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Bloom service
Somehow I never expected to wind up a Holiday Helper at a nationwide florist network
BY ALAN OLIFSON

Motherís Day is the Christmas of the floral industry. This is one of those facts I never thought would affect my life. Kind of like escrow. So you can imagine my surprise when I found the pink flier waiting for me in my cubicle: YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED AS A HOLIDAY HELPER!! IN LIEU OF YOUR NORMAL JOB RESPONSIBILITIES, PLEASE REPORT TO CUSTOMER SERVICE @ 7 A.M. MONDAY, MAY 5 THROUGH SATURDAY, MAY 10! THANKS FOR HELPING MAKE THIS ANOTHER GREAT HOLIDAY SEASON!!!

Three weeks prior, when I had taken the job as a project manager for a nationwide florist network, it was already painfully clear that my life wasnít panning out according to plan. No matter how I sliced it, working at the "largest family of high-quality florists in the world" was not a steppingstone to my own HBO comedy special, getting published in the New Yorker, or becoming an astronaut. And Iím pretty sure the sound of tacking a voicemail access code to your cubicle wall is the sound dreams make when they die.

But nothing had prepared me for the flier.

I didnít know where to begin to focus my horror. The egregious use of exclamation points? The "Lost Cat! Answers to Mr. Slippers" shade of bright pink paper? "Customer Service"? "Holiday Helper"? "7 a.m."? The whole unholy combination was just too much to bear. I took a seat and desperately pored over the flier again, searching for words like "volunteer" or "at your convenience." Instead I only noticed the word "Saturday" again.

What being a "Holiday Helper" could possibly entail, I had no idea, but it sounded like it might involve wearing tights. And since I barely knew what this company did, tights-wearing couldnít be entirely ruled out. Three weeks into the flower business and many things were still a mystery to me. From what I was told during the orientation meeting, which may have been interesting to someone just coming out of a coma, the company has two main revenue streams ("revenue streams" being up there with "escrow" in the things-I-thought-would-never-concern-me department). The first and major stream is a wire service. Flower shops use this service to send flower orders to each other. So an order placed at a shop in, say, Los Angeles, where you live a happy, fulfilling life, can be filled by a shop in, say, Idaho, where you left your mom to live out her final years alone, confused, and cold. Both shops make money, the company gets a cut for transmitting the order, you quell your guilt, and Mom gets a brief respite from the monotonous drudgery of her existence. Godís work, really.

The other source of revenue is what they call "Flowers in a Gift," which is another way to say, "Pay more and weíll throw your flowers into some cheesy crap that most likely has a bunny on it somewhere." Though they prefer the term "keepsake." I guess it plays better in Readerís Digest ads. So, instead of just sending Mom "some flowers in a vase," you can send her a "Sweet Dreams pink blown-glass vase filled with a beautiful arrangement of daises, lilacs, and roses." Never mind that what she really wants is to live with you in that room youíre just using for storage anyway.

So, armed only with this rudimentary and mildly disturbing insight into the flower biz, I arrived Monday May 5, at 7:05 a.m. (thatís right, :05, because no one tells me what to do), praying I wouldnít be handed a pair of tights and wondering what horrible decisions Iíd made in my life to arrive at this moment.

Mercifully, the only thing I had to wear was a telephone headset. Once my supervisor got me to stop playing with it, she explained that my first job as a Holiday Helper would be "call-outs." Thatís flower-business lingo for "calling out." I was given a stack of orders that had to be filled "manually." "Manually" being lingo for me finding a flower shop near the delivery address in our 1200-page national directory, calling it with my snazzy headset, and placing the order my damn self.

Sounds simple enough, but, as it turned out, the Holiday Helper learning curve is quite steep. In the first 20 minutes I learned, among other things, that most flower shops in small towns are owned by middle-aged women; florists right before Motherís Day donít necessarily want more orders coming in; middle-aged women in small towns can be surprisingly surly.

It was 7:25 a.m. and already clear that rock bottom would be a constantly downward-moving reference point for me this week.

For each order I had to call in, I also got to read the personal message accompanying the flowers. The majority of these messages underscored the banality of Motherís Day with the kind of generic, heartless greetings youíd expect from a Hallmark holiday. Happy Motherís Day. Love, Jon and Jane. And God forbid you waste any creative energy on your mother at all, the system also provided pre-written sentiments people could choose from. A hug, a kiss, and all the best this Motherís Day was the perennial favorite. But when people branched out on their own, things got much more interesting. Happy Motherís Day. Love you but donít understand you. Love, Eliza and Todd. Then there was Hope your day is filled with love and joy. Wish I was there!, which seemed innocuous enough until I realized the order was placed in California and addressed to Shady Side Retirement home, in South Dakota. I couldnít decide if this was brilliantly cruel mockery of an evil parent, or just sadly miscalculated.

Delivery addresses proved instructive, as well. For example, when the order was going to "the trailer in front of the fire hydrant," I knew it was going to be a long call. Also, I learned a frighteningly large number of people refer to their mothers as "Meemaw." But as the day wore on, the novelty of parental neglect, familial dysfunction, and unfortunate housing arrangements wore off.

I remember that in high school, most of the people who worked at McDonaldís never ate there again. The effect here was similar. Processing mass quantities of obligatory affection is not good for the soul. Now the thought of using flowers to express sentiment seems about as charming to me as eating a Big Mac probably does to someone whoís just finished reading Fast Food Nation. Not that Iíve soured on Motherís Day altogether; Iím just saying Mom shouldnít be expecting a giant "Worldís Greatest" bouquet anytime soon. Iím going to stick to the old-fashioned way of showing affection: paying my sister to go shopping for me.

Alan Olifson, who can be reached at alan@olifson.com, wishes his Meemaw a very happy Motherís Day.


Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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