FLOWer district dispatcH: Cat Connection
Emily Gaynor & Jason Bergman
When a nighttime intruder broke a back window to enter one of Tropical Plants & Orchids Inc.’s side-by-side storefronts in Manhattan’s Flower District recently, the owner’s night-shift employee closely followed the unwelcome stranger. This loyal worker knows what to watch out for when the rest of the staff is asleep, and has no patience for anyone who tries to disturb the oasis his boss has created. The shop’s owner AK saw the scene unfold on security camera footage the next morning. His trusted sidekick, Diesel, guards the plant paradise 24/7 – or, at least, when he’s not napping. He may be a one-and-a-half-year-old cat with limited crime-stopping abilities, but like his namesake Vin Diesel, he plays varied roles including would-be security guard, plant inspector, and cuddle enthusiast. Next door while browsing the flowers, you’ll likely find his compatriot sixteen year old Julie nestled atop a bag of soil underneath a table lined with rows and rows of ombre orchids.
AK, whose full name is Ashok Kumar, is from India and has owned Tropical Plants & Orchids Inc. for almost 19 years. His days are packed with fulfilling orders and making sure his plants are thriving, but he also has an unofficial title: “Head of Cats” in the Flower District. This green haven spans across 28th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues and then some, though in recent years the neighborhood has literally wilted due to rising rents and the changing city. Many of the flower-filled stores in the district are home to cats who perform various tasks, like keeping pests away. And many of these cats are related to AK, who lives in Jamaica Estates with his wife and three children. In the past when his cats have had kittens, he’s given the babies to different shop owners on the block, including to one of his relatives across the street resulting in an interconnected community of cats that protect – but also attack.
Is Tropical Plants & Orchids Inc. one or two stores?
AK: It’s two stores. This one I got two years ago. This store’s closed – they had cut flowers. They went out of business. I didn’t want anybody coming close to me because of competition… so I rented this one, too. I know the landlord very well, so he’s helped me.
Beyond Julie and Diesel, can you describe your connection to the other cats in the area?
AK: I had a cat named Ginger, and she had five babies. They were born in my basement – I put down Spanish moss and she laid there and gave birth. Diesel is one of the babies. Diesel’s sister is now in the shop at 135 West 28th Street (Fragrance Plants and Flowers). I gave Ginger, the mother, to my uncle at another shop across the street. Diesel’s brother is on 23rd Street. And I gave the other two sisters to the tattoo guy who works on the second floor here. He gave them to his sisters in Pennsylvania. Now, all my cats are fixed.
How do the cats help around the store?
AK: They watch during the night time very carefully. Two days ago, somebody broke my window and came in, and Diesel followed the person. I didn’t catch the guy. The guy came in the store from the back window. He was looking for the cash register, but he couldn’t find it and then ran.
Do your cats eat the plants?
AK: They never eat them. If they feel sick, they’ll eat wheatgrass only. If anything is wrong with the plants, they let me know. If anything that shouldn’t be there comes in with the trees, they’ll scratch at the plants to get my attention until I come over and look at them.
Do you have cats at home?
AK: I love cats. My home has a lot of cats. But they’re not mine, they’re wild cats. They come at night and about seven to eight years ago, my wife started putting out some Indian food, and they started eating it. But I also have many birds. They come early in the morning and we have feeders for them, too. If I wake up late, they knock on the window. The cats want to kill the birds.
I don’t have cats in my home, though. My son is allergic, so I can’t have them. But when my [other] kids come to work with me, they don’t talk to me or the customers — they play with the cats.
What’s your favorite plant?
AK: I love orchids.
Who are your biggest customers?
AK: I have mostly people who come get orchids early in the morning. Corporate businesses buy plants to put in their lobbies. Also, some hotels on 36th street – I have three to four hotels there like Holiday Inn. I sell orchids to them. Many hotels and businesses in the area come to buy plants.
How has the Flower District changed since you arrived?
AK: The Flower District has changed in bad ways. There are hotels on this block, and people walk through the sidewalks with luggage. We have plants outside along the streets. And the people complain to the hotels about the plants, and the hotels complain to the city. I got two to three tickets just four months ago. The city department came. But we have a permit to put the plants there. It’s very hard with new businesses coming in. All of these buildings used to have plant stores. Now they make them hotels.
Jason Bergman is a photographer and videographer, currently focusing on New York City politics and public transit. His work has appeared in Vice, Buzzfeed, Noisey, and Teen Vogue.
Emily Gaynor is a writer/editor. She’s the editorial director at Milk Makeup and formerly worked as a beauty writer/editor for Teen Vogue, Lucky, and Glamour.
Jason and Emily are engaged and live in Clinton Hill with various plants and their cat, Sophie Anne, who has four teeth.