One-Dollar Roses

December 10th, 2010 by Danielle Ofri

A personal reflection on how the daily interactions that seem the most insignificant can keep us connected to the broader world.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

“One-dollar roses?” She says it with a slight inflection at the end, so that it sounds like a question.

“One-dollar roses?” There is a waif-like tenderness to her throaty voice. Is she a shrewd businesswoman, or is that just the way she speaks?  Either way, you can’t help but look at her.  It would be rude not to, in the face of such polite inquiry.  Every day when I leave the hospital where I work she is parked outside the entranceway.

“One-dollar roses?” 

She is holding three roses, each individually wrapped in clear cellophane, each with a tiny, festively colored teddy bear clipped onto the stem.  Who could not be tempted by the thought of a rose and a teddy bear for a mere dollar?  A romantic bargain.

I have never witnessed anyone actually purchase a rose from her.  But she holds court each day under the awning, three roses in her hand, a shopping bag with more roses tucked between her feet.  Long, gray hair in a loose ponytail hangs down the back of her threadbare trench coat.  The coat strikes me as overly formal, given the sweat pants and scuffed sneakers that peek out from underneath.  But I fantasize that she had a proper upbringing and would only conduct business with proper dress and speech.  She would never holler, “One-dolla, one-dolla, one-dolla, check ‘em out,” as some of the other vendors on the sidewalk do. 

“One-dollar roses?” she asks, every day as I leave the clinic.

Her question is genteel and correctly inflected upwards.  It pains me to leave a question unanswered.  It feels rude, as though I’m rebuffing her personally. 

One day I did turn my head, unable to resist any longer the sound of her up-cadenced query.  She seized my gaze and waved the teddy bear-laden roses seductively before me.  I was caught in a conversation and now it would indeed be rude to walk away.

“Those are one dollar?” I asked.

“No, these are three dollars.”  Then she pointed downward to the plain, unadorned roses that were sequestered in the battered shopping bag at her feet.  “Those are one-dollar,” she said, with a tinge of condescension in her voice.

I didn’t want a rose.  I didn’t want a baby-blue teddy bear.  And I didn’t want to pay three dollars for both.  All I had wanted was to be polite and answer the question she plied me with daily.

Her face was lined, but not enough to erase a handsomeness of feature.  Skin tanned from too much time outdoors.  Her gray eyes held mine.  It was my turn to speak, after all.

Was she being an engaging conversant or a savvy businesswoman? 

Behind me crowds of employees and patients were streaming from the door toward the street.  Snippets of Spanish, Bengali, Mandarin and Tagalog wafted by.  Threaded together by fragments of dialogue, filtered through so many cultures, our little spot on First Avenue was linked to a teeming world of multilingual conversation.

I fished around in my pocket and found a single crumpled dollar.  I smiled at her and said, “Okay.  I’ll take a rose.  But I want a one-dollar rose.”

She wrinkled her brow and hesitated before reaching down for one of the unfortunate, unadorned flowers.  “Are you sure now?”  she asked, with her distinctive upward inflection.

A question that demanded an answer.  “Yes, I’m sure.  I’ll take a one-dollar rose.”

She pulled out the rose and traded it for my bill.  “Thanks,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said.  “Have a nice day.”  Her declarative cadenced downward, stamping a definitive end to our conversation.

I grasped my rose and slipped back into the polyglot river pouring out of the hospital.  I felt like a full-fledged participant, having engaged in and completed a full conversation.  I somehow assumed the rose-seller would be equally satisfied, now that someone had allowed her a complete discourse.  But she was a businesswoman first and a conversant second, and nary a moment had passed before I heard her plaintive question again, and again – “One dollar roses?” – as I was buoyed out to the curb by the linguistic tangle of human connections.

Danielle Ofri is an internist at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, and editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her most recent book, “Medicine in Translation: Journeys with My Patients,” is about the care of immigrants and Americans in the U.S. health care system.