When I was a young woman, on my own for the first time, I struggled financially, like we all do when starting out. To make extra cash, on the weekends, I sold flowers in the bars and taverns of St. Pete and Tampa.
There was one bar on my route called The Salt-N-Peppa. It was really just a brothel, posing as a bar.
It was a seedy little place in a bad part of town. A tiny doorway, hidden in a long row of dismal gray storefronts led into the long, dark, shotgun style room. A big black woman sat at the entrance like a disimpassioned Buddha, checking I.D.’s, and refusing admittance to anyone who smelled of suspicion.
“Here’s the deal girly; I let you sell your flowers in my place, and you cut me 10%.”
Night after night, I would enter the dank smoky room, and walk up the aisle, slowly offering my wares to the nameless shadows in the booths. Sales were always low. The johns knew the price of lady favor, and the women, well; they were working girls, more interested in putting money in their own pockets, not mine.
One night, after a particularly dismal string of bad luck, I entered the bar, feelin’ mighty low. The madam picked up on it immediately. It was her stock in trade, you know. Her antennae could sense a desperate woman from a mile away.
“Sit down here next to me sweetie. Take a load off. You look hungry. Jack, get this girl a BLT and a beer. When’s the last time you ate?”
“Um, day before yesterday, I think. A Boloney Sandwich. And some oranges. There’s an orange tree in the trailer park, but they’re mostly rotted this time of year.”
I ate gratefully while she prodded, and listened, and nodded and cooed, like a gentle ol mammy, just willing me to fall into her bosom for refuge.
I won’t lie, and say I did not consider her offer. I did. I was dirt poor, desperate, and scrounging for meals like a stray dog on the street. But I knew in my heart, that hunger was nothing compared to the hollow look in the eyes of her stable girls. I thanked her for her kindness, and politely declined, as I picked every last crumb off the plate. She told me her offer would always be open, should I ever change my mind.
With that, I got up to sell my wares.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her tap the side of her nose, like old Saint Nick, in secret signal to her ladies.
Then, something amazing happened. As I walked the aisle, each one of the girls began to gyrate and wiggle and coo at their Johns.
“Ohh baby, buy me some of those pretty flowers…”
“I’ll make you SOOO happy if you get me some of those.”
“Come on darling, just a little sweetness for your sweetie…”
By the time I reached the back of the room, my box was empty. I was so moved, I began to cry. I saw the madam smile and beckon me to the front. I took a deep breath, and began walking with tears streaming down my cheeks. As I did, the girls started putting the roses back in my box one by one, with knowing smiles, and pats on my back.
When I got to the front of the bar and faced the madam, my box full to the brim, I set the roses down, to settle up.
“You keep it honey. A little gift from the girls.”
I melted into her arms, hugging her hard, crying “Thank you, Thank you so much. Ya-all are the kindest people I have ever met. I’ll pay you back, I promise.”
“You can pay us all back by getting on out of here…and don’t never come back.”
I nodded, knowing exactly what she meant.
I handed her a dozen of my best red roses, kissed her on the cheek, and walked out into the steamy darkness, of the dim lit streets, never to return.