have selling novelties are American citizens, many of the war veterans, energetic men, all of whom have licenses. The other three classes are the Greek flower boys, east-side Hebrews, and Greek and Italian pushcart men. Few of these have licenses.
“Not a day passes that several of ‘George the Greek’s’ boys are not arrested. They are taken to court, fined $1, which George pays, and they return to the street. If the law were changed, so that every man had to be licensed, instead of every cart, this would be different.
“The police are very unjust. In many precincts a vendor who has paid for his license is not allowed to sell. These are orders from the Captain. In other precincts ‘dead lines’ have been established, beyond which a licensed vendor dare not venture.”
Alderman Ware appeared again in Jefferson Market Court yesterday in continuation of his crusade against unlicensed flower peddlers.
Magistrate Wentworth, in the discussion, agreed in part with the statement of Mr. Coppel. He said the remedy should come from the Council Chamber. That the Aldermen could settle the matter more speedily by passing ordinances than by arresting men on the streets.
Alderman Ware said the Aldermen were doing all they possibly could, but the peddlers refused to take out licenses.
Magistrate Wentworth said the men would be arrested just as frequently, whether they had licenses or not. Mr. Ware replied that this was not so, and that men were not arrested who had licenses.
“You do now know what you are talking about,” Magistrate Wentworth said. “I have seen this thing from the bench and can safely say that eight out of every ten of the men brought before me have licenses.”
The Magistrate said the question the Aldermen had to decide was whether there was room for flower peddlers and pushcart men in the streets of this city.
“Another feature of the case,” he said, “which should occupy the attention of your Aldermen is that in connection with pushcarts. I recently questioned everybody connected with such cases that appeared before me, and learned that the padrones secured pushcarts and had the carts licenses instead of the men.
“In one instance a padrone had a stable of ninety-four pushcarts all licensed. Another had fifty, and another had thirty-four. This is all wrong. The Aldermen should pass ordinances requiring that the men, and not the carts, be licensed.”
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