Over one Valentine’s Day season, I found labors of love in a fleeting workplace.
Illustration by Shaun Soman.
In the gap year I spent in Madison after graduating from UW-Madison in May 2018, I worked 11 different jobs in temp, part-time, and full-time capacities.
From summer 2018 to summer 2019, I was a:
Liquor store clerk (mind-numbingly boring)
Wizard World Comic Con booth person (met a giant Totoro)
Door-to-door canvasser for a company contracted by Wisconsin Public Television (lasted one week—worst job ever)
Food runner/busser (no dumbwaiter meant lugging bus tubs up and down three flights of stairs)
Wisconsin History Museum Tour Guide/Gift Shop clerk (a kid tried to sell me a rock once)
Server at a fancy steak house (people ordering $50 steaks well-done)
Server at a sports bar (telling people “No, you cannot shotgun a White Claw”)
Babysitter (loved the kids and the parents)
Freelance writer (I still do this!)
There was one job, though, that stands out from this pile of responsibilities I would fulfill and different masks I would put on, sometimes within the same day. This was the week I spent at George’s Flowers leading up to Valentine’s Day 2019.
George’s, a floral institution on South Park Street since 1984, had posted online for temp workers for the annual Valentine’s mega-rush. I, with nothing better to do during the days aside from a floundering attempt to learn coding, figured, why not?
I was quickly interviewed and hired by Denise, an endlessly cheerful and motivating member of the family that owns and operates George’s. I had no idea what to expect, other than the exhaustion I would face from working nearly 40 hours that week on top of my food-running/bussing job.
It ended up being one of the best weeks of my life. Between the verdant and warm escape it provided from Madison’s harsh winter, the way my fellow temp workers and I were welcomed into the George’s Flowers family, and the taste I got of actually working a craft instead of some job, I look back on that week with a full heart and a deep longing to go back.
During my time there, my favorite task was making loose-wrapped bouquets (meaning wrapping them together with paper rather than arranging them in a vase) out of 24 different flowers. As I worked more and more with these flowers and got to know their peculiarities, my experiences and the people at George’s began to blend with the sensations those flowers invoked. Now looking back, those same flowers help me sort and arrange the different ways that my time as a temporary florist impacted me.
Daisy pomps: cheap, useful and vibrant
Daisy pomps were among students’ favorites. Their rich and varied colors, voluminous bunches, and cheap price made for excellent and affordable bouquets. They’re the flowers that remind me the most of my fellow temps.
Though all of us Valentine’s rush reinforcements were roughly the same age, we were at extremely different places in our lives. They were (to the best of my recollection), Jeanette, a second-year UW student in Genetics and Genomics, Jacob, a recently graduated or soon-to-be graduating accounting student. And Grace was just finishing up at UW’s law school.
When we met for the first time, we didn’t have time to be awkward strangers, as we were immediately thrust into a floral crash course. On our first day, we learned all the basics, ranging from the loose-wrapping technique to the checkout system to balloon inflation. Though we took vastly different paths both before arriving at George’s and after, we were united that week and quickly figured out that the key to our individual successes would be our ability to work together as a team. Though our trust in each other was built out of necessity, it evolved into something personal as well as professional.
As our guards lowered, we began to open up to each other about our relationships, our families, our uncertainties about the future, and the things we were sure about in the present. We found that, like daisy pomps of different hues, we were very different in some ways, but fundamentally the same in others. Some of us were single. Some were planning to propose soon. Some of us were deeply Christian and some of us (OK, this was me) were really into astrology. We studied the prices of the flowers together, learned tasks like curling ribbons, gave one another rides, and ate together during our breaks when the schedules lined up.
And though our paths ended up branching apart after this experience, I think we’ll always be linked by it being one of the rare times that we as millennials and Gen Z-ers felt genuinely valued at a job. I think most of the members of my generation are sought after by employers for the same reasons daisy pomps are in bouquets. Our vibrancy and variety make us great public faces for a workplace, and society has sliced the resources we have access to, making our asking price cheap but making us easy to exploit. At George’s, though, we would go on to be treated like our floral counterparts, allowed to bloom and handled with care.
Stock: a sweet and resolute pillar
Stock is a vertical bunched flower with a sweet fragrance, making it a welcome addition to any loose wrap because of the height and dimension it provides. The George’s Flowers family has a lot in common with these flowers. They are literally very closely bunched, but also incredibly welcoming to those outside the family circle.
George’s Flowers is named after the family’s nonagenarian patriarch. And while some businesses and even multinational corporations tout the family-owned business label for good PR, George’s does a better job than most at living up to it. While I was there I met three generations of the family, all connected to the store to some degree.
There’s George himself, who posts up in a corner of the store to help prepare flowers for arrangements and regale patrons and employees alike with stories and advice about life. Then there’s Denise and her brother Conn, who operate the store together. Conn, seemingly always busy managing inventory and deliveries, shares his sister’s eager positivity. Then, some of their kids, college and high-school-aged, work at the store as well. Yet more family members came back to help out for the beast that is Valentine’s Day.
The family dynamic creates the foundation of the shop, and with that comes long-term workers who aren’t actual relations. While there, I met designers who’ve worked there for decades, as well as regular people who take on Valentine’s work every year because they actually enjoy working the seasonal rush
Upon entering this dynamic, I was at first incredulous. All of my work experiences to this point had been unremarkable at best or terrible at worst. The idea of someone going back to help out at my old restaurant job during an extremely busy period—like UW graduation or New Year’s Eve—would be conceivable only as punishment for some high crime, thanks to rigor of the job and the pitch-perfect expectations that were placed on us.
The work at George’s was a large task as well. I barely ever had idle hands, as there was always something to do, whether it was helping a customer, primping flowers, or answering the phones to take orders. Still, as the days went on at the flower shop, I began to notice small things that made a world of difference. My co-workers asked me questions about my life and what I was doing there, showing sincere interest.
Loran, Denise’s college-aged daughter, was like a cool cousin to all of us, always eager to share stories—about the time she met Cher, or the activities she was doing in the Gender & Sexuality class she was taking at the time. People brought in fresh-baked cookies and some of the most delicious spring rolls I’ve ever had, as if the shop were a family potluck. And, when some of the designers complimented me on my ability to sell flowers on the phone, it was like getting a word of approval from a cadre of very cool aunts.
We also shared some truly memorable bonding moments, like trudging through a blizzard to arrive to work on time, the time five of us worked together to convince a buyer that the whole “Secret Admirer Anonymity” thing can appear a bit creepy outside of movies, and staying open for five minutes past closing time on Valentine’s Day to allow a poor planner to get flowers.
In today’s working world, businesses will use a “family-like” brand to goad their workers into sacrificing their time, pay, and well-being for the company, while at the same time allowing their customers to buy from them in good faith. George’s felt like one of those rare workplaces where family is integral, and it extends to anyone who enters the store, however briefly.
Sunflowers: a crown of pride
One of the only flowers I knew before working with flowers, sunflowers needn’t an introduction. I didn’t get to use them much. I’m speaking from still-limited experience here, but I think it’s because their gaudiness makes it a bit difficult to stand next to other flowers. In a bouquet, I found, people want each flower to sing together, not play backup to a star.
Still, in the time I spent at George’s I developed a sense of individuality and pride. At all my other jobs, I’ve been expected to either do a ton (food service) or practically nothing (liquor store clerk). Either way, the actions I performed hinged not on skill or self-expression but rather on basic capability. If you can do it, you’re fine, and if not, learn quickly. I was castigated for messing up, and almost never lauded for doing a really good job. Even as a server, whatever energy I threw into winning over customers felt cheap and stress-inducing, because if I didn’t do it I would miss out on lots of tips.
George’s also expected me to learn fast, but the difference was that skill and self-expression were celebrated. The temps and our year-round colleagues made a habit of praising and encouraging each other. We also were better connected to the impact of our efforts. Tasks that proved impossible at first—gauging the amount of gift-wrapping paper and cutting it quickly and cleanly, selling bouquets to inquirers skeptical about how the price of something that grows from the ground could be so expensive, and curling ribbon—quickly became second nature, due to the encouragement we temps received both from the staff and customers.
While it should be noted that curling ribbon proved difficult only for me, my overall improvement became a source of pride at a time in my life when pride was very hard to come by, given my state of post-grad rootlessness. It also served as a direct contrast to the myriad forms degradation I occasionally faced at my other jobs: Being expected (until it was cancelled) to work a food-running shift during the polar vortex, interrupting people’s dinners to plead with them about the importance of sustaining programs like Antiques Roadshow, or experiencing borderline sexual harassment from a fellow restaurant employee.
For my fellow temp Jeanette, who has since transitioned to a steadier gig at George’s and is coming up on a full year of working there, the sense of pride has only grown stronger. On a recent phone call, she told me that when she takes a phone order for a custom bouquet, she tries her best to take down every last detail, ranging from the flower preferences to the backstory of the order. As a busy student, she even considers George’s a reprieve from her genetics studies. She can put her creativity to good use and know that her fellow employees will greet her with care and consideration.
When skills are put to use, when you are fairly compensated, and when you actually witness how your work impacts people, it’s possible to find pleasure in a hard day’s work. Improvement becomes a source of pride, rather than just a route to a paycheck. Though I was at the flower shop for just a week, I caught a glimpse of what it was like to have a vocation, rather than merely a job. In our capitalist society, too often we are forced to construct our personalities around our professions, lest we risk coming across as a dispassionate employee. Still, at George’s I found that in the right climate, pride in one’s profession can grow and even blossom organically, especially when I completed my first (and only) arranged bouquet.
Roses: the classic, but cliché
I was sick of roses after my time at George’s concluded. Like florists everywhere, George’s workers go into overdrive around Valentine’s Day to meet the demand for these petaled clichés. This entails, in part, creating hundreds if not thousands of dozen-rose bouquets and tucking them away in every corner of the store’s giant coolers. As temps, one of our contributions to this cause was plucking roses of any unnecessary petals from the head—a tedious task, but one that provides plenty of room to chit-chat, as well as the occasional prick from a thorn.
It seemed passé to buy roses, especially red ones, for someone on Valentine’s Day. As I became better acquainted with the breadth of flowers available—luminous birds of paradise, quirky fuji mums, or the luscious pink mink proteas—I only became more convinced that the whole red-rose thing is a bit overdone. Even within the rose ranks, there are better options, like tantalizing cherry brandies, which quickly became my favorites but always took a backseat to their red siblings.
Still, for whatever reason, red roses are one of the primary ways we decided we should express our love in material form. By playing a menial role in that process, I began to see the power of these prosaic gifts.
One experience on the phone I had was with a middle-aged man buying an arrangement of two dozen roses for his mother. He didn’t state this directly, but I got the sense that the mom had maybe recently lost her partner or someone close. During the call he became audibly choked up and repeatedly emphasized the importance of letting his mother know that he and his siblings care about her on that day.
Another man called to buy flowers for his girlfriend, with only the requirement that they really blow her away. In my moment to think of a recommendation, I suggested the two-dozen red roses arrangement because, even if it’s not my favorite, it’s a classic and comes with a glass vase I liked. The customer ordered them sight unseen. I’d thought that would conclude our correspondence, but he insisted on staying on the line with me so he could look up the arrangement on the shop’s website. His excitement at the prospect of his girlfriend coming home from class on Valentine’s Day and being handed the bombastic arrangement moved me deeply.
Roses on Valentine’s Day, and Valentine’s Day itself, may be a social construct, but I realized they are also vessels for the love and care people feel for their intended recipients. While the choice of vessel might seem arbitrary, forced and warped by consumer capitalism, the emotions behind the giving have deep roots.
We tend to think of love as something that is unflinchingly forever. Till’ death do us part, and all that jazz. Cut flowers, in their quickly-encroaching mortality, seem almost an antithetical choice to that notion. There is even a great bit in which comedian Demetri Martin argues that flowers are more suitable gifts for one’s enemies. You could give your enemy a bouquet, Martin says, and add a threat like “You’re next!”
Maybe, though, flowers are not solely an arbitrary symbol for love or even an antithetical one. Perhaps the temporariness of flowers can represent not one’s love for another in its entire span, but rather as a snapshot of someone’s love in the form it takes in that moment. The love that flowers connote in their brief lives, but also in their rich variety, is not one that is fixed, but rather fluid, amorphous. It can only be captured in cross-sections.
Stargazer lilies: precious, beautiful and delicate
One of the most expensive flowers I handled at the shop, the stargazer lily is a gorgeous study in contrast—the edges of the petals are pure white, and the core is vibrant pink. Loose-wrapping them requires utmost care.
If you squeeze the petals too tightly between other flowers or with the gift-wrapping paper, they will become damaged and sulk, as if disappointed you did not properly appreciate their beauty. I only had to loose-wrap them a few times, but I was stricken with fear at the prospect of damaging them.
It’s a fear I have with happy memories, too. Sometimes I’m afraid if I think about them too much, trying to remember every beautiful detail, those memories will lose their lustre. But over that week I gained confidence with the fragile flowers, and over time I’ve found that memories are resilient and ever-unfolding. Traversing into the core of a memory can reveal a wonderful nexus of colors and details, filled with sensation and feeling that I never knew my mind had stored.
Like flowers on Valentine’s Day, the power of these memories comes not from the literal details but from the sentiments and sensations they represent. For me, they’ll always be a reminder of how good work can be, when it takes place in an environment of care and respect.