The man who will move 700,000 roses this week

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At this time of year, Pete Cavallaro Jr.'s day begins at 4:30 a.m., and he doesn't head home until 10 o'clock at night.

No, he's not a student studying for finals. Mr. Cavallaro (known universally as Pete Jr.) runs a warehouse.

"Tell me what you want today," he explains patiently over the phone to an indecisive customer. "I'm not going to have them tomorrow."

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"Them" are flowers - two warehouses' worth: geraniums stacked in wooden crates, cardboard boxes piled with orange and yellow lilies, and a meat-locker-size cooler with roses stacked to the ceiling.

The reason for Cavallaro's long days can be found on any calendar: Mother's Day, the second-biggest plant-purchasing holiday of the year (Christmas is No. 1). Almost 6 in 10 Americans will bestow bouquets and potted plants on Mom as symbols of their undying affection this Sunday, according to a survey by the International Mass Retail Association.

Flowers - specifically carnations - have been associated with the holiday since President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday of May Mother's Day in 1914.

Whether the boom in bouquets is due to tradition, shrewd marketing, or just that a lot of women like flowers, florists are ready. FTD.com has geared up for 20 to 25 times its normal deliveries. A spokeswoman says it's the online florist's biggest holiday of the year.

Lynn Hull hopes she will be one of those moms. "I'm pretty sure what my husband is doing is buying a plant to put in the yard," says the new mother of two in Virginia Beach. "He kept hinting around: What are your favorite colors? What is your favorite plant?"

Mrs. Hull and her husband recently adopted two infants within eight months - a girl from China and a boy from the US - so Mother's Day is still a new holiday for her.

Taking a brief moment away from fixing macaroni and cheese for her daughter, she sounds cheerfully resigned to the daily routine: "All I seem to do is make food, make bottles, clean diapers, and do dishes."

As to the whole gift question, she prefers her expected hydrangea to a dozen roses. "That will be around forever."

For wholesalers like Cavallaro, there's not a lot of romance left in roses - or much time to smell the flowers. This week, he will sell between 600,000 and 700,000 roses. That's not counting the boxes of California irises, Colombian carnations, and Dutch tulips lining the coolers.

The numbers don't surprise Krystine Corkery, a vendor who sells roses and carnations at the American Legion parking lot in Waltham, Mass. She sold 280 dozen roses on Valentine's Day, and expects to almost double that this weekend.

"Not everyone has a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. Everyone has a mother," says the young woman, who stayed late to help out at Cavallaro's Albany St. Wholesale Florists, filling 400 vases with carnations, babies' breath, and ferns.

At Winston Flowers studio and corporate headquarters in Boston, carnations are verboten, but the staff is also going full tilt. Members from other departments have been drafted into answering phones, and John, the delivery chief, is supplementing Winston's fleet of 18 trucks with rentals from U-Haul and Penske. In a back room, 45 floral designers are working at long tables, assembling elegant arrangements of lilacs, roses, sweet peas, lemon geranium, and rosemary.

"To the best mom in the world," operator Ellen repeats, as she takes one of the 3,000 Mother's Day orders the florist will handle.

"What sort of colors would you like?" Heidi asks, scribbling rapidly, because the new computer system has, of course, chosen that inopportune moment to go down.

Over at Albany St., Cavallaro doesn't have that problem. The reason's simple: "No computers." He keeps his daily orders from some 200 florists and garden centers on a pad so old it's a silver mass of duct tape. As his staff loads cut flowers into coolers for the night, the incessant call for "Pete Jr." blares over the intercom. He juggles four phone calls at once with the panache of a Hollywood agent and seems to have the catalog of his entire stock locked in his head.

That's no mean feat, since Cavallaro estimates that he turns over his entire inventory every two to three days. "You've got to keep the product moving," he says nonchalantly.

And while one might think Mother's Day would be a snap for a man with 100,000 flowers in one cooler, Cavallaro has his own shopping to think about. "I just have to make sure I get a card," he says with an air of one who's learned from experience. "If you don't get the card, you're in trouble."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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