Right after college, a boyfriend hooked me up with one of Manhattan's first star florists. I loved flowers and needed a job and as a favor to him, Carla hired me without even meeting me. Her tiny Upper East side shop was crowded with finches chirping inside faded Victorian cages, Oscar Wilde-worthy ferns, hundreds of paper whites, orchids and tulips, Mozart wafted from unseen speakers.
I was instantly enchanted but the fairy tale setting was soon shattered when Carla - part Blanche du Bois and part Fran Drescher- shouted from the back for someone to answer the god damn phone. I picked it up and gamely exclaimed: "Marla's Flowers! “Toooo nice!” Carla shouted still unseen. “Hello?" purred a girlish yet aristocratic voice on the other end. Carla finally poked her head out of her nest-like office, the stub of a joint clasped between her teeth and gestured asking whom it was.
"Who is calling?" I said in a tone, which I hoped sounded less polite.
"Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis."
I mouthed dramatically who it was and handed Carla the phone but she waved it away and whispered. "Ask her what she wants.” It turned out Jackie wanted some flowers for a party at her apartment but wanted to be sure "it didn't cost more than a car."
Clearly they had history.
It wasn't long before I witnessed why Carla could charge what she did: she could make red carnations look sexy and, with one fell swoop of her sheers, cut thousand dollars of white tulips to the nub, plunking them effortlessly into a vase with a sly grin. “A bouquet is like a home,” she’d say over her blue glasses that swung forgotten on ribbons around her neck. “They should have secrets and mysteries.” We'd jump into the back of a van driven by her model-gorgeous husband and careen up Park Avenue to deliver to some of the poshest addresses in the city. I had never seen apartments like this: they stretched entire floors, had Titantic-sized staircases and were anointed with sumptuous velvets, chintz, tassels like frantic exclamation points, gleaming kitchens bustling with staff and hostesses the size of Twizzlers who greeted us in pressed jeans and Chanel jackets.
We went to Trump Tower once after a woman called - she had a read a profile on Carla in W- and asked if we'd decorate her Christmas tree as a surprise for her husband when he came home from a business trip. I put my hand over the phone and whispered to Carla how much it would be.
“We don't DO Christmas trees!" she puffed back. But the woman wouldn't take no for an answer and so, to get rid of her, Carla quoted me to quote her, $10,000. It was accepted without hesitation. Once the word got out that Carla did trees, the phone didn't stop ringing. We did a tree for a widow on Sutton Place and, as the coup d'etat, wrapped her mink coat around the base. The shop phone kept trilling like one of the finches. "I'm not heeeere!" Carla wailed. We went to a famous philanthropist's apartment and filled it with dozens of arrangements that made the ones at the Metropolitan Museum seem like FTD. I snuck a peek at the place cards in a dining room: "Tina Chow” was seated next to "Nancy Regan." I touched the gilded tip of the chair and imagined it being held for me, while Nancy and Henry jockeyed for me to explain my senior thesis topic one more time. I imagined tucking the napkin the weight of my bedspread onto my lap, gazing at the massive white lilies and being served. But we were ushered away by the butler and down the service elevator we went. The shop van was gunning outside like a getaway car, its exhaust smoke mixing with the joint Carla’s husband already had waiting for her. As we sped away I recognized one of my parents’ friends entering the building. I was about to wave but it was too late. We were off to set up for another party and their evening was just beginning.