John’s the owner of Ditmars Flowers & Gifts.
Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling
John Patrikis is standing in the back of Ditmars Flowers & Gifts putting the finishing touches on a towering arrangement.
He adds a couple of roses in strategic spots and stands back to assess his work.
The Love Forever Tribute, which is 2 feet wide and 3 feet high and made of ruby roses and blood-red gladiolas, is destined for a funeral.
John working on the Love Forever Tribute.
John, who has been a florist since 1971 and who opened this shop in 1984, never tires of putting buds and blooms in vases or sticking stems in green foam blocks.
“I like putting my hands in the soil,” he says. “Plants have a soul. They give me energy and life.”
Ditmars Flowers & Gifts is at 29-11 Ditmars Blvd.
His son George, who works with him, sees the flowers as a way to connect with the community.
“The arrangements celebrate the happy times and make the tough times a little better on the eye,” he says.
Red roses going into cold storage.
John, who was born in Nissyros, which is one of the Dodecanese islands in Greece, never dreamed that he would end up being a florist.
Or, for that matter, that he would ever come to America.
George, John’s 31-year-old son, works from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.
It was his father, a mason by trade who became a cook in Manhattan, who planted the idea in this head.
He came to New York City three months before John arrived in the world.
A potted plant goes into the delivery truck.
“At that time, it was the custom to leave the wife and kids at home,” says John, who is the third of four children. “I didn’t see my dad until I was 5 years old when he came back to Greece to visit for six months.”
In 1966, when John was 10, his father returned again.
Orchids brighten the shop’s front window.
Six months later, John’s mother died.
In 1969, John’s father left the family once again for New York City, sending for the children four months later.
John has been a florist since 1971.
The move was frightening and exciting.
“I didn’t know any English,” John says. “We lived in the basement of a house my father owned in Astoria. The first day, I heard someone calling my name and waving at me. I couldn’t understand him, but he gave me two Babe Ruth chocolate candy bars. That same day, the next-door neighbor, who owned a hot-dog stand, gave me a free hot dog. And I thought, ‘God bless America! They give you free food in this country.’”
A spring bouquet.
John, whose first job was helping out at his uncle’s butcher shop in Greece when he was 8, enrolled in a work-study program at Long Island City High School after he graduated from I.S. 141.
After school each day, he manned a florist shop inside the L line subway stop at 14th Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan.
Say it with orchids.
In 1976, he bought a florist shop on the Upper East Side.
Around the same time, he met, Anthi, a woman with beautiful eyes who loved yellow roses, at an annual Greek dance.
The shop’s well-stocked refrigerators.
“We grew up on the same island but in different towns,” he says. “I remembered her from when I lived there.”
After dating for seven years, they got married in 1983 and had two sons. Vasilis, a violinist, is 33; George is 31.
John says the flowers give him energy.
“I needed to have a family,” John says, “because I grew up almost as an orphan.”
In 1984, John opened Ditmars Flowers & Gifts a couple of doors from Immaculate Conception Church.
It was a work-study program in high school that brought John into the florist business.
In 2003, he bought the building at 29-11 Ditmars Blvd., and when the tenants left, in 2008, he moved the shop there.
Conveniently, it’s between a hair salon and a funeral parlor.
George started helping out when he was attending Brooklyn Technical High School and joined his father full time after earning an accounting degree from Hofstra University.
Tulips unfurling their blooms.
Anthi works there, too, and when things get busy, Vasilis completes the quartet.
John, who is 61, hasn’t given much thought to retirement other than deciding that it’s not for him.
“The idea scares me,” he says, adding that he and George are at the shop seven days a week. “I’m used to working. I don’t want to become a couch potato.”
John is working hard at never retiring.
It is suggested that he could spend more time tending his flower and vegetable gardens at his house in Whitestone.
Yes, but he already does that, thank you very much.
Before the conversation goes deeper, John retreats to the back, where he’s starting a new funeral arrangement.
Remains of the day.
This one’s called With Open Hearts. Heart-shaped, it’s covered with pink roses and peonies.
It will take an hour and a half to complete. It has to go out soon. The dearly departed don’t wait for any man or any bloom.
Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018. A free, public event, it is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone.
Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling