Flower/20"/mike1st/mark2nd

By ELIZABETH HAYES

Staff Reporter

It's the middle of the night, but downtown's Mayesh Wholesale Florist is in high gear. Under fluorescent lights, workers retrieve and wrap flowers in cones of newspaper, pile them onto metal carts, bellow questions across the floor "How much are hyacinths?" and slide plastic buckets noisily across the concrete before dumping the water into a drain.

Mayesh is one of the largest of the 55 vendors operating at the Southern California Flower Market, which has been supplying L.A.-area florists since 1920. The myriad varieties come from growers as close as Carpinteria and as far off as South America.

On this pre-dawn morning, there are a few slip-ups: one of the delivery trucks is late and an order of French tulips missed a flight. But in an atmosphere of organized mayhem, it's relatively tame stuff.

Russell Ogawa, manager and salesman extraordinaire for Mayesh, is at the hub of the action. A 27-year veteran of the market, Ogawa spends the early morning in almost constant motion, a price list and writing pad tucked into the back of his trousers.

He's been at work since 11 p.m. the night before, but it's not until 3 or 4 that florists start trickling in to pick up orders. He'll remain at work until a Brink's truck arrives around 1 p.m.

Donning rubber-soled shoes to keep from slipping, he negotiates between pallets of brightly colored blooms, heads over to a computer terminal to punch in orders, pulls flowers from the cold storage room, jokes briefly with customers and co-workers, and periodically refills his Styrofoam cup with coffee.

Suddenly, Ogawa spots a "big hitter" (a major customer), and heads toward him.

"Mark's here! Good morning, Mark!" Ogawa says. En route to help Mark, Ogawa sees someone else he knows. "What's happening, baby?" he says.

A few minutes later, he's assisting John Turk, a florist whose shop is near the Rose Hills cemetery. Turk is selecting gladiolas. Ogawa calls Turk the "king of bouquets. He's been doing it longer than me."

Beneath the banter is the serious business of moving product as efficiently as possible onto and off the floor a process at which Mayesh and Ogawa excel.

Ogawa started at the market while still in high school as a summer job at the urging of his dad, who had spent 60 years there. Now 43, Ogawa's life is about hustling, troubleshooting and satisfying demanding florists, who, clipboard in hand, take their time strolling between the aisles, scrutinizing ranuculuses, roses and assorted other varieties.

Ogawa stands before a computer terminal, checking orders. "I'm hurting for a smoke," he says. "I'm trying to quit but it's not working."

After a lull, he spots the owner of Visser's Florist in Anaheim the largest in Southern California. "Good morning, Allen. Welcome to Mayesh Wholesale," Ogawa says. "What are you looking for, maybe I can help?"

As the two men pass a flat of giant oncidiums, Ogawa says, "The giant is kind of wimpy, dude."

After being momentarily distracted, Ogawa calls out, "Where'd you go, Allen?" as he ducks under workers carrying armloads of flowering fruit tree branches.

Meanwhile, a stern-faced woman is eyeing the artichoke-like protea flowers. Ogawa approaches her and fields a price query. Unlike other regulars, she doesn't seem interested in small talk. "It's going to be awhile," she tells Ogawa and he takes it as his cue to leave her alone.

"I'm here for you, honey," he says, before bounding to the other side of the floor.

A few minutes later, Ogawa spies another heavy hitter, Shari Kelley, who coordinates huge events in Palm Springs. She's there to order flowers for a 500-person party slated for the next night, as well as for three brunches on Sunday and a party for 300 on Monday.

"We need four of these, four of these, five of those," Kelley says, placing her semi-weekly order. She picks up an unfamiliar, delicate, deep-purple bouquet.

"I've been coming here 20 years and the most amazing thing about the flower mart is, there's something I haven't seen before," she says before learning that she's holding a variety of violets.

Kelley's assistant Beth Gardner makes notes on a clipboard. She smiles when asked about Ogawa's sales acumen.

"He sells us more than we want because he knows how to pick it," she says.

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