At strip clubs, the guys flashing cash are usually not the ones who buy flowers, the flower girls who train me say. Instead, it is usually the strippers buying flowers for themselves. Or, in my case, it is a handsome busboy at a restaurant along the Ala Wai Harbor who buys a lily for a girl in Waikīkī, which I then deliver up red-carpeted stairs and hand off to a nearly naked woman at the front of a dark club. When I explain who sent the flower, she points to a longhaired dancer straddling a pole then sings, “Awwww, that’s so sweet—that’s her boyfriend!”

The first flower girl I train with is Jamie*, a 26-year-old commuting from the North Shore. When I meet her at the flower girl headquarters, run out of a converted garage in Palolo, she is in a rush to make her restaurant accounts by sunset but slows long enough to demonstrate how to fill out our checklist, prep flowers, and mist puakenikeni leis so they don’t turn brown. She is efficient and charming, slender and strong. She speaks with a hint of New Jersey toughness, which is contrasted with her generous demeanor. When we get to Ala Moana, she notes grayed-out boxes on our printed spreadsheet of routes. “That means it’s a silent account,” she says. This means you can sell, but not talk. We approach each table at a whitewashed, open-air restaurant with large smiles, and she shows the basket with a gentle flourish. Mostly, we get waved away. One couple, wearing matching aloha print, buys a tuberose lei.

Later, Jamie smokes a cigarette as we lean against a concrete ledge. We’re talking about love: She’s fighting with her boyfriend; I’m single. She likes the job but gets frustrated too. “Guys don’t want to get girls by buying them a flower and courting them,” she says. “They want to get them wasted.”
When we arrive at a bar in Waikīkī just past midnight, the bouncers welcome her warmly. She lifts her basket high over her head to weave between drunken tourists on the dance floor, her blond hair shifting colors in the strobe lights. The deejay calls out, “Ladies and gentlemen, the flower girl is in the house. Show someone you care.”

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“HONOLULU FLOWER LADY – Full/Part Time – Good Money (Honolulu/Pearl City) … You would be working in the companies’ [sic] accounts (restaurants, bars and nightclubs) in Waikiki, Honolulu and elsewhere, selling beautiful flowers and lei.” – Craigslist job posting for flower girls.
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I’m on my own four days after training with Jamie. I struggle with my restaurant accounts, fighting my introverted tendencies while facing hundreds of diners, until a man buys a flurry of flowers for an unsmiling woman sitting across from him over a flickering candle. “No really, that’s enough,” she insists, while he chooses one variety after another, plucking a lily, roses, a sunflower from my basket. At another stop, a woman with platinum hair and orange-hued skin beams when her date—it’s their first—buys her a red rose. “No one has ever done that for me before!” she says.

I walk back to my car at the underground parking lot of Ala Moana, surrounded by people but utterly alone; the job is, surprisingly, hauntingly solitary. While I visit dozens of places, most of the time I am walking alone under bottom-lit palm trees, driving down dark streets, collecting myself in parking stalls, or tallying flowers to hours and accounts in my head.

At 1 a.m., my nightclub stops are dark and throbbing. Men stand in lines along the dance floor, clot along the bar. Groups talk loudly over tables full of glasses. I quickly find that the sales require nimble moves and persistence, or as one bartender says, “no shame.” At Rumors Night Club, I hit the jackpot all flower girls hope for, selling my entire basket to a man standing at a crowded cluster of back tables. I fumble with the math, place a lei on the shoulders of one his friends, pile flowers on a sticky table, and prance out the sliding glass doors, high-fiving the club manager and bantering with the valets on the way out.

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“You’ve got to be a good person, but also be very naïve.” – A manager at Coffee Talk, where Hillarie often interviews potential flower girls
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Before becoming a flower girl, I didn’t even like flowers. But with several part-time writing and marketing jobs leaving me scraping by, and not enough time to commit to a waitressing gig, I found myself curious about the girls and the earnings. Soon enough, I typed “flower girl” into the Craigslist search box and found the Honolulu Flower Lady posting. My first night solo, I discover an affinity for the colorful tidbits under my arm, which seem to truly make people happy. Plus, a basket full of flowers is like an invisible cloak, an all-access pass to places I would never go, people I would never get to know, otherwise.

Gina* is the other woman who trains me. She has long brown hair almost to her hips, bright eyes, and a loud voice. She always wears a flower behind her ear and earplugs for the second half of the night. We bond over our Colorado roots. She is a farm girl with a biology degree who came to spend the summer with her brother in the Navy and ended up staying. To pay pending bills and rent, she answered the Craigslist ad Hillarie had posted and quickly became one of the most reliable sellers. She has built relationships with people across Waikīkī, and is later offered a job bartending at a small lounge off a side street. When we are training, she takes me to this bar, and a tanned, chatty man with a crew cut tells me he used to be friends with a flower girl, and how he would tag along with her to each of her stops, getting a drink and making sure she was safe.

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“She would sell out and have to run back to the shop to get more. One time, she surprised me by filling up my whole car with flowers. She was a great girl. Waikīkī, it wasn’t like it is now. It was different back then.” – A middle-aged employee at a Waikīkī restaurant remembering his flower girl girlfriend in the 1970s.
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In the ’70s and early ’80s, the girls were so successful, the industry so competitive, that it was often referred to as the “Flower Wars” by locals. Hillarie Hamilton, the owner of Honolulu Flower Lady, tells me that it was a time of economic boom; of successful, supportive local businesses rather than stodgy corporate chains; of freer life, drugs, and dance. Waikīkī was a beach town, it was the disco era, and the girls played the part.

Hillarie grew up on O‘ahu and became one of early flower girls in the ’70s, using the income to pay for a psychology degree from University of Hawai‘i. Today, she has shoulder-length dyed-blond hair, three large poodles, and works by day as a domestic abuse counselor. She’s also the founder and sole employee of Honolulu Flower Lady, the last of its kind on the island, which she has run since 1991. Each of the flower girls under her wing is a direct seller, with no hourly wage. She takes a small percentage of sales in exchange for managing the flowers, routes, and accounts. According to Hillarie, she keeps the business not only for side income, which she says was almost nonexistent with the economic downturn, but because it is a support system for women in transition—out of bad relationships or the military, between jobs, or putting themselves through school. Other times, it is a full-time job for years for women who flourish in the role. When there aren’t enough girls—usually, there are around six—Hillarie works routes herself.

The flower girl business originated with Watanabe Floral, run by a local family who started by growing roses. Before the arrival of refrigerated, more hardy South American roses, local rose growers were plentiful and often ended up with a surplus unclaimed by flower shops. According to the company, one of the Watanabe sons started the program, bringing baskets of extras around to bars and restaurants. The success of this new approach within a local community gave birth to the flower girl tradition.

It’s local support that keeps the girls afloat even now. “Local people are my customers. They love flowers, and it’s part of their lives,” Hillarie tells me. “Tourists come here to be voyeurs, to see it. Sometimes they’ll dip their toe into it, and buy a lei or something, but it’s not common. They do the obligatory flowers. Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, birthdays. For the local people, it’s, ‘I’m happy, I’m with my friend, I want to have flowers to share.’”

Flower4

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“Often, Haughton and her flowers provide a safe, non-threatening way for strangers to meet each other. ‘Life is still a lot like high school, boys on one side of the gym and the girls on the other,’ she explains. ‘When I’m the one making the approach, it’s a lot less intimidating. I’ve even had guys buy an entire basketful of flowers to give to one woman.’” – Anna Haughton, flower girl for Honolulu Flower Lady, in “Petal Pusher,” Honolulu Magazine, 1991. Haughton later became a lawyer.
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One of my last nights working, I hit the jackpot again. My buyer, very drunk and inclined to showing off, is a local business owner. “I know all the flower girls,” he tells me, and starts listing names I don’t recognize. He insists on buying me a shot and a drink, which I have no problem with since I don’t want to go back for more stock—I am informed later that it’s against the rules for flower girls to sit with customers or take drinks, but the lines easily blurred for me. I sit on a stool next to him while he whistles to get the bartender’s attention, making small talk with the girl he bought the basket for, until the man starts touching my leg, and I look over to see him making a blow job gesture with a beer bottle. The buzz I have from making the large sale vanishes, and I leave. I take a flower with me.

“I’ve had guys tell me, ‘Well aren’t those girls hookers?’” says Hillarie. “I say no, not at all, but this is what people project. Part of that, I believe, is because the flower girls, as they do this job, develop a sense of confidence and independence. They become more beautiful in that sense. … The traits you’ll gain in this job, you will take with you to every job and every walk of life you do.”

And it’s true; I find confidence when hundreds of people tell me no, and one says yes; when I feel safe in dark shortcuts that most would eye with nervous suspicion. We learn to interact with frequenters of fancy steak restaurants and ocean-view fine dining, strip clubs on Kūhiō, military bars in ‘Ewa, hostess bars on King Street. It requires tough skin and bounds of self-motivation. A local flower girl, Stacey*, has been doing the job for three years—she’s known to sell double the leis most girls do, and when I ask her how she does it, she says her strategy is simple: Take them out of the bags and loops them over your arm during the dinner rush. Jamie has researched what nights each account has special events; Saturday nights at Bar Seven is a sure thing, when drag queens take the stage and belt out their best versions of Beyonce and Gaga classics.

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Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you do. My night training with Gina, there’s barely anyone out. But after striking out at a Thai restaurant, she is still excited to find a telescope set up by street vendors on Ala Moana Boulevard, and we take turns kneeling at its viewfinder to see Jupiter’s moons.

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After one Saturday shift, I settle in for a drink at a dimly lit sports bar near University Avenue where I had dropped off flowers earlier. While pouring me a gin and tonic on the house, the owner explains why he keeps us around: He remembers the girls who made a living selling flowers when he was a young bartender. In exchange for the account, we give him a dozen roses every week. Before I leave, he tosses me a rose that he is replacing with new stock, a slightly wilted yellow thing I put in a vase when I get home. I keep in my room until it dries up, and bring tulips home to replace it shortly after.

*Names have been changed.