The gift of the flower lady at Battalion 9

NEW YORK -- She slips into the firehouse every night around 7, a tiny woman with a sunny smile and a gentle sense of purpose that makes even the most exhausted firefighters pause.

They call her the flower lady. They know she lives nearby, that she works during the day, that maybe once she appeared on Broadway.

But the men of Battalion 9 know little else about the woman whose quiet presence has been constant since Sept. 11, when the firehouse lost 15 men -- an entire shift -- at the World Trade Center.

Others arrive with cookies and flags and teddy-bears and poems.

The flower lady brings only her gloves.

Others need to see and touch and hug a firefighter, to show emotion, to somehow connect.

The flower lady asks no questions, demands no attention. Most of the firefighters don't even know her name.

She simply works, for several hours a night, weeding and watering and sorting through the flowers -- mountains of them -- that still appear daily outside the firehouse at the corner of 8th Avenue and 48th street.

Enormous bouquets of red roses, the finest to be found in the city. Lilies and carnations and daisies and orchids.

Nearly three months after the attacks, they pile up on the sidewalk, beneath the enormous "Ground Zero Hero" banners painted by schoolchildren from all over the world.

They pile up beneath photographs of the dead.

Joe Angelini. Jose Guadalupe. John Tipping. Michael Lynch.

The flower lady knows them all, even though she has never met them or their families, even though she rarely stepped inside a firehouse before Sept. 11.

In the first few days after the horror she calls Black Tuesday, the flower lady herself was too sad to do anything. She trudged through her neighborhood in a daze, uncertain how to help, where to go, how to volunteer.

She couldn't do much at Ground Zero. She can't cook. The volunteer organizations were full. She didn't have money to give.

Still, she yearned to contribute something to the city that became her home 20 years ago, when she moved here from Maryland, eventually settling in a little apartment on Broadway, a block away from the busiest firehouse in Manhattan.

And then she saw the flowers, rotting in heaps, wilting in buckets, drooping into the melting wax from the candles mashed into the pavement.

There WAS something she could do.

It took her a few days to pluck up the courage. It seemed like such a little thing in the midst of so much grief. Finally, she tiptoed into the firehouse.

"I know this might sound weird," she said to a firefighter -- she can't remember who. "But would you mind if I cleaned up your dead flowers."

Even the chief said the appearance of the flower lady was like a gift.

Sometimes, especially in the first few weeks, she would be digging through the pile, digging and digging, the stench of rotten flowers clinging to her clothes and her hands and her hair. And suddenly, buried among all the dead ones, she would find a perfectly preserved white rose.

And she would imagine the rescuers digging through the rubble four miles away. And she would think: "They could still find someone, right?"

Maybe that is what made her go on. And not just with the flowers.

By the second week she started sorting through the truckloads of gifts that arrived every day, piling up at the back of the firehouse: teddy bears and cards, boxes of socks and gloves -- some inscribed with Bible verses -- flags and wreaths and statues.

Inspiring, creative, imaginative works of art. They made her laugh. They made her cry.

"It was like the whole nation saying 'ow,"' she says.

And there was the letter from a father who had moved to New York from Florida so his 2-year-old boy could be treated Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The child's great joy in his final weeks was gazing at the fire trucks from the window of their 50th street apartment.

"Dear firefighters," wrote Greg Reig. "You all have a little angel watching over you."

Even the firefighters can't look at little Gregory's photograph without tears.

When she read Reig's letter, the flower lady resolved to do even more -- to try to preserve this outpouring of emotion and creativity, so that people would never forget the artwork of a nation's grief.

And so began her mission, to document the work and find a home where it could be exhibited.

She found help in all sorts of unexpected places.

People started to notice the flower lady's work. Some stopped to help: the sister of a firefighter, a widow and her children, a retired florist from Ohio who was in town for a Broadway show. For two days she sat in the firehouse making the most beautiful bouquets the flower lady had ever seen.

One night in the firehouse the flower lady shared her name, and a little of her story.

She came to New York in the late 1970s with dreams of Broadway in her heart, some of which came true. She had small singing and dancing parts, although she spent more time waiting tables. She once made costumes for "Phantom of the Opera," although now she makes a living making Christmas decorations. She made many friends in the theater community. And she lost many, including her best friend, to AIDS.

"I understand what it's like to go to funeral after funeral," she said softly.

"Sometimes simple order is what you need to make things seem right again," says the flower lady. "And you can't have order if your heart is broken."

That is why she slips into the firehouse every night, to weed through flowers and read through the latest batch of letters, to smile at firefighters, to create a little more order in their grieving world.

Gerry McCarthy, the flower lady of Battalion 9.