Roses in an Alley




Some people go to Vegas. I gamble on florists, who must keep their stock impeccably fresh by leaving lovely flowers in the Dumpster for me to find. Tacky, yes. But there is never any goop or crud in their Dumpsters, just lovely long stems, a few slimy or blackened but most still crisp and green, and when the dice roll right, blowsy roses and still-prim carnations at the ends. Or amethyst statice, Peruvian lilies, baby’s breath….

Tonight was a good night: white carnations; hypericum berries; big pointy-petaled white roses; fuller, softer apricot roses; and one pale mauve-pink rose not yet in full bloom. I pluck them out and, clutching my bouquet in one hand and the dog’s lead in the other, head down the alley. Because, although I would defend the rescue of beauty to any court, I do realize I present a ridiculous picture.

Fate twists. I am seen. From across the alley, a young man, perhaps cleaning up after one of the restaurants closes, calls out, “Those are beautiful flowers!”

I dart a sideways glance, like one of those sun-browned, leathery women who keep their stuff in a tired shopping bag and know the world cannot be trusted. Is he mocking me? But no, he has a sweet smile. I begin babbling, explaining how it seemed a shame to leave them in the trash when with a little cool water and perhaps an aspirin, they will be glorious for another week. I leave out the part about deliberately prying open the Dumpster’s flat black rubber lid and peering inside on tiptoe.

Still, my larceny is obvious. Or is it larceny? Does stealing trash count as theft? Does someone’s garbage remain theirs, in the sense of English tort law, until it is collected? Or does it enter a sort of limbo, with a chance for redemption by a stranger? It seems to me that the owner has renounced possession by placing the object in a Dumpster—but it is, after all, their Dumpster, on their property. Was my cheerful trespass neighborly, an act of communal solidarity, or a brazen crime? And if the latter, would it be petty larceny or felony larceny or merely an annoying misdemeanor? Our jurisprudence gauges severity by dollar value, but what is the worth of a half-dead rose? Surely subjective.

Intrigued by the legalities, I look up to see that the young man has crossed to my side of the alley. He grins shyly, then hesitates.

“Could I maybe have one for my girlfriend?”

Tickled, I thrust the bouquet toward him. “Of course! Take whatever you like!” It is so easy to be generous with stolen goods. Robin Hood was less noble than we think.

He takes only the mauve-pink rose. A discriminating taste that his sweaty t-shirt did not suggest, I tell myself—me, the bag lady in the alley. We part, each of us happy. “Tell her to give the stem a fresh cut,” I call.

“I will,” he replies. And somehow I believe him, because he is thoughtful as well as romantic, and free enough with himself to seize a chance in an alley instead of rolling his eyes and then forking over ten bucks for a grocery-store rose. Hold on to this one, I want to tell his girlfriend.

But what do I know? Wary of being judged for my quirky raid, I am now judging someone with whom I have exchanged less than a paragraph of dialogue. Someone whose rap sheet could be far longer than my own.

Yet he is alive to beauty. Eager to please someone he loves. Unashamed of opportunistic bounty and in no need of green tissue paper and a price tag to prove his largesse. I have enjoyed conspiring with him, enjoyed his delight as he disentangled “his” rose from my bouquet.

Soon it will be “her” rose, the fourth owner in a matter of minutes. We stake small claims on the universe every day, gaining and losing and, best of all, giving away the various bits as we go.

In just this spirit, small children weave crowns of dandelions for their mothers. Then they grow up, inheriting a world that says anything worth giving must carry a hefty price tag. That fast, the point becomes the cash value, not the beauty, or the love that brought the recipient to mind, or the impulse that reached out to a stranger to plot a kindness.

In a court of law, should either of us be prosecuted, that single rose’s value will be almost impossible to determine. Purchase price, sale price, depreciation?

They should ask the girlfriend.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.