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A flower lady's story: 'Love up at the big Y'

By Dan Benaim and Yuka Igarashi

Annette Walton remembers the day she began to sell flowers. It was six years ago, and she had been panhandling around Yale after becoming homeless. Students had been giving her change and buying her food, but she wanted to do something in return. "I kept thinking, I need to get these kids something to say thank you," she says. "Then I was right down the street near Toad's. There was a daisy coming up out of the ground. I said, I'm gonna give them flowers. A flower ain't going to harm nobody."

But these days, Walton—known to many Yalies and New Haven residents as "Annette" or "the flower lady"—has nothing to offer her friends. "No, I ain't got no flowers," she says to the man who approaches her as she sits at the counter of the York Street Willoughby's. She calls after him as he walks away. "You know, I'm gonna get you some, and bring them personally."

She turns back to her coffee. "You see? I got to sell my flowers. I won't be me," she says. "I got freshmen to meet! How are they gonna meet me without my flowers?"

These are hard times for Walton. In the last two months, she has been charged with disorderly conduct and threatened with 90 days in jail. She has also been told that she cannot sell flowers in New Haven without an official vending license.

Such a license costs around $200, a steep fee for an often homeless woman who plucks single flowers from gardens around New Haven, wraps them with paper found in recycling bins, and sells them for a dollar apiece.

Walton also faces a charge of disorderly conduct stemming from a Thurs., July 27 incident on the corner of Grove Street and Whitney Avenue. According to a report filed by Yale police officer Vicky Sylvia, Walton was found "aggressively panhandling" and interfering with pedestrian traffic, and was asked to move along at 3:10 p.m. When the officer returned at 3:50 p.m., the report stated, Walton was in the same spot, approaching people leaving shops. "When she did not receive money," Yale Police Chief James Perrotti said, "she followed the people, forcing them off the sidewalk." She was issued a misdemeanor summons.

Walton's lawyer, public defender Michael Alevy, saw things differently. In her view, Annette was just selling flowers in the loud but benign way that has earned her legions of supporters. "Most people know Annette and she's a pretty harmless person. She speaks in a loud voice and some people who don't know her think that she's yelling. That's how she speaks," Alevy said.

Annette offers a similar explanation. "Everyone says I'm loud. I just want to make sure you understand me. You know," she says. "My mother talked loud. Two brothers and three sisters, and I make four. She had to have a loud voice to yell at six kids. I took after my mother."

Disorderly conduct is a criminal offense, a class C misdemeanor with a sentence of up to 90 days in prison. Walton seems unlikely to receive such a harsh penalty. According to her lawyer, the prosecutor knows her and does not seem eager to put her behind bars. Alevy explained that the case is weak, since the charge of disorderly conduct requires either intent or recklessness. "The burden is on the state to prove that she did this," he said. Instead, Alevy hopes to make a deal with the prosecution, who will hear the case on Fri., Sept. 15. "It's possible to be a little bit creative to come up with a disposition that would be good for Annette and good for the state," he said. "We will see what they offer us, I'll talk to Annette about it, and then we'll make the decision."

But whatever happens on Friday, Walton will still need to have a license to sell flowers. For Annette, the message is clear: "Yale cops and Yale security don't want me out here in the fall. They believe I'm too black to be out here bothering you." She wonders why similar attention has not been paid to the white plant seller on High Street. "That older lady on High Street, she's white. She sells plants. She don't got a license. And why don't she need a license to sell her flowers?"

The police department denied her accusations. "The claim is far from the truth," Perrotti said. "If she wants to vend flowers, she just needs a permit." He added that the plant vendor has received citations in the past.

But some Yale students are bothered that the police would be so strict with such a beloved campus presence. "She's about the nicest person in Connecticut," Jon Braman, MC '02, said. "It's cruel and ineffective for the police to give her trouble." He admired her hard work and sense of responsibility. "Selling flowers for her is a real career—she takes pride in providing a service that people need. Not only could a lot of other homeless people learn from her—so could a lot of well-paid, well-housed people." A group of students has even offered to help fund Walton's vending permit. Matthew Dunkel, JE '01, has organized a benefit concert at Rudy's this Saturday with his band, Cabeza de Vaca Latin Revue. Annette also mentioned that students at the School of Architecture are planning to design and build her a state-of-the-art flower booth.

Walton's social worker, Sheila Stoner, is another of many people working for Annette's well-being. While Walton awaits her court date, Stoner has employed her to mow lawns and weed gardens near her Whalley Avenue office. Stoner is happy that the Yale community seems to relish taking care of Annette, and even suggested ways that others could help. "Once she gets a permit, she will need someone to help her manage the business. She will need someone to do her taxes. Maybe an SOM student could take her on as a project."

Annette herself is reassured by the support around her. "Nothing is gonna happen to me. I got a lot of love up in that big Y. So nothing is gonna happen to me."

Graphic by Sarah England.

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