Every Saturday I go to the florist on 116th Street in Rockaway and buy five stems of white daisies. The florist is an old Jewish guy from Far Rockaway, who wears gold wire-rimmed glasses. He always proudly tells me that he is “hung over.”
“The price of being popular,” he likes to say.
I say to him, “Five daisies, no fruit,” which means, no baby’s breath or greens. This makes him laugh.
When I was a kid, my father would take me downtown to restaurants with red-and-white checked tablecloths. I guess he figured, taking his young son to a restaurant to drink was better than going to a bar where I would have to sit on the bar stool with my little Converse feet dangling in the air. At the restaurants, I got to sit in a regular chair with my feet on the floor, and have a small plate of salami with a Coke.
My father’s order was always the same: “a martini straight up, no fruit.” The waiter would nod and say, “Yes, sir.” When my father said, “no fruit,” he meant, no olives or lemons, liquor only. When I tell the florist, “no fruit,” he knows exactly what I’m saying– and where I’m from.
Most times when I’m at his store, the florist is busy, blowing up balloons with a helium tank. Balloons that say something like “Congratulations to the Grad,” or “Happy Easter,” or “It’s a Boy.” He always has a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes lying on the table next to his pruning shears. I have been trying to quit smoking cigarettes for five years.
Once I asked the florist, “What does your doctor say about the unfiltered cigarettes?”
He calmly replied, “My doctor told me to quit smoking, or I’m gonna die.”
I said, “So, what happened?”
“My doctor died,” he said with a big smile.
The florist is my hero.
I give him five dollars, and leave the shop with the flowers. Then I walk down 116th Street to the Rockaway Park Deli and Grocery. The guy behind the counter is from Yemen. His name is probably Abdul or Akmed, but here in America in Rockaway Park, we call him “Mike.”
The store is full of Budweiser 12- packs stacked five feet high. It’s an alcoholic’s maze. I work my way through the maze-like a laboratory mouse until I make it to the back of the store where the cold twelve-packs are.
Rockaway has been a dumping ground for all of New York City’s mentally ill for fifty years. Any other neighborhood would have one or two homes for the mentally ill; Rockaway has at least thirty or forty. There is an oversaturation of half-way houses, too, all filled with slack-jawed overly medicated zombies. Not just regular zombies, Diane Arbus zombies. All smoking generic cigarettes because New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has decided that all smokers should be taxed, even the crazy ones.
One day at the Deli, I said to Mike, “I really hope you have been to other parts of America. I would hate for you to go home to Yemen, thinking that Rockaway Park is America….”
My wife, Regina, and I live in Chinatown in Manhattan and come out to Rockaway only on the weekends. Even though we are not Chinese, “Mike” likes to call us “Mr. and Mrs. Chinese people.” If Regina is not with me in his store, he greets me with: “How is the Chinese Lady doing?”
And Mike assured me, “Don’t worry, I’ve seen America. I’ve been to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and Niagara Falls, upstate.”
I think to myself, Allah is great, God is good, thank Jesus for the Liberty Bell and Niagara Falls. Otherwise, someday, when Mike returns to Yemen, the children in the village will gather around him and ask Uncle Abdul, “What is America like?”
Mike will tell them, “It’s all slacked-jawed, overly medicated, generic-cigarette-chain-smoking zombies. And then there is “Mr. and Mrs. Chinese people, who buy Budweiser beer and the pro-Israeli New York Post every day. Children, always remember, America is a very, very bad place…”
When I get home, I give the flowers to my wife, Regina. She clips, and snips, and even talks to the flowers. She says, “You’re so beautiful, yes, you are,” as she arranges the flowers in our thrift-store vase and places it on our yard-sale table.
Darryl Graff is an NYC construction worker my stories have appeared in Akashic books, Gravel, Empty Sink, and other journals.