With a steady gaze, Florencia Cedillo cups a rose between her palms and plucks off the bud’s wilted outer layers. The discarded petals drift to the ground, polka-dotting the cement floor below.
“The little one loves flowers,” she says in Spanish, motioning to one of her five daughters, Isabel, 3, who is rolling about on the floor, fiddling with tired dolls.
Cedillo, 35, has been selling flowers in and around Bushwick, Brooklyn, since she first moved to the city from Puebla, Mexico, nearly 20 years ago. While she began peddling bouquets from a shopping cart, she’s since been able to rent a small shop from where she operates.
“My mother-in-law invented the carts. Before, nobody sold flowers like that,” Cedillo says. Her mother-in-law already sold flowers when Cedillo arrived in this country in 1994 and taught her how to prepare her own bouquets.
Cedillo splays dozens of tropical-colored margaritas across a smudged glass table. Her shop is the base of a modest fleet of four shopping carts that she pays willing friends and neighbors to push to different locations. On Fridays and weekends she too goes out to sell in the streets.
“It’s not hard work for me; I love my job,” she says.
It’s a humble plywood construction, built in the backyard of an adjacent building, that Florencia’s Flower Shop calls home. Outside, wooden shelves are stacked with small pots of herbs, succulents and leafy-green house plants.
Inside, plastic bouquet-stuffed buckets checker the ground. Ornate statues of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, and Virgin Mary adorn a corner table.
The shop faces Myrtle Avenue, and every so often, the cranky M-train rattles past on the tracks overhead.
On an average day Cedillo says that each carts brings in around $100. That’s not counting the cost of the flowers, what she pays in rent for the shop, or the 35 percent of sales that she gives to the vendor.
“Algo a nada,” she Cedillo says, meaning ‘something is better than nothing’. “I go out even if I’ll only sell $30 or $40. If I’m at cooped up at home, who’s going to give us money to eat? No one.”
Since 9/11, Florencia says that business has plummeted. Before, she and her husband were able to scrape and save enough to finish the construction of a house in Puebla that awaits their return. Things are different now.
“We just make enough to pay off expenses and to eat,” she says.
It doesn’t help that there are far more flower sellers than when she began over a decade ago.
“Before it was like eating a piece of bread between two or three people. Now its like sharing bread between 10 or 15,” Cedillo says. “We have to eat a cachitos [bit by bit].”
On Sundays, Cedillo’s shop, where she also sells plants and flowers, bubbles with helpers and visitors. Espíritu, 17, Cedillo’s oldest daughter, assembles multi-colored bouquets. Ismael, 37, her husband, clips rose stems outside. A neighbor, Felix Mercado, 55, dabbles between cracking jokes for the adults and entertaining Isabel on the sidewalk in front of the shop.
Ismael, who works in construction and helps out at the flower shop when he can, looks up from a fistful of roses.
“We got married but her father didn’t want to give her to me. ‘Don’t take my daughter,’” he says, mimicking his father-in-law. He and Florencia giggle.
By late morning, the day’s bouquets are ready. Florencia has already sent off two other carts and begins preparing her own; splashing water into the buckets and selecting an array of bouquets to bring.
She mumbles goodbye to those gathered, buttons her coat, and sets out, wheeling her heavy load out into the street. Fortunately, this leg of the journey is downhill, and within 15 minutes she stations her cart on a bustling corner on the border of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where a hospital, a subway stop and a bounty of stores promise healthy foot traffic.
Cedillo is one of what the Street Vendors Project estimates are 20,000 some-odd street vendors throughout New York City selling everything from food, to clothing to household goods. The number is hard to gauge, seeing as many vendors don’t have permits or licenses.
“She has no way to get a license unless she happens to be a veteran. Or if she waits on the waiting list for 30 years, then she’ll get one,” said Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendors Project, an nonprofit that advocates for street vendors in New York City. “The City Council has a cap on the number of general vending licenses. They capped that number in the very early ’80s and never increased it.”
Cedillo has had her share of run-ins with the police, but for the most part she is able to sell her flowers in peace. And now that she doesn’t work in the street full time, she welcomes the change of pace it provides.
“Because I work seven days a week, when I come here, in the three days that I come, it’s like I’m getting out to relax,” Cedillo says of the days she takes out the cart.
Today however, she’s forgotten her stool to sit. She laughs and admits she often does.
The wind comes in bitter and thankless bursts. Cedillo tightens the drawstring on her hoodie and rubs her hands. A vendor nearby brings Cedillo a hot tea; they exchange pleasantries. “Flores, flores” she murmurs as passersby brush past her cart.
She rests her elbows on the cart’s handles. Her eyes drift to the flower cart half a block away, then the bodega across the street selling flowers. From a tote bag she pulls out a worn book of prayers and flips though. Her fingers trace the lines on the page. After a moment, she glances up and smiles.
“As long as God gives us health, everything in life is possible.”