On a bright day during a dark time, florists brought a dose of unexpected wonder to Rittenhouse Square on Wednesday by giving away a thousand flowers to strangers — and decorating around the square with a thousand more.
The flowers — beautiful but fleeting — could not be saved for the weddings and events they were intended to brighten, which have been postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus. But these blossoms had life and could still bring joy, so florists Katie Robinson and Kerry Fabrizio decided to share them with the people of Philadelphia.
“We just want to make people smile,” said Robinson.
But they did so much more.
As unsuspecting pedestrians — many of whom were out combating cabin fever — turned the corner and saw thousands of roses, daises, tulips, and lilies strewn across the ground at the 19th Street entrance to the park, they were overcome with emotion.
For a brief moment, it was like being in The Wizard of Oz when everything changes from black-and-white to color.
“These are gorgeous flowers! Holy smokes almighty. Thank God for flowers!” said one passerby who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus.
Like many small business owners, Robinson, 39, owner of DFW Event Design in Bensalem, and Fabrizio, 34, owner of Fabufloras in Center City, have been hit hard by the cancellations and closures. But instead of letting it keep them down, they wanted to bring others up. So they reached out to their wholesalers to ask if they’d be willing to donate the unused flowers. The women also contacted six decorators to help them create stunning arrangements for the park on site.
The first truck of flowers arrived shortly after 11 a.m., with the next one close behind. Bouquets of free flowers for passersby were placed in buckets just outside of the square, while Fabrizio and Robinson laid out a tarp inside the park, where they set up the flowers for decorating. Everyone did their best to practice social distancing.
Steve Pepper, 66, a resident of the neighborhood, was on a video call with his daughter when he stumbled upon the giveaway. He turned his phone to the flowers for her to see.
“This is a beautiful gesture and a pleasant surprise," he said. “I might as well indulge.”
Kayleigh O’Keeffe, 29, who lives near the square, picked up a bouquet of magenta flowers. She wasn’t sure what kind they were, but it didn’t really matter. Amid a dark news cycle, she found light in those flowers.
Still, she couldn’t help but think of whom they were originally intended for.
“These are the most bittersweet flowers,” O’Keeffe said.
Postal worker Dee Burney of Southwest Philly was walking her route when someone told her they were giving away flowers at the park, so she made a quick detour.
“This is so great,” Burney said. “It puts a bright spot on a crazy moment.”
Word of the flower giveaway spread quickly. Doormen came out from their condo buildings and construction workers came from nearby work sites to pick up flowers for their wives or girlfriends.
One woman picked up a bouquet for herself, so she could paint the blossoms while stuck inside her home. When told they were free, she asked if she could donate money. Fabrizio and Robinson told her just to pay it forward.
Within 30 minutes, all of the giveaway flowers were gone, but people kept approaching Robinson and Fabrizio as they worked on the displays for the park, asking if there were still more flowers for the taking.
“They all went so quickly,” Fabrizio said. “It feels great.”
As Robinson, Fabrizio, and the decorators spread out around the park, setting up large, intricate arrangements in the flower pots at the entrances and at the fountain, life around them at one of Philly’s most popular public spots went on as normal.
Bells from the Church of the Holy Trinity still chimed on the hour; twentysomethings practiced yoga on the grass; toddlers tumbled toward the goat statute; people with their entire lives in a few plastic bags slept on park benches; a businessman sat on a ledge, smoking a cigar; dogs in sweater vests greeted each other with kisses, blissfully unaware of the concept of social distancing; three women crocheted together in a half circle; a man read the latest headlines about a worldwide pandemic in the newspaper; and two guys ate pizza steaks while listening to a broadcast about the coronavirus on a battery-operated transistor radio with a bent antenna.
The park was busy. And so were people’s minds.