Did you have shady characters in your hometown with names like, Tommy Bagadonuts and Joe Fruit? I did. In my youth, I was comfortable being under the impression that they were real and unique and living in my native Canarsie. Their names sparked dangerous images and were spoken in whispers. It was assumed they had mob connections…which made them cool. In my late teens, I discovered that these were not real people. Even worse, other Brooklyn neighborhoods boasted their own fictional wiseguys with the same nicknames. Of course once I became more worldly, I found out that these colorful monikers as well as similar ones...were everywhere.
The mystery began to unravel when I turned twenty. That’s when the secret identity of Canarsie hot-shot Joe Vanilla (the Patron Saint of Parking Spaces), was shared with me. How disappointing to find out he worked in an auto parts store, wasn't a criminal and that his real name was neither Joe nor Vanilla.
Once I started piecing other nonsense clues together, I was crushed to find out that overwhelmingly these clever names weren’t even urban legends…they were merely arbitrary names for non-existent people…much like Joe Blow, John Q. Public or Joe Gaboongotz. My fascination took another hit when I figured out that even my parents had their own fictious people like; Moishe Gimple and Chiam Yussel.
At about that time, (1976 at Brooklyn College), I became friends with LTS and we eventually became flea-marketing business partners. LTS was engaged to CM. Through the influence of her father, several months before the wedding, they rented a converted garage (in East Flatbush), as a fixer-upper basement apartment, (on the cheap). Towards the end of her dad's one-man interior restoration project, I volunteered to help LTS with some bull work, in clearing backyard debris.
My end of the project started when another friend dropped me off in Red Hook, at a heavy machinery rental agency. I was told to say, “Johnny Flowers sent me.” At the cash register, the representative never asked me for ID or money…he just handed me the keys to a pick-up truck. I said, “When do you close?” I was impressed by the respect Johnny Flowers' name held when the clerk shrugged, “Bring it back, whenever.”
LTS’s new place, even without furniture, looked surprisingly nice. The earlier descriptions made it sound like a pit. CM was quick to point out that Johnny Flowers, (her dad) paneled the living room, brought the bathroom back from the dead, patched, spackled and caulked a million holes, re-painted the whole place, adjusted the cabinets, installed new rugs and sand-blasted filthy crud from the kitchen appliances. LTS nudged me and whispered loud enough for his fiancé to hear, “Johnny Flowers even helped me sweep-up the silverfish and ants after he detonated the bug bomb.” LTS privately informed me that the insects in question were really water bugs and roaches.
Soon, I was led to the eyesore outback. This colossal junk pile proved to be an all-day, heavy lifting affair. As per Johnny Flowers instructions, LTS and I hauled four truckloads of crap to different dumpsters all over Brooklyn. In twilight LTS mercifully said, “I can get rid of the small shit myself.”
Inside the apartment, I met CM’s father for the first time. In lieu of calling him dad, daddy or father, it was odd that she referred to him as Johnny Flowers...to his face. In the three years that followed, I never found out her dad’s true occupation. Instead, he was a jack-of-all-trades…willing to work hard at anything. Johnny bragged that he owned a part interest in a filling station, a carpet store and the previously mentioned rental agency, (he never said how big...or small those parts were). The one thing he owned outright was a modest hothouse in Bensonhurst, (thus Johnny Flowers).
In the first awkward moments of meeting him, he hardly acknowledged me because he was busy, sitting on the kitchen floor tinkering with a sliver of paneling, a soup tureen, a stick of margarine and a jar of peanut butter.
While the three of us watched in silence, I wondered why his own daughter would call him by his nickname because his first name was Lou and his last name started with “M.”
Johnny Flowers was a youthful forty. At five-foot-six, he was a good-looking man with an upbeat, likeable, yet dopey personality. Later when I suggested that his sturdy physique and overall look made a dead-ringer for Robert Blake…nobody agreed.
|ROBERT BLAKE (1933-PRESENT) STARTED AS A CHILD ACTOR IN THE "OUR GANG COMEDIES," UNDER HIS REAL NAME, MICHAEL "MICKEY" GUBITOSI. INTO THE 1990's, HE WAS A PROMINENT FIXTURE ON THE BIG SCREEN AS WELL AS TV.|
My curiosity went through the roof as Johnny “buttered” the steep inside walls of the soup tureen and used the scrap paneling as a ramp. After he smeared a glob of peanut butter to the bottom of the tureen he exclaimed in a full-blown Brooklyn accent, “Voila, the woild’s best mouse trap! When that rat bastid smells the bait, the stoop-id ass will walk up here and fall down dere." He pointed to the greased sides of the deep bucket, "It’s coitins, I tell ya, coitins.” CM said, “What if I’m home alone when ‘Mickey’ gets caught?” Johnny Flowers said, “Mickey? Dis ain't no pet...it's a friggin' rodent. Jus give him a burial at sea.” CM said, “Heh?” LTS chimed in, “Just flush him…” CM interrupted by wailing, “EWWWWW!” Johnny cut her off, “Well lil’ goil, if yuh doan wanna trow him down da turlet…jus get some aluminum ferl, grab your Mickey up, wrap him in a tight ball and trow him in a plastic bag, then double-bag him in anutha bag. Remember to tie it real good and trow da whole business in da gobbidge." CM shuddered, “The burial at sea suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.” We all laughed.
Two days later, it was no laughing matter when Mickey was caught. I gave Johnny Flowers and his old world mouse remedy a lot of credit. And luckily for CM, LTS had the honor of disposing of the varmint...down da terlet.
LTS was a real go-getter too. He worked three part-time jobs while going to school. He was determined to save for the biggest “getting started” nest egg he could. A couple of nights a week, he was a salesman at a tuxedo store. He also conducted phone surveys in his spare time and on weekends sold (Johnny’s) flowers, ferns and other plants, at the Aqueduct Raceway flea market.
|THE AQUEDUCT FLEA-MARKET, IN SOUTH OZONE PARK, (QUEENS NEW YORK), HAD A THIRTY-PLUS YEAR RUN UNTIL THE TRACK BECAME A CASINO.|
LTS wasn’t making much profit with flowers but didn’t want hurt Johnny by quitting. LTS liked to remind me that Johnny was broke. He even told me twice that his future father-in-law embarrassed CM badly when he sent her a Christmas card to a niece...and crossed-out everything with magic marker and wrote in, Happy Birthday daughter.
Johnny tried to come-off as a big shot because he had a piece of a few businesses but in reality, what he had was a worthless, token taste that bore more responsibility than financial gain. Plus his hothouse was only a hobby. So he over-exaggerated the money that the flowers generated.
LTS's parents were footing the bill for the whole upscale wedding. Johnny was contributing little else than the flowers. CM's mom lived out of state and despite being remarried and living a high life out-of-state, she was attending their shindig strictly as a guest.
A few months before the wedding, LTS and I concocted the idea of a flea market partnership...that still included flowers but concentrated on selling women’s tops. In terms of earning pocket money, we did well. More importantly, it was fun to hang-out together. Our big day was Tuesday. After an executive lunch, we had afternoon buying sprees in the garment district of Manhattan's, Lower Eastside.
One night, I got a call to meet LTS at the tuxedo store. His boss took us to a closet in the far corner of his warehouse, across the street. In this small room, dusty boxes of mint condition, high-end, but out-of-style tuxedo shirts were littered all over the floor, piled on desk tops and stuffed, willy-nilly into broken shelves.
The boss said, “There’s over four-hundred shirts, gimme four bills and they’ll work out to less than a buck-a-pop.” LTS and I conferred. We then made the point that the shirts weren’t going to be easy to sell or else he’d sell them. We made a counter-offer of two-hundred. The boss came down to three-hundred after stating the high quality of the big designer names like, Givenchy, Lion of Troy, After Six and Johnny Carson.
To be respectful of LTS's boss I said, “No thanks. We'd be taking too much of a risk and we have limited space if they don't sell…” The haggling continued until he said, “How about two-fifty and I’ll throw-in fifty, crushed velvet bowties.”
Strangely, our flea market success actually undermined the whole joy being together. To maximize our selling capacity, we split up and worked simultaneously, at two different flea markets. That’s when it became a job and lord knows, I wasn’t ready for that.
One time LTS, CM and Johnny Flowers picked me up at my dad’s gift shop in Bay Ridge. Johnny frequently depended on LTS for transportation because his rusted-out heap (a badly dented, 1974 Ford Elite) was in the shop and he couldn't afford the repairs.
|JOHNNY'S ELITE WAS WHITE WITH A BLACK VINYL ROOF. HE THOUGHT HE STOLE THIS YEAR-OLD BEAUTY FROM THE POLICE AUCTION BUT IT GAVE HIM NOTHING BUT GRIEF.|
Johnny said, “Easter Sunday and Mother’s Day are cumin' up. Ya know, I have guys sellin’ flowers at my gas station, in front of my carpet store and by my rental jernt. Yous get a ton o'traffic goin' by ya father's store...if ya want, I can set ya up wit flowers here next week. Ya only pay for what ya sell…I’ll take everything else back. Ya can’t lose.”
On the way to Johnny's, Johnny had LTS stop on a busy street where Bensonhurst ends and Bath Beach begins. We all followed Johnny down an alley between a Chinese take-out and a shoe store. In the courtyard, surrounded by apartment buildings was Johnny Flowers pride and joy…his little hothouse.
Johnny swept me off my feet. He explained that he’d have his car back and that he'd deliver the flowers and drop by later with more if I needed it. I agreed to do it.
On Easter Sunday, everything Johnny said that would go right…went right. When he dropped by after two hours (11:00AM), I had little left to sell. He re-stocked me and I was incredibly happy with my big, one-day windfall.
My dad’s store was in ethnically diverse Bay Ridge (Brooklyn). He was located across from, *Athena's International Driving School and between a Moroccan coffee house and a huge, two-level, cut-rate mini-department store. My dad referred to the store's owner as Mr. Potter, (as in Lionel Barrymore’s mean-spirited curmudgeon), from 1946’s, “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.”
|LIONEL BARRYMORE (1878-1954), ONE OF THE MOST REKNOWN ACTORS IN MOVIE HISTORY, PLAYED THE DESPICABLE, INVALID VILLAIN, HENRY F. POTTER.|
The next door Potter was an anonymous figure. By remaining in the shadows, my dad only knew this nasty, petty, jerk had a pronounced Scottish accent but never knew for certain who he was. So it’s possible that “Potter” went into John Q. Public, Joe Gaboongotz or Moishe Gimple-mode, pretended to be a potential customer and spied on my father’s tiny store. Thus freeing up this dastardly, Spartan entrepreneur, to adjust his cut-rate prices or bring in new merchandise with the intent of driving dad out of business.
I was naïve and always thought my father was just paranoid until I arrived with Johnny Flowers at dad’s store on Mother’s Day. That money-grubbing weasel must have found-out what I did...and had a bunch of his employees already outside, overseeing an ornate set-up along the curb that included, flowers, plants, candy, balloons, toys etc.
My Easter Sunday bonanza did not repeat itself. I did okay but Johnny didn’t need to replenish my stock…and indeed, he took back loads of things I didn’t sell.
This time around, my profit was only a third of what I made without competition. I whined to Johnny and he shocked me by implying that this Potter...might be better suited to go around the rest of his miserable life, in a wheelchair...like Lionel Barrymore's Potter. My eyes bulged out of my head and I couldn't believe what my ears were hearing. I couldn't tell if he was serious or not but I didn't want to insult him. I wanted it clear that I wasn't putting out hit on someone over a hundred or so dollars. So I said with authority, “That’s okay, I still did pretty good.”
The following Easter, I gave it another try. This time, Potter was more aggressive so that my little lemonade stand was dwarfed and blocked from the view of oncoming traffic by his humongous Coca-Cola-like factory. I worked for minimum wage that day. When Mother’s Day rolled around, I declared my retirement from the flower game.
The next Easter, (1979), I had already moved to Las Vegas.
*In 1984, I returned to New York. The driving school across the street from my father store, (Athena's International Driving School) which had been known by its initials, (AIDS) had a gigantic billboard over the building. In an attempt to save money because of the new context of AIDS, the business changed its name to "The International Driving School, (TIDS). It was funny how they blocked-out certain letters, rather than make a new sign,
In 1991, I was already in Atlantic City when my dad fulfilled the last lease on his store and retired. I haven't been out that way since but I hope that Wal-Mart put the cut-rate mini-department store out of business.
Thanks to FACEBOOK, five years ago, my wife Sue and I had dinner with LTS and his wife. It was a great once in twenty-five year event…my only regret was that when I had LTS alone, I forgot to ask whatever happened to Johnny Flowers. It still bugs me that this nobody, might've had ties to organized crime. Hell, I never expected Robert Blake would ever be tried for murder either. You never know...and maybe, when I was a teenager, it was a good idea afer all, to whisper the names of Joe Fruit and Tommy Bagadonuts?