My very first actual paying job was with Kopriver’s Florist, just across Texas Ave (aka Kennedy Ave) from my Thomas Street home. I define Kopriver’s as my first “paying job” due to the fact that I actually received money and, that I had “sorta” worked at BonBon Bakery in the Kroger’s Shopping Center when I was just a kid. My job at BonBon was putting together the white bakery boxes as I would gaze upon the love of my life, Joyce, who worked there. In spite of the fact that she was 15 years older than me, I knew that she would be the girl I would marry, just as soon as I was done with Elementary School, High School and maybe college. I was convinced. The pay for my box making efforts never made it to a W2 since there was no provision on the forms for being paid in baked goods.
By the time I turned 15, I was over my little boy crush and moved forward on building my resume by accepting a position with Kopriver’s. I began working there in the early Spring, just about this time of year, only 45 years ago! Since I wasn’t given an official job title, I created one for myself in order to be able to explain to my family and friends my new career. I decided my title was Kopriver’s official “FBS” – which stands for “Funeral Basket Stuffer.”
As the store’s FBS, my chief responsibility was to assure that the staff that created the funeral basket arrangements always had a supply of prepared containers used to produce the floral masterpieces. My “office” was actually the basement under the florist shop. It was accessible via a rickety set of steps in the far corner of the shop. Since the stairway was so narrow, all of the supplies that I needed were delivered through the former coal delivery access that faced Faulk Alley. Faulk Alley was the first alley that ran parallel to Kennedy Ave as you headed up toward Kopriver’s. My supplies included the white mache baskets, chicken wire, Oasis blocks (basically Styrofoam blocks made to hold water like a sponge) and of course, greenery. The supplies would be tossed into the opening and I would catch them on the way down. Nine times out of ten, the bales of greenery would knock me off balance and I’d teeter a bit and continue to stack what seemed to be a never ending supply of greens.
Although most of my day at work was spent in “the hole” piecing together the arrangement baskets, I had a few other duties. During the day, I would get to climb out of my subterranean world and deal with my greenhouse chores. There were two long greenhouses off of the florist shop. The greenhouse that was on the extreme left as you entered held an array of plants and supplies. This greenhouse’s contents were used primarily for florist shop functions. There was a huge trellis full of a small trumpet-like white wedding flower called “stephanotis.” It arched over the doorway as you entered into the greenhouse, so you were immediately hit with the beautiful fragrance upon entering. The florists that were designing wedding bouquets would pick bunches of these flowers and lovingly incorporate them into the bride’s elaborate bouquets. (I only remember one of the florists that were working there in the 60’s. I believe his name was Harry, a great guy who treated me kindly.) The remainder of that first greenhouse contained assorted supplies, the rows funeral basket containers that I had prepared in my underworld, any overflow of retail plants from the main greenhouse, and a few tropical plants that had grown far to large to sell and had been retired into this pseudo tropical forest to live and grow in the tropical environment.
The most enjoyable part of my work day occurred in the main greenhouse. Just a few weeks after Christmas, the building was transitioned from “Poinsettia Central,” to a sea of Spring and Summer seedlings and cuttings. Through the very watchful eye of the Kopriver’s and their staff, I had responsibility to help nurture these delicate babies through their metamorphosis into beautiful Spring and Summer blooms. Once transformed, Hunky gardens throughout the area became home to those little beauties.
Flower and vegetable gardens around Duquesne began popping up as early as mid-April. Many of the residents who were from “the old country” planted early in spite of possible threat of a freeze. If they would “feel it in their bones” that it might freeze overnight, they would shroud all of the plants in old sheets or anything else they could find that would protect the plants.
Kopriver’s didn’t sell every plant under the sun. There were only a select number of plants that were popular in the Duquesne area when it came to flowers. Their vegetable assortment was much wider since most hunky homes would have their own version of a “Victory Garden,”
The “must have” when it came to flowers were geraniums. I must have watered hundreds and hundreds of them as they awaited their Spring adoption by some loving hunky hands. They have a very distinctive fragrance that even now means “Spring is here” to me. Geraniums would end up brightening the fronts, sides and back yards of homes throughout Duquesne. Somehow, residents were able to produce exceptional growth and constant flowering from them. I recall my “old country” neighbors, Mike and Mary, lovingly tending to all of their flowers on a daily basis, especially their geraniums
Now….what follows might seem like I’m trying to give you a Botany lesson. Actually, I am attempting to perhaps evoke some memories of your parent’s or grandparents Duquesne gardens and their contents. With that said, other flowers that were commonly planted each year in Duquesne were:
Blanket Flowers – also called gaillardia, these bright yellow and orange flowers seemed to last forever. Mike and Mary Kovach were really into these.
Marigolds – I swear that every garden had both geraniums and marigolds in them. My other “old country” neighbors, Adam and Eve Oravich, said that the marigolds dropped their seeds and made them take over the garden. They weren’t fans of the marigold, obviously.
Now, I am sure there were many other flowers that you remember, and I hope that you post a comment and share your memories with us!
In addition to the profuse annual plantings, there were some other flowering shrubs that I remember in Duquesne as well as wildflowers that grew in vacant lots, hillsides and even in cemeteries! The ones I recall are:
Tiger Lilies – I remember seeing tons of these bright orange lilies on the side of roads as we traveled around the area. I especially recall them on River Road, just beyond the Duquesne-McKeesport Bridge heading toward Dravosburg.
Hollyhocks – There was an empty lot on the corner of Mellon Street and Texas Ave. that was a virtual Botany lesson in itself. Hollyhocks grew throughout the lot and always towered over the other weeds, ah, er, plants.
Queen Anne’s Lace – I remember fields and fields of these flowers. They grew wild everywhere. When you would look toward St. Joseph’s Cemetery from Thomas St. it would remind you the field of poppies from the movie, The Wizard of Oz, only white!
Milkweed – Yes, I know it was truly a weed. However, this “weed” was a source of constant entertainment for kids. I remember that if you would break off a leaf, the “sap” was opaque white and sticky. They plant had these really neat pods on them as well. When they first appeared, we’d pull a few off and cut them open with our pocket knives. If they were newer, they would have this seed pod inside that looked like a scaly little white fish. As the pods got a bit older, you could open them and see the seeds and “fur” begin to form. Of course, the most fun came from pods that had just popped open. Before the wind managed to blow away the individual seeds with their white furry parachute, we’d grab the pods and blow like heck and watch the seeds fly off everywhere! Little did we realize that we were contributing to the plants propagation, just like busy little bees.
I’m looking forward to writing about the Hunky vegetable garden. BUT, that’s a whole other story! More later….keep reading my friends!