The bicycle is his harbinger. Sammy flies the American flag from a three-foot stick duct-taped to his rear basket. We see that flag and know he’s coming. Both the rear and front baskets are interlaced with red, silver, and blue tinsel. By day the baskets may hold lawn-care tools or groceries. At night, they’re filled with flowers.
Sammy is unimposing: few inches shy of six feet, not an ounce of spare flesh on him. He has the sinewy muscle common to laborers, endurance athletes, or users. Leathery dark skin taut over his sharp cheekbones and jaw, teeth set in a slight underbite. Weatherworn fingers, and bony, like they could lick fire from a harmonica. No one can guess his age—forty, fifty maybe. He wears a black leather vest unbuttoned, dark parachute pants, a red bandana around his neck, and a black wide-brimmed hat with Concho buckles about the base—Spaghetti Western meets M.C. Hammer. In winter it’s a black leather jacket and shiny silver slacks.
None of the bar scene regulars mind Sammy at all. Patrons, bouncers, waitresses, managers, owners—we’re all smiles when he walks in. He’s greeted by a handful of revelers wherever he goes, or waved to by the women who have benefitted from his business. Some wonder if he’s homeless, or addicted, or crazy, but all are tolerant of the roaming flower vendor with a benevolent mien. Sammy’s the kindest florist you’ll meet at night.
The city’s various bar managers have never raised a complaint against him. “He doesn’t bother anyone,” they’ll say. “Sammy’s a good guy. He’s respectful to the men, kind to the women. No problem.” Some even refer to him as an institution around here, “Valuable as the Chattanooga Choo-Choo!”
In fact, Sammy is the only nocturnal flower peddler in town, and thus has the monopoly. He simply appeared one year at the town’s tavern doors with flowers in his hands. Bouncers did their job with him at first. But over time, they just uniformly acquiesced. Sammy isn’t exactly a solicitor, anyway. There’s no entreaty, no hustle. He weaves through the bar traffic, fists full of blooms, until a patron inquires about price. Sammy replies, “Whatever you feel is right, sir.” His voice sounds like a blues guitarist’s. Few dollars here, five-spot there. The blossom changes hands from Sammy to the patron, and on to the female. “Thank you very much, sir!” Sammy concludes, “You folks have a very beautiful evenin’.” He shuffles on. Sometimes women will sing out for a flower, and Sammy’s happy to oblige. Or, if business is slow, he’s as likely to give away his riper buds. “A pretty lady needs a pretty flower,” he’ll say, that bluesy baritone melting away any thought of rebuff.
At first we asked each other: Is this ingratiation? Is this respect? Is this genuine? Some among the city’s white population are still influenced by their forebears’ racism, still don’t know how to regard reminders of caste or Jim Crow. His constant respectfulness, his ma’am-ing and sir-ing, unnerves them. Most of those types will pretend he’s invisible as he passes, while others of that ilk dole out a couple ones—more for riddance than recompense. To them he’s a bum with a clever gimmick.
Others are less prejudiced and more curious; they wonder what made Sammy different from the city’s plethora of drifters and mendicants. “How’re you able to sell those in here?” they’ll ask, and he’ll just reply, “Well, I’m Sammy.” He was even cornered one night four years ago at Speakeasy Bistro by Chuck Fulghum and a twenty-dollar bill. Chuck’s an old-money real estate tycoon, admitted philanderer, and unabashed meddler.
“You want a drink, Sammy?” he asked.
“No, thank you, sir. I’m passing through.”
“Well, come on, relax a sec. You can spare a few minutes. You doing all right? Do you have a place to stay?”
“Oh, I’m fine, sir. Thank you.”
“You have a home, then?”
“This is my home.” Sammy brushed off the inquisition like pollen. “Can I give you a carnation for your lady friend?” He handed over the flower with its thick red blossom.
“All right, thank you, Sammy. Where do you get these, anyway? Is this overstock at Hale’s Florist?”
“No, sir. I cut these fresh from my garden.”
“You tend a garden yourself?”
“Must be an awfully big garden.”
“Oh, yes. You can’t throw a rock from one end to the other. I keep the soil rich and the stems tall.”
“I’m surprised I haven’t heard of a garden like that around here.”
“My garden is a secret, sir. Kept it hidden long as I’ve lived here.”
“What brought you to Chattanooga?”
“Birth. Been here since they hanged my daddy from the Walnut Street Bridge.”
“They what? Who?”
“Some white folks, way back. My mama said I was born right around the time they strung him up.”
“Holy shit. That’s awful.”
“He’s got a little brass plaque on that bridge right now.”
“Really? What’s his name?”
Now, Chuck swore Sammy said “Joe Thompson,” swore he wasn’t too drunk to remember correctly, and swore that the restaurant wasn’t too loud that he mistook the name. But when he retold the anecdote among people who walked the bridge or knew more local history than he, Chuck was informed there was only one plaque dedicated to a lynched black man, and the embossed name read Bo Johnson.
Lucas Bedford said it was the same story, different verse, when he took a crack at Sammy back in 1999. Bedford’s the best trial lawyer in the city, and he claims to have given Sammy the witness-stand treatment while whiskey-bent at Riverbend Café. “Yeah, he gave me that gardening bullshit too. I asked, ‘Where’s your garden?’ and he said, ‘It’s a secret.’ So I asked, ‘Who’re your folks?’ and he said, ‘They’re dead.’ And I said, ‘How’d they die?’ and he said, ‘Train wreck. 1964.’ I said, ‘That’s a while back! Who raised you?’ and he said, ‘My Mamaw raised us.’ I asked him, ‘Who is us?’ and he named two sisters and a brother. I said, ‘And where are they, these days?’ and he said they died in the Terrace Heights housing project fire. I said, ‘I’m sorry, Sammy. That’s tough. Where were you?’ and he said, ‘At work.’ I asked him when that happened, and he said, ‘1976.’ The problem was, as I came to learn, there was no local derailment in ’64, no housing fire in ’76, and, to top it all, no Terrace Heights projects. Hot damn, I love a good liar! Bet he’d clean house at poker.”
There are still other men who capitalize on Sammy’s fortunate timing; the late-night flower can cap an evening’s flirtation, the token aphrodisiac to beguile a paramour bedward. Ray Burnett, the owner of Broad Street Brewery, offered a frank summary to some drunks at his bar a few years back: “Sammy’s more responsible for getting men laid in Chattanooga than José Cuervo and Captain Morgan combined. I shit you not, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen chicks leave with some random dude who bought them one of Sammy’s flowers.”
But Sammy’s efforts can be viewed sentimentally as well. For instance, there was a coffee-shop poem in the Scenic City Blog three years back likening Sammy to a love emissary, “An Eros bound to traipse saloons/and sharing, from his heart, the blooms/of flowers, that they may festoon/belles’ bowers lit by midnight moon…” and so on. More than one couple has met over a flower; the gesture reminds our elders of the courtship and ardor of an era long past.
Most of us see truth to both the crude and romantic perspectives. However briefly, Sammy changes atmospheres: Petals brighten rooms, couples get closer, fragrance conquers stench. Barhopping any given night we can tell where he’s been, a botanical Santa with his clusters and posies. We see remnants of his passage hours later; beer-soaked tulips, jonquils trampled underfoot. A peony’s petals picked apart on the path from bar to car door. They may last the night to wilt on a nightstand or wither atop the laundry pile, forgotten fragments of a weekend tryst. Or they’ll endure: the daisy, token of a first date, pressed into a book; the gifted rose from a boyfriend-turned-husband pinned, brown and brittle, to a bedroom wall. Sammy helps prove to us we’re not a springless autumn.
He troubles no one, is inordinately courteous, and thus gets along with everyone. That speaks volumes in a city full of eccentrics who don’t always respect the line between favor and nuisance. We’ve got our share of odd folks here in Chattanooga. It’s a time-honored relationship we maintain between the rational and the touched. For example, nearly every city dump and recycling center employs the gentler patients from the Orange Grove Center for Intellectual Disabilities. And the city devoted some of its prime real estate to a full-fledged asylum at Moccasin Bend. “Mental health facility,” they call it. Anyone on Lookout Mountain or traveling I-24 can feast eyes on those lovely sylvan acres along the river, devoted to our city’s developmentally challenged and insane. The Bend maintains strong security, so we’re told, but some odd birds around town make us wonder about the admission standards.
There’s the bagpipes guy who plays on the corner of 3rd and Market every afternoon, a guy who doesn’t look particularly Scottish—dark hair, Hawaiian shirt, flip-flops—and doesn’t play particularly well. He considers any change tossed his way an invitation for ridicule. People cross the street to pass him now.
There’s the Rastafarian vagabond, an ancient-looking man with a feather in his wrist-thick dreads who carries a sign on a clipboard around town that says, “Free This Africa Now.” What that means, we’re not exactly sure, but word was “The Rasta-bond,” as we call him, spent a couple nights in lockup for the last guy who asked. He’s the kind of man who expects you to understand.
Then there’s the Miller Park proselyte, an Asian guy in a cheap suit and cheaper tennis shoes who shouts fire and brimstone at the cars red-lighted on Market or MLK Boulevard. He holds up his Sticky-Noted Bible for emphasis, and he reminds our elders of the soapbox days before they became metaphor. They’re the first passersby to roll up their windows.
These guys are all unique, for sure, but they’re unapproachable despite being entirely visible and public. Those men expect you to know their terms for engagement—unknown, unwritten, unsigned—and reproach you for violation of those terms. Sammy, though, he’s cut from a different cloth. He cares for us, and he engages with the public as a service provider. And his is a service of kindness. We all welcome him because he reminds us about our humanity. He enters our taprooms and parlors, their speakers piping off-key karaoke and high-decibel cover bands. He passes through the fist-pumping, high-fiving, whiskey-shooting football fans; through the jungles of gelled hair and popped collars, low necklines and high heels. From one cacophony to the next shuffles Sammy, amicable and inscrutable.
On spring and summer afternoons Sammy mows the gentrified yards of Southside for twenty bucks, the sweat dripping from his sharp chin. Mary Lynn Draper, president of the neighborhood association, once claimed Sammy took three hours to trim weeds on her half-acre lot. When she went out to question his productivity, she said he turned around with his palms full of four-leaf clovers. “Dozens of them,” she said. “I’d never seen so many, never knew they could be found in such numbers.” He handed them over, collected his pay with gratitude, and shuffled to his bike.
The man is kind and harmless, the type of harmless so easy to take advantage of that it’s unconscionable to do so. For instance, we all know to disregard his bicycle—he leans it unchained against a parking meter or newspaper rack while selling flowers nearby—but his bike was nevertheless taken one September night last year. He had parked it against a lamppost outside the Buck Wild dance club, and it was gone when he came out. He was forced to walk about for nearly two weeks like a sheriff sans steed, the flowers in grocery bags past his wrist. Word spread. A few bar owners were pooling money to buy Sammy a fancy new ride when his bike was suddenly returned by some university seniors who’d kicked shit out of the freshman found with it at a fraternity party. They watched Sammy caress the basket tinsel, whisper choked words of gratitude, and extend a white rose to each of them before pedaling off with tears in his eyes.
This singularity of character and deeds makes Sammy the most popular unelected public figure in town. In fact, there was a brief underground movement urging him to run for mayor back in 2005—brief in that it lasted one evening. However, all of us packed into The Griffin Tavern that night smelled revolution in the air; our besotted assembly truly felt the itinerant florist could carry the electorate with our faith in him, could change the status quo, and could usher in a progressive new order free from spin and sham. “Sammy for mayor!” chants originated somewhere near the dart boards, then shot quickly down the bar to reach Sammy’s ears as he wound his way to the back with a fresh cluster of lilies and daisies. Only a pair of Cutco sales reps shooting tequila near the cigarette machine saw his countenance wilt, heard a sunken rasp: “I want no part of government.” But he turned that disarming smile to us and offered humble no-thank-you’s before departing into the night.
We don’t know much about Sammy, but we believe he’s a good man. And belief is enough, until he gives us cause to doubt him. That’s all you can say about anyone you hardly know. I believe he is good, until I hear otherwise. We all have public voids where our private vices lurk, waiting to be guessed by others. With regard to Sammy, we allow curiosity and boredom to fill the void for us. Some theories naturally tend to dismiss him as a reformed crackhead or recovering alcoholic. Others claim he’s just an old bachelor, or an entrepreneur without the means to loftier pursuits. More than a few folks say he was Special Forces in Vietnam and “saw some shit” or met Agent Orange. Sometimes it’s Kuwait and Gulf War Syndrome. Sometimes it’s both.
Down at Molly’s Irish Pub on Georgia Avenue, lawyers from the courthouse congregate with off-duty electrical crews and university students. Conversation occasionally turns to Sammy: “Where you think he gets them flowers?”
“A floral shop, probably.”
“Think he steals them?”
“Nah. Every night? You kidding?”
“How’s he get them, then?”
“Probably gets a deal on the week-old ones, or removes the chaff for free. Maybe even goes dumpster diving.”
“I dunno, mister. They look pretty fresh to me.”
“I’ll bet he takes them from a graveyard.”
“Sammy wouldn’t do that.”
“I bet he would if it meant money.”
“No graveyard would just let you pass through, stealing flowers.”
“I’ll bet he gets them from Forest Hills Cemetery over near St. Elmo. I heard he lives that way.”
“I thought he lived in Glenwood.”
“I see him in Highland Park all the time.”
“How come he ain’t been caught yet?”
“That place is practically in the ghetto. Bet no one would notice a lone man stooping over graves.”
“Every day, though?”
“Maybe he works there. I’ve seen him biking around during the day with pruners and shit in his baskets.”
“Him, tending graves? He’s too upbeat to work a graveyard.”
“He’s probably a Moccasin Bend alum. Bet he wears the hat to cover the lobotomy scars.”
“Aw, hell. You’re chock-full of it today, kid.”
“Yeah, seriously. That’s just wrong, son.”
“I don’t know about all that you said, but I bet he takes a few fresh ones as he tends to the graves and no one’s the wiser. Case closed.”
“Some of them flowers look way too nice for a graveyard.”
“Yeah, especially from Forest Hills.”
“Hell. Next you’ll say he’s robbing graves and hawking the jewelry.”
“Wouldn’t put it past him.”
Not all our theories are prejudiced or suspicious. Just as often we fill our knowledge gap with compassion. The waitresses at Riverside Ale House say Sammy’s told them he’s a widower, his wife having succumbed to cancer a decade back. They think he brought her bedside bouquets and saw how the gesture soothed her suffering. The notion stuck from there, they claim, and became an obsession.
But Thacker, the bouncer over at Bridge Tender Bar & Grill, swears Sammy told him his wife’s alive, but handicapped at home. Thacker’s a big old boy who doesn’t mince words and doesn’t take bullshit. He’s got rolls at the base of his skull that look like a pack of hot dogs.
“Nah, man, Sammy’s got his woman at home laid up with sciatica. She ain’t dead, y’know, she’s just in pain or bedridden or some shit. Brother’s bustin’ ass day and night to pay her bills. He ain’t no rich white boy with a trust fund. I bet Medicaid don’t even cover him, y’know, and food stamps ain’t covering shit, know what’m sayin’? Gotta get paid somehow.”
Then there’s April’s testimony over at Tee Time, the beer-soaked sports bar off Main. Her digs service all comers: the chicken butchers from the southside rendering plants, yuppies from uptown, hipsters from the gentrified district, and all the construction roughnecks stuck working downtown. April’s the waitress over there with the shortest Daisy Dukes and the tightest shirt. She says Sammy flirts with her every pass through.
“I’m too much woman for you, Mr. Sam!” she’ll reply.
“I’ll say!” he’ll say.
“You probably have ten women across town, anyway, Sammy. I know you get around.”
“No, ma’am. Skirt-chasing days are over for me.”
“Oh, horse-puckey. I can see ‘player’ written all over your face. I bet you deflowered my mama!”
“No, ma’am, I don’t believe so.”
“Nuh-uh, no-siree. I don’t bat those leagues anymore.”
“And why’s that?”
“Some of them whipped me, and some of them couldn’t. They dumped what they got and wanted what they shouldn’t.”
“Well, I think you still got it, Mr. Sam!”
He’d leave a Gerbera daisy for her hair and shuffle on. The exchange was the same nearly every time he passed through. Only once, April said, did she keep on: “Which shop do you get these beautiful daisies from?”
“No shop at all. I get them from my garden.”
“You grow these yourself? I’d’ve thought you needed a greenhouse for that.”
“No, ma’am. My garden is plenty bigger than that.”
“How come you have these in the winter, though? Most of these flowers should be dead.”
“Should is right. But should can’t compete with Tennessee soil and a little magic. And I give my garden a lot of love. That’s why my women run off on me.”
“How many women left you?”
“One wife run off with my brother, another with my money, and a third just took my ring.”
“Sammy! That’s terrible!”
“Why are you still bringing flowers for these girls? We don’t deserve you!”
“Flowers are magical. Every girl needs a pretty flower once in a while.”
We feel he’s simple because he seems simple-minded. If you ask Sammy, every day’s a good one, every night is magical, and every girl is beautiful, in need of a pretty flower. We can’t believe his happiness is natural—who would see the best in everyone but someone who’s touched? So we treat him like an innocent, don’t dare challenge his wild claim to a giant field of fertile loam bristling with blooms of every color. Some of us are happy to allow the conceit, imagine it along with him. He quickly changes the subject, often to some shocking event from the past, and we let him; we indulge his will to safeguard his flowers’ origin. No one wants to divest him of whatever fancy drives his imagination.
At least, no one did until the newspaper got involved. You can’t fault Karen Templeton for what she did. She’s a reporter; that’s her job. But we all still hold a grudge. Before she showed up looking for a story about Sammy, few of us had even heard of her Life section features in the Times. The few who’d actually read her pieces called them overdone local-interest crap, rife with melodrama set in soup kitchens, children’s hospitals, or halfway houses. When she heard of Sammy a month ago, she came to us first for some choice quotes. We weren’t all biting.
“Why’re you writing about him now?” asked Bill Lewis, a regular at The Griffin.
“He’s a recognizable face around town, and I thought the public would like to know about him.”
“Sammy’s been here longer than you have, Karen. If you don’t know anything about him by now, you best quit before you get started.”
Thacker had similar sentiments: “Don’t be axing Sammy ’bout his life and shit for no article. Sammy don’t need no reporter up in his business. Man’s got enough problems, know what’m saying? He won’t talk to you anyway.”
Karen told us she just wanted to get the truth out about Sammy’s history; she was sure he had a story worth telling. “Oh, I’m sure he does,” Ray Burnett told her. “But I don’t think we need the truth. If Sammy wanted us to know it, he’d share it. There’s a saying out in the country you may want to think about: Life is simpler when you plow around the stumps.”
She disregarded our warnings. Maybe she thought we were messing with her, or harboring Sammy’s secret protectively. Or she figured no one had the moxie and journalistic vigor required to really get to the bottom of things. Sammy proved us right regardless. “No thank you, ma’am,” he told her that Thursday night. She followed him through the packed throngs and cigarette haze at Pickle Jar and on down to Cue-N-Brew Billiards, trying to change his mind. No dice, but Karen was dogged: She intercepted him the next night on the loop through Jack’s Alley, Neyland’s to Ribhouse to Dan’s to The Lookout. “I’m no news for your paper,” he’d said. She tried him on Saturday afternoon, while he trimmed hedges for the Howell & Burke law office on Chestnut. No article appeared that Sunday. The next week, she tried him during the slow bar hours. Tried him weed-eating on 17th. Seeding grass for AME Zion on Central Avenue. She asked him to lunch, brought him Cokes, left him candy. Tried to win him over like a foster parent with her orphan.
The article hit our driveways the following Sunday. Not a word of it was true, as far as we could tell, but that’s not what bothered us; we knew he’d lie more with her than he ever had with us. If she’d known even the least bit about Sammy she would have known better than to print his words as fact. We’d tried to warn her, in our way. What didn’t sit well with us was that she’d tried to take Sammy from the people who recognized the allure of an enigmatic nighttime florist and expose him to people who wouldn’t understand. What Sammy shared with us beneath the neon lights and among the jumbled barstools was special, and was indeed magical, in its way.
If he was conspicuous about town before, that article made him distinct as a diamond in a dunghill. Sammy endured more juvenile backslapping and drunken condescension in the subsequent week than in nearly all the years we’d known him. Karen suffered, as well, from our unheeded warnings; several locals wrote in to contest or outright contradict the historical events surrounding Sammy’s reported provenance—all facets of the tales he’d told us. No one was happy with the outcome: The Times ran their mea culpa, Sammy cut down on his nightly rounds, an abashed Karen fled from our darkened doorways.
If that were all, everything could have settled back down, eventually. But Karen confronted Sammy, claimed he’d burned her, and tried to send him guilt-tripping into apology and retraction. He said, “I am sorry, ma’am, but I told you I wasn’t news.” She pressed him for the Why, and Sammy tried to explain:
“When I ride through downtown on the weekdays, I like to look at all the people. They walk in and out of offices, sit on benches, lean against tall brick buildings and smoke cigarettes. All of them look so lonely. I’m sure they’ve got sad stories like me, but I don’t want to hear their stories. Who wants to hear all that sadness? I just want to make them happy. So I cut my flowers and fill my baskets because I like to see all the faces in the crowd smiling. They don’t need to know my story to be happy. The flowers make them feel special. Flowers are magic.”
Two weeks ago, Karen killed the magic. Had she truly understood Sammy, she would have been content with his explanation. We told her as much when she returned, breathless with excitement, from following him to his home. She’d tailed Sammy one afternoon as he departed downtown, traveled south on Broad Street, and passed the foot of Lookout Mountain. She leapfrogged Sammy two blocks at a time to keep pace with his slow pedaling; she pulled behind banks and fast-food dives to avoid detection. He veered into St. Elmo, then pedaled deep within the old neighborhood, to an obscure gravel avenue called Burnt Mill Road. It traveled due south into Georgia, but Karen watched Sammy turn onto one of several fire trails just shy of the border that led into a four-thousand acre forest owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Karen left her car at the rusted chain gate and followed the bicycle tracks on foot from the fire trail to a worn footpath that led to the back door of Sammy’s self-hewn cabin in the woods. He was squatting on government property. A natural pond lay fifty meters away through some vegetation. When Karen rounded the house, she was stunned motionless: a field lay before her, its entire expanse abloom. The kaleidoscopic blossoms spanned acres.
“It was impossible,” she said. We were at The Blacksmith sipping microbrews when she burst in. It was the nearest bar to St. Elmo, so she must have parked at the first one she saw. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in this city. There’s—there are flowers growing there in the open that can’t possibly survive our winters. Orchids, Amaryllis, Fire Lilies…do you understand what I’m saying? Those should only grow in a greenhouse!”
“That a fact?”
“Truly! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Monet couldn’t have painted anything more wonderful. Did you know he really had a garden?”
“How? How could you know?”
“Because he told us.”
“No, but this, this,” she exclaimed, “it’s truly impossible. It’s otherworldly!”
“Yeah, we know.”
“How? Have you all seen it? My God!”
“Karen,” we mocked, “are you saying you reported factual details you hadn’t verified?”
“We know. We just don’t care.”
But someone in there did. We tried to stem the curiosity with our indifference, but Karen’s spark started a wildfire. Could’ve been one guy showing his wife the field, who went home and told all her friends. Or could’ve been a group of fellas just trying to see in order to believe. Regardless, Karen had finally broken the story, without typing another word. Photographs of Sammy’s garden made the front page on Monday, and the Times sent a News section writer in Karen’s stead to report the story. Of course, the new writer found no trace of the man, and his inquiries at TVA turned up “no prior knowledge of a person or persons living in the Burnt Mill forest acreage.” An official TVA spokesperson neatly called the matter “an open investigation,” though no one expects TVA to bother with a harmless squatter. As this week progressed, the articles withered into blurbs that retreated to the back page of the Life section to die.
We haven’t seen our florist since the news broke. There was fleeting hope that he’d show up Friday night with bushels of buds, the flag on his bike popping briskly in the wind. But we doubt he’ll appear in our doorways again. We’ll have to resign ourselves to fact once more, or maybe spend our evenings wondering where Sammy went.
“I bet he’s sitting pretty in Florida with a girl wrapped in each arm.”
“Horseshit. I think he’s hopped a Greyhound and headed north where people ain’t so nosy.”
“My money’s on Atlanta. Where he was livin’, he already had one foot in Georgia.”
“Maybe he’s just in some other neck of the woods, growing a new crop of flowers to hit town with next spring.”
With tunes on, lights low, and glasses full, we’ll keep filling the void with our imaginations, scanning for the apparition of his face in the crowd.
“I bet he’s—”
Nah, man, that ain’t it.