It was my best friend’s birthday and she threw herself quite a party at bar d.b.a. in the East Village. It was hot and crowded so I took her by the hand and we slipped outside, onto the avenue. We were halfway down the block between 1st and 2nd streets when I stopped short. Right there between a Spanish bodega and a Japanese Saki bar I saw it. A most unusual plant was hanging in the window of an old Laundromat. Its blood red leaves and bright yellow blossoms were caught in the light of the street lamp and they attracted my attention immediately. One thing you have to know about me is that I always wanted to be a botanist or a pharmacologist. I worshipped them like other people worship rap stars and ball players. So even though I was an advertising copywriter, I knew the plant in the window was tropical and I knew it was rare.
I opened the door to the laundromat. The inside was so strange I had a desire to lie down, but I fought it by inhaling the scents of detergent and bleach to clear my head.
Thick grass grew from squares of soil perfectly cut to fit the tops of the industrial sized machines. Jewel-colored flowers on long thin stems grew out of the grass. There were red poppies, purple bells and bright yellow daisies. The laundry looked like a field of wildflowers.
Plants were strung across the ceiling in between the tracks of fluorescent lights. Colored flowers sprang from the pots and hung down over the folding tables. The pots were hung on invisible fishing line so they seemed to float in mid-air.
“You like my plants?”
The voice was deep and gravelly.
“They’re magnificent,” I said.
“That they are,” he said, stepping out from behind a door in the back of the laundry.
He was at least six feet four and more than 300 pounds. I couldn’t tell how old he was. He could have been fifty. He could have been seventy. In his green cargo pants, green tee-shirt and round, yellow tinted John Lennon sunglasses, he looked like a plant himself. Like a psychedelic tree.
“I am Armand,” he said, extending his hand. “And I am at your service.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t have any laundry with me. See,” I said looking around me, “no laundry bag.”
I backed up toward the door.
“Why did you come in here with no laundry,” his voice boomed.
I pointed at the plant in the window and he seemed to relax.
“Ah, the little fire fern. She’s the devil who drew you to me.”
I put my hand on the doorknob.
“I’m not drawn to you. I was at a birthday party down the block.”
“The fire fern is from Columbia. She loves the sunlight so I keep her in the window.
“It was nice meeting you, Armand.”
“Oh, come on now. this is just a Laundromat. A beautiful one though, don’t you think?”
I had to agree.
“Are they all tropicals?
“How did you get them to grow in here?”
“When I look at a laundry I see a room with absolutely perfect growing conditions. Plenty of heat from industrial strength dryers, mist and moisture from powerful washing machines, and just the right amount of sunlight from the windows, not too direct because in a place this old they’re usually scratched. To me, a Laundromat is an ideal greenhouse that just so happens to have some clothes going around in circles.”
His explanation delighted me.
“Is it yours?”
“It is,” he said, sweeping his arm in a half moon around the room as if he were showing me the Taj Mahal.
“Would you like a cutting from my Fire Fern?” He dragged a ladder to the window.
“The fern spoke to you through the glass. It will always be a special plant for you.”
He took a pair of silver nail scissors from the side pocket of his cargo pants and snipped his fern.
“Put it in a glass of warm water in a place with no light. When you’ve got some nice, long roots bring it back to me. If you’re very lucky, I’ll show you my back room. That’s where the real tropicals are.
“What do you mean, the real tropicals?”
“I have some very special plants inside that room.”
“What makes them so special?”
“Folks come here, they do their laundry, and my plants make them feel a certain way about themselves that keeps them coming back. They bring friends with them. More everyday. Now I have people trekking in from all over town. The west side, the upper-east side, Tribeca, and Soho. I’ve even had a few folks in from Connecticut. There are so many people my machines are starting to wear down. It’s a concern but not such a bad one to have.”
“I don’t believe plants can do that”
“Well, my machines are the same as all the other machines around town. But my laundry is filled up all day, and the others, not so much. So I say yes, it is because of the plants in that room. It’s what I believe.”
“Why don’t you show them to me now?
“The Fire Fern cutting I gave you is difficult to root. It doesn’t like to grow in this part of the country, or even this part of the world. It’s a finicky plant to begin with, even in its own backyard. If you have success with the roots it’s a sign that you’re ready to see my plants.”
“What can I do to help it along?”
“Only the Fern can decide whether or not it will grow roots in your presence. This week, next week, next year, maybe never. We’ll see what happens.”
Armand held the cutting out to me. I half expected him to grab my arm and drag me into the back room but he simply opened the door to the Laundromat and said goodnight.
Outside I looked back at him. He held the door open and waved at me, moving his fingers in an odd, undulating manner, pinky first with the rest of his fingers following. His wave upset me. His fingers looked like tendrils trying to pull me back inside.
“Come back soon,” he said. “And good luck with the fern!”
I stood on the street trying to get my bearings. I stared at the four-inch green stem in my hands and somehow I knew it wasn’t like any other cutting. I found myself gripping it more tightly than my bag with my money, phone, and credit cards.
I woke up with the sun and went into the kitchen to check on the cutting. As per Armand’s instructions I didn’t turn on the light. Of course it was much too soon and I knew that there wouldn’t be any roots, but I checked anyway because I’m a checker by nature, lights, stoves, occasionally underneath beds, and now apparently, plant stems. I rolled the cutting around between my thumb and forefinger feeling for any slight rises on its surface. As I turned the stem I felt dizzy as if my body was turning with the cutting. I quickly dropped it back into the glass of water.
Three weeks later I raced out of the kitchen with a level of excitement I hadn’t known since I was a child. The fire fern cutting had four, long, tender white roots!
I brought it back to the Laundromat. The year was 1997. And for the next 18 years Armand taught me about plants, magic and sorcery.
On June 22, 2015 he died – a great plant shaman left the world.
My years as his student took place in a single room surrounded by plants – I knew nothing about his personal life. When he passed I found out that he was quite wealthy. He owned a red Ferrari and a house on the beach in Westhampton. Those findings shocked me to my core as I’d always thought of him as a poor man in a Laundromat.
I found out at his memorial service that Westhampton was his favorite place in the world. The place he felt most at home.
An old lover of his stood up.
“He believed that love should be obsessive and overpowering,” she said, “like lightening storms over tempestuous seas. That’s why he loved to live near the ocean with its crashing waves and dangerous rip tides.”
It was strange hearing about Armand as a lover of humans and not just plants.
After the service was over I knew what I had to do. I had to move to Westhampton. I found a place in Southampton instead. Close enough.
I hung a picture of Armand on the beach in West Hampton, in my new Southampton bedroom. It helps.
Now I live here Permanently. And I study sorcery in the woods, near the ocean.
Want to join me?