Since his early twenties, Peter Tsoumas would open his flower kiosk with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and the Greek-American newspaper Ekirikas in the other. A man with a gruff countenance belying a winsome personality, Tsoumas started his business in the late 1960s in Jamaica, Queens, but in 1980 the MTA leased him a nook in the 1st Ave L train station and he has remained there ever since.
“I came in young and I leave an old man,” he told Bedford + Bowery on Monday. After almost half a century of selling flowers to rushing New Yorkers, the Greek native is retiring. Friday will be his last day.
One of his daughters wanted to make a Friday reservation for dinner at Kyclades, the Greek tavern just outside of the train station, to celebrate the date. But Tsoumas said no. “I don’t want my kids to spend money on me. Also, Friday my head is going to be like this,” he said, making a gesture as if it was exploding. He has already started cleaning the shelves from his corner kiosk and the void of the missing objects has been hard on him. As the flowers surrounding him dwindle in numbers—his last purchase was at the beginning of the week—Tsoumas was left reflecting on his memories and his life decisions.
Peter was born Periklís Tsoumas in March of 1948 in the idyllic Western Greek coastal town of Nafpaktos, where young people live a “beautiful life,” in his words, and where Greek mythology says descendants of Hercules built a fleet to invade the Peloponnese.
When he was seven years old, young Tsoumas picked up a book about the US and later that night summarily decided he was going to go to America. His father thought his son had gone mad, but Tsoumas just said, “Yes, I read a book, it says so many nice things.” And so when he turned 20, he traveled to New York. The year of his arrival, he opened the first store in Jamaica and soon after that married his wife, also of Greek descent. “Thank god, I’m happy,” he said.
Although the imminent shutdown of the L train station would have forced Tsoumas to close his shop anyway, he thinks the train repairs came at the right time. “My energy is no good no more,” he said with his heavy Greek accent. “I can’t do it no more, I’m tired.”
Tsoumas remembered that when he first started his business, flower concessions such as Gus Florist, Flowers for all Occasions populated the train stations in the city. Regular folk bought flowers everyday; they “needed” the flowers, he said. Fridays was a particularly good sales day, as were the long dreary days of winter. But now, the money was to be found doing flower arrangements for weddings, funerals or parties, “nothing else.” Tsoumas bemoaned that young people don’t “believe” in flowers anymore and the big retail companies are snuffing out small tradesmen with their wholesale prices.
As we spoke, an elderly woman with big eyes approached the stand and rested her cane against one of the station’s columns as she gazed at the bouquets. Tsoumas came out from behind the flowers and told her he wouldn’t be there next week. “I have bad news, I’m leaving. I’m retiring,” he said, leaning briefly into her.
“Oh, congratulations!” the woman replied and patted him gently on the chest.
“Thank you so much, I appreciate it,” he said.
The gray-haired woman said that she had known Tsoumas for at least 20 years and that whenever she visited the neighborhood she would get flowers from him. She wished him good luck and reminded him to keep doing “something” after retirement.
He nodded, smiling. That is a fear he has: stopping. “If I make it past the first six months I have a long life ahead of me,” he said, sitting back on his black and metal stool. He compared himself to an old car. If you keep it running, it will sputter along. But if you stop the engine, “kaput!” Tsoumas interjected. “But the car goes to the garbage… Me? I go six feet down.”
Cognizant of this, the flower man has his first months of retirement carefully mapped out: on July 6 he travels to his hometown—the place with the long history and crystalline-water beaches. Family members will take turns traveling to meet him at the house he and his wife have there. Tsoumas flies back to New York in September.
The prospect of spending a lot of time with his three granddaughters excites him. “One week, two weeks I stay home and relax. And after that? Tell me,” he asked, shuffling his white tennis shoes back and forth.
He’s thinking that even with the flower concession gone, once a month he might visit the neon-lighted station that provided him with his livelihood so that he can hang around and greet his formerly faithful clientele. One of those customers, a spectacled man clad in elegant wine-colored pants and a vest, approached Tsoumas’ corner.
“Hey Peter, how you feeling, man?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” Tsoumas replied, his squinting face quickly breaking into a beaming smile.
On Friday, Tsoumas will end his professional life giving away whatever flowers he doesn’t sell.