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By MARY ANNE DONOVAN
A day spent traveling with a floral delivery person is an anthropologist’s delight. It means laying witness to some of life’s major passages: births, deaths, graduations, weddings. Betsy, a delivery person with Arena’s Florist Inc. for 11 years, takes the personal passages of her customers very seriously. “I bawled like a baby,” she says of the Scottish wedding complete with bagpipes and kilts she serviced recently. “It was so beautiful. This is a serious business, and I don’t take it lightly.”
Known around town as the florist for the rich and the famous, Arena’s indeed on a recent day made deliveries to any number of upscale addresses. But there were the not-so-upscale addresses, too, which, Betsy admits, usually house the biggest tippers.
The day I spend with Betsy begins in the delivery area of the Arena’s shop on East Avenue. Dressed in an Arena’s T-shirt, hair neatly tucked into a bun, she scurries around getting her orders together for the first run of the day: several floral arrangements and a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses with baby’s breath. In addition, she explains, we are going to stop to pick up containers from a weekend wedding.
She loads the cargo into the back of the Arena’s van, taking care to properly ensconce each arrangement in special Styrofoam racks.
“The stress in this job is the time element,” Betsy says as we drive off. “You get orders where someone’s taking Aunt Fanny out at noon, so we have to be there before then.”
Betsy stresses that everyone–from the person who takes the order over the phone to the floral designer to the delivery dispatcher to the driver–has to work as a team in order to deliver the order on time.
Does she enjoy her job? On this bright, warm, summerlike day, the answer isn’t hard to guess: “Baby–on a day like today I’m not sitting behind a desk.”
OK, but how about in January and February when the roads are covered with ice and snow blows in relentlessly off the lake? She admits these months are harder and require a different routine, including double- or even triple-wrapping arrangements; leaving the delivery in the van while making sure someone is home; and being more careful driving.
This is Betsy’s second floral job. In her previous position, her employer was a member of a local delivery pool, where each day drivers from member florists met at noontime to swap deliveries based on route proximity. But Charles Arena would never allow anyone but his own employees to make deliveries to his customers, she says.
“It doesn’t matter who you are–he runs a service-oriented business.”
Why did Betsy decide to go the floral- delivery route?
A former state Department of Motor Vehicles employee, she says that while driving home from work one day in her then-characteristically miserable mood, she saw a woman driving a delivery van for a florist, pounded on the steering wheel and screamed, “I want your job.”
Two weeks later she saw an ad in the paper.
Our first stop is a house in a modest Brighton neighborhood. No one answers the doorbell.
“Now we go try and find a neighbor,” Betsy says. But just then a car makes a sharp turn into the driveway. Out pops a gray-haired woman who claims proudly that this is her 70-something birthday and that the flowers are from her daughter in New York City.
What’s the most unusual order/delivery she’s ever had? Betsy tells the story of the husband who ordered a delivery for his wife for their anniversary–every hour, on the hour–first one rose, then two, then three, all the way up to the number of years they were married. I wince when she adds that the minimum delivery charge was $25.
Our second delivery is on a peaceful Penfield street. Betsy asks me how many people get paid for driving around looking at pretty yards and houses. “Not that I’m going to get rich doing this,” she continues, adding that like many floral delivery people, this is not her only job.
We pull into the driveway of the next address, and once again Betsy checks the delivery sheet to ensure she knows the recipient’s name.
“I’m a detail person,” she explains. “I try to be professional. When they open the door, I want to be able to say the name correctly.”
Off to our third stop–to pick up vases and pedestals from the weekend wedding. We turn into a winding driveway that leads to a tony-looking house where we are greeted at the door by a cocker spaniel wagging its tail. Betsy is thrilled to meet “Shelby,” as the owner proudly introduces her dog.
“Charles teases me,” she says. “He says I know my customers not by name, not by address, but by animal. You know, “the people that have the collie with the red collar?”’
But her encounters with animals haven’t always been so pleasant. Betsy tells about the time the shop received an order from a man who said he was calling from a cellular phone while in an airplane flying over Alaska. When she saw the intended address, in one of the city’s scarier neighborhoods, her intuition told her that something wasn’t right. But she forged ahead, despite a growing fear.
At last, she pulled into the driveway of the designated home.
“All the curtains are closed, the music is blaring, there are two dogs across the street, and the house I’m going to has a sign saying, “Beware of the dog,”’ Betsy says. “I ring the bell, the music shuts off, the back door opens and out comes this pit bull.”
With careful, deliberate movement and lots of “nice puppys,” she safely made her way back into the van.
Our next stop is supposed to be on East Avenue, but it turns out to be what Betsy calls an “unaddress.” She pulls the phone book out from under the passenger front seat but can’t find a listing for the name on the delivery card.
Then it’s back to the shop, where Betsy settles paperwork on the pickup and tries to track down the recipient at the “unaddress.” She can’t locate an alternate address, but leaves a message on the answering machine.
In addition to deliveries, Betsy can spend an entire day tending to a wedding, doing everything from delivering the flowers to sprucing up veils and table arrangements.
“I love weddings. I meet nice people and have a good time. It makes me feel good because I can help somebody,” she says.
Our afternoon is spent making four more deliveries. One arrangement makes its way to the owner of a small boutique in Pittsford, another to a nice woman in Penfield. Then it’s back to Brighton to find no one home at an opulent residence, and on to have a door shut in our faces at an equally impressive house in the same town.
I find that at the end of this day, I’m exhausted. It’s a feeling Betsy knows well.
“My mother wants me to go out with her when I get home from work,” she sighs, “and doesn’t understand why I’m so tired.”
Mary Anne Donovan is a Rochester-area free-lance writer.