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All in a Day's Work

How Labor and Lives Intersect

September 16, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most of us, work anchors the routine of life. Out of bed, maybe grab breakfast, get the kids to school and head to the job to spend eight hours or so helping make the Southern California economy hum along.

Sometimes we hardly even notice all the other people whose work supports and intersects with our own.

In a six-part series beginning today, we explore the rippling effects of one person's work.

We visit a handful of the people who, by chance of the workday, have perhaps unknowingly become partners with the owner of a small flower shop.

When Lisa Howell took over Paul's Flowers in Fullerton four years ago, she was an accountant with a five-year plan: Buy it, build it and sell it.

She didn't pencil into that map for success the possibility that she would come to love running a small business, despite the long hours, marginal profits and endless stream of headaches that come with it.

"I didn't know anything about flowers," Howell, 38, said during a 4 a.m. drive from her shop to the Los Angeles Flower District. "Now I love what I do."

In the course of one day, from the time she leaves her house before 4 a.m. to the time she drops her son off at baseball practice about 5 p.m., Howell crosses paths with more than 30 people locked into their own work worlds--people as otherwise unconnected as a flower vendor, a tennis instructor, a car detailer.

And there are hundreds of others whom she doesn't meet this day, yet whose work makes hers possible. People such as the fieldworker who nurtures and harvests the flowers she buys, arranges and delivers--as often as not to someone at work.

While Howell's work life is intertwined with the labors of many others, it hasn't always been linked with flowers.

A certified public accountant, she decided about five years ago to leave her job as finance officer with the Laguna Beach Unified School District for the riskier but personally more rewarding life of a small-business owner. A prime goal, she said, was to work close to the Fullerton home she shares with her husband, Steve Howell, owner of a food brokerage, and their 10-year-old son, Philip.

"We looked at everything from lube-and-oil places, to card and gift shops, to a couple of consulting-type services--taxes, things like that," she said. "But I've always kind of liked the idea of having a flower shop."

Now she has one.

"I'll probably stay in it indefinitely," she says. "I couldn't go back to a desk job, working 8 to 5."

At 4:45 a.m., the sky above the flower market has an unearthly glow from the all-night lights of downtown Los Angeles. The market is the hub, the pivot point, for flower distribution in Southern California.

Howell steers her van into a reserved lot, edging in among vehicles from other flower shops. Sound carries this time of day, and the air is filled with the murmurs of people at work.

Over the next two hours, Howell will write checks for more than $1,000 for supplies to fill the coming week's orders at her shop.

Most of the flowers here are imported. Shipping containers bear labels from the Netherlands, Colombia and Ecuador. Other flowers are grown regionally, in fields around Oxnard and to the south in Carlsbad and Oceanside.

Howell spends about two hours at the market, making several trips to her van and pushing a flower-laden cart over concrete floors and the potholed parking lot. Even loading the cart--and the van--takes experience. Not all flowers are equal in resilience, and fragile petals can easily be crumpled or bruised.

"When I first started doing this, I ruined about $100 worth of stuff because I didn't load it right," she said.

Howell, born and reared in Dos Palos, a small farm town between Fresno and Merced, grew up knowing two things: She didn't want to go into teaching, her parents' profession, and she didn't want to stay in Dos Palos.

"I couldn't wait to leave," Howell said. "I graduated a half-year early and went to Arizona State and never went back [to live]."

Howell studied accounting, hoping to land a job with one of the then-Big Eight accounting firms, in either San Francisco or Los Angeles. Love intervened, though. Her boyfriend, whom she eventually married but divorced a short time later, was from Fullerton.

"So I packed up and came down here," she said.

On a recent school day, schedules make the family's morning tight. Howell needs to make the flower market run; her husband has a breakfast meeting; Philip must be ready for classes at the private Friends Christian School in Yorba Linda by 8:30; and it is unclear whether the family's nanny, Flory Peseda, will make it to the house in time for Steve Howell to leave for his meeting.

Lisa Howell fights the early-morning traffic. She drops the van off at the flower shop about 7 a.m. and calls one of her employees to come in early to unload and clean the flowers.

*

As it turns out, Peseda is already at the house, a sprawling ranch-style home with a pool and a stable.

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