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DALE McFEATTERS: The menace of capital's flower thieves

on May 25, 2013 10:40 AM

Something comes over the residents of the nation’s capital when the flowers bloom in the spring: The urge to steal them.

My wife and I became aware of this seasonal problem when we first moved to Washington. The capital’s anal retentiveness toward its wide, barren sidewalks was beginning to change.

First, the city fathers began approving licenses for sidewalk cafes. Heretofore, they had been banned by the tight coterie of Southern congressman who ran the city and believed that while copious quantities of bourbon were good for them and the legislative process, the general public should have access to strong drink only in the most parsimonious quantities and under the most inconvenient circumstances.

I had just moved to Washington and met up with friends at a Dupont Circle bar where marijuana was being bought and sold with all the stealth and silence of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. A table opened up and, beer in hand, I headed to grab it for my friends when a massive hand fell on my shoulder.

“You can’t do that,” the bouncer said. “It is illegal for a customer in the District of Columbia to carry a drink. You either stay at the bar or I have to carry it for you.”

Meanwhile, all around us, commerce in marijuana proceeded apace, with prices and orders shouted across the room, while I was risking fines and imprisonment for illegally transporting a beer 20 paces from the bar to the table.

Allowing this dangerously felony-prone trade to take place on the sidewalk was a huge and controversial step for the city, but the additional revenues poured into city coffers and the city fathers found it good, and even allowed bars to enclose their outside seating areas with large masonry flower planters.

Other businesses followed suit. One night, when my wife and I were headed to an outdoor cafe, we stopped to admire a large planter outside a trade association that was filled with beautiful dark purplish tulips.

We were seated at an outdoor table when an aspiring entrepreneur, who looked as if his only experience with planters was sleeping in one, staggered up and offered to sell us a dozen dark purplish tulips for $12. $10? $5? No deal. We knew where they had come from and, sure enough, on the way back to the car the planter had been reduced to little green stubs.

Now flower theft has become almost a seasonal industry. Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak wrote, “There’s the legendary flower thief of Northwest Washington, a small, leather-faced man who looks like an old Vincent van Gogh and routinely gives some Mediterranean country as his place of residence whenever police stop him. (He is actually homeless and either stays in a shelter or behind a local rec center.)”

He evidently sells the high-end stuff — hydrangeas, peonies and lilacs — to local florists and restaurants.

The police will actually track down and arrest the flower thieves, but the locals are reluctant to prosecute.

Not so on federal land. The flowers in Washington’s many parks are government property and the feds take just as dim a view of that as trying to drive off in an F-16. (The irony is that when it comes time to replace, say, the tulips, the National Park Service will give away the bulbs to people passing by because it’s cheaper to buy new ones each spring rather than store the old bulbs over the winter.)

The ordinary flower thief can be dealt with by sending him off for a few days in jail and letting the other inmates know he’s there for stealing petunias.

The federal flowers are important to you because you’re paying for them with your tax money. Further, the bright flower beds put the lie to one of the great calumnies against our capital: The 19th-century British ambassador’s wife who said that there were only two obstacles to gardening in Washington — the climate and the soil.

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