Come ice or come sleet, on Valentine's Day, florists conquer all
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Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Carol Bakin, center, of Parkway Florist, checks Valentine's Day orders as they are being sorted for other florists to pickup and deliver in their areas. Drivers from 42 Pittsburgh-area florists gather at a building in Pittsburgh's Strip District to exchange flower orders for delivery at midday on Valentine's Day, their busiest day of the year.
On a day when timing was everything and roads were nothing, Cheryl Bakin was everywhere.
Sliding her flower delivery van sideways down a vertical street, steering wheel in one hand, cell phone in the other, she negotiated her latest flower sale with the guy who plows her driveway. Seems everyone wants to be someone's Valentine.
"Do you want me to put a rose in there?" she asked. "I can get something nice put together for you."
Dennis B. Roddy travels the Valentine's Day beat with florist Cheryl Bakin.
Before she reached her shop, the deal was sealed. That delivery would come later. Mrs. Bakin, who runs Parkway Florist in the West End, had miles to drive, dozens of bouquets, bundles, vases, long boxes and even the occasional fruit basket, to get to doorways, offices, hospital rooms, living rooms and even a day-care center.
Valentine's Day flowers only get that name by being there on that one day of the year. A day early, and you look too eager. A day late and you look for a good attorney.
"Everybody has a sweetheart and everybody wants their package delivered on Feb. 14," she said.
Valentine's Day is the biggest, single delivery day for florists. Christmas and Mother's Day might surpass in volume, but Christmas deliveries stretch over two and three weeks. Mother's Day deliveries have a four-day period in which to operate.
Valentine's Day might be about love, but it doesn't forgive. It's Feb. 14 or just forward the posies on to the appropriate funeral home.
"We will probably deliver close to 4,000 to 5,000 packages minimum. These are all Valentine's flowers," Mrs. Bakin said as she lugged 50-pound bags of rock salt to toss into the back of her Chevy van. "In the winter, this just becomes a great, big sled."
On a day when schools closed, driveways froze, even rail traffic stopped at points along the Port Authority system, how were mere florists to manage?
"We start early, number one," she said. And they keep going.
Some drivers were on the road at 5 a.m. First stops were hospitals, bringing cheers to laid-up lovers.
"The hospitals are never closed," explained one.
Second round was offices. Throughout yesterday morning, Mrs. Bakin, a diminutive woman with a degree in business and the skills of a stunt driver, slipped, slid and sloshed across the South Hills putting flowers on empty desks. The intended recipients hadn't made it yet. But she had.
So Lauren Markulin had something waiting for her atop her desk at Stern Advertising in Foster Plaza.
"Aw, she's not here," Mrs. Bakin said. "So we'll just leave her a little present."
That scene, which transformed Mrs. Bakin from Cupid to cat burglar, was repeated on a Valentine's Day when traffic snarled, schools closed, and sidewalks and streets were piled with snow, ice, slush and stuck cars.
At least this delivery would have a happy ending. Not all do.
Mrs. Bakin recalled the time a few years back when she got Valentine orders from a man who sent them to three different women: his wife and two neighbors. Turns out the neighbors were girlfriends.
"Of course, the rule is if someone's not home, you try to get a neighbor to take the package. The wife and one of the girlfriends were not home," she said. "The second girlfriend agreed to accept all three packages."
Then the second girlfriend called the first girlfriend and the soon-to-be ex-wife to come pick up their Valentines.
Yesterday, receptionists apologized and signed for flowers. Doormen watched and wondered how this diminutive woman with the soft voice wheeled a full-sized van into parking lots yearning for a snow plow.
At midday, she reconnoitered with 41 other businesses in a block warehouse on Penn Avenue in the Strip District. This was the nerve center of yesterday's logistical wonder: Flowers Inc.
It's a cooperative that was started in 1973 when gasoline prices spiked to an unbelievable 50 cents a gallon. It began with six florists who met in the city, switched off deliveries to regions each would pick up, saving transportation costs and keeping some of them in business.
Flowers Inc. grew over the years, merged into another co-op and yesterday, it resembled a bazaar through which delivery vans happened to barrel.
"This is the busiest day of the year. It's hard, I'll tell you it's very hard," said Herman J. Heyl, one of the founding members of Flowers Inc.
Yesterday morning, some florists, Mr. Heyl included, had to stop new orders. Drivers -- often seasonal help -- couldn't get out of their own driveways.
"We'll get 'em out," Mr. Heyl reassured people. "We all pitch in."
At the nerve center of the warehouse stood Ed Thiry, a cragged retiree from the railroads. His comments were these: "Keep 'em movin,'" and "move it, buddy.'"
Mr. Thiry retired some time ago from a small railroad. If he can't run the trains on time anymore, he managed to keep delivery vans whizzing by as they stopped, loaded up numbered tables-full of bouquets, and vanished into the arctic regions of love.
"I just keep yellin,'" he explained.
The tables -- crudely made, unpainted wooden affairs with upper shelves to handle any overflow -- were numbered according to zone. Zone 1 was Downtown. A lot of people send their flowers to someone's office for what Mrs. Bakin calls the "awe effect." No use impressing a woman if you can't do it in front of her coworkers.
Zone 42, somewhere out in the fringes, is an older neighborhood. "Not a lot of young, hot lovers there," she said, explaining the sparse table.
Zone 3 is Mount Washington. Yesterday, people were giving a lot of roses.
One table held an entirely horizontal arrangement that consisted of large stalks of wheat with grapes affixed to the middle. Tony Denk, from Brentwood, explained.
"That's for a casket," he said.
That had to get somewhere on time, too.
First Published February 15, 2007 12:00 am