The Ballet Dancer and the Brute

Geraldo Rios of Rios Flowers meets Joe Arriola, city manager

If the City of Miami had forbidden Geraldo Rios to put up his peluches(stuffed animals) for Mother's Day, many hearts would have ached, none more than Geraldo's own. The bright, fluffy teddy bears and other fuzzy gifts look as darling inside the glass, waiting in his flower shop, as they do covering the entire front façade of the three-story building he owns. (This is at 67th and Biscayne.) As he explains it, the display is a piece of himself invested in a holiday love that's so lustrous the assembly could probably be picked up by satellite.

Twice a year, the middle-age Cuban florist, who's also landlord for more than half of his block, obtains a permit to erect a Hallmark gift market outside his shop, not sparing a single spot on the wall facing Biscayne, floor to roof. When complete, it's a flamboyant sight to see, with a flair as flowery as Geraldo himself. This past Valentine's it seemed as though the building had broken out in hives of red, white, and pink peluches of all sizes. You couldn't see the building under the nearly 2000 of them. Rios also set up table displays a little more than five feet out from the door (past the legal limit in his case), along the front of his building, on tiled space before the city-owned sidewalk begins.

"It's beautiful; people from all around come to see it and take pictures," he explains in Spanish.

Unfortunately not everyone felt that way. On February 13 Wilma Wilcock, a Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) inspector, came to Rios Flowers with a message: The peluches had to come down. "I almost died, I asked 'Why? Why?' but she just told me [about] code violations." Geraldo's bottom lip actually pouts, forlornly.

The code violations were in reference to city building ordinance 11000, which prohibits obstruction of public property. Geraldo had his approved Class 1 permit in hand, and the receipt for the $153 fee. He's never had a problem before, and he's been setting up these displays on Valentine's and Mother's Day for ten years.

After pestering her like a kid, Rios says Wilcock finally spilled the beans: He'd suddenly drawn the city's ire because city Manager Joe Arriola had been driving to the NET office up the street, and did a double-take when he saw the peluche explosion. Arriola admits it "was bad luck for the guy that I was at that office that day!" Arriola, a tough-guy Cuban official in the classic macho mold, can't hide his true thoughts on the extravagant peluche pageant put on by Rios, a former ballet dancer. Arriola's brows arch and his eyes roll back at the mention of Geraldo's passion. He struggles for discretion: "It's very ... overwhelming."

The city manager, who hasn't spoken to Geraldo directly, insists that the last thing he wants to do is hurt a local businessman in a downtrodden part of town. Still he describes the author of the display as very "emotional."

The same day Rios learned who the "bad man" behind this municipal hassle was, he drove down to the Manuel Artime Community Center where a commission meeting was being held so he could have a word. He had a page enter the auditorium and announce him, but the only attention he got was from an official who explained this wasn't the time or place for confronting the city manager. Geraldo persisted vigorously, but got nowhere. Then, several hours into it, he nearly passed out. He says he flushed white, feeling light in the head, held the back of his hand to his forehead, and groped for a seat. Arriola says he finally came into the lobby when interrupted by the news that Fire Rescue had arrived for a man who'd been screaming "You're going to ruin me and my business!" and was now complaining of chest pains and high blood pressure. Arriola got a look at the collapsing man.

"The paramedics told me I should check into a hospital, but I said I couldn't. I had a business to get back to," Rios explains. "Thank God nothing too serious happened." He believes that's why Arriola relented.

Arriola retorts that the episode had nothing to do with the city's eventual "leniency" toward Rios Flowers. He adds his own revulsion toward the gaudiness of the shop wasn't the reason Rios was asked to tone down his peluchebravura. When asked about Geraldo's suspicions that the city has it in for him, Arriola laughs.

"If we had any real beef with him, his display wouldn't be around," the city manager spits. "I was concerned with safety issues, not just for others but the florist himself. He had giant bears hanging loosely from the roof of his building, pedestrians had to go around the thing. Coño el tipo estaba parando el trafico!" he adds about the traffic commotion caused. Still, they'd let Geraldo slide -- this time.

But "this time" wasn't enough for Geraldo. A ballsy little guy, he got on the phone to contact local television stations, among them WPLG (Channel 10) and WSCV (Channel 51). Both broadcast live features that ran throughout Valentine's Day newscasts. The pressure was turned up on city hall to ease its issues with the rabble-rousing peluches.

Ultimately the Valentine's Day display did not come down. But Geraldo was wound up for his next battle because Mother's Day calls for the same, colorful extreme. He already had peluches lining the inside of his home, which sits atop the building housing the flower shop; it is decorated in bright pink and yellow interiors, with a distinctive scent of cinnamon and hand lotion wafting about. Before he applied for the Mother's Day permit, he asked the city to write an explanation for why he'd been ordered to take down his huggable bears the first time. What codes had been violated? At this point Geraldo just wanted answers.

The only response was a confirmation that his request had been received. He went ahead with the application for the Class I permit, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Two weeks later he got a response, but at first it looked bad. NET inspectors showed up in person, just like they did before Valentine's Day.

"Congratulations!" Christine Morales, the Upper Eastside NET official, chimed. She handed him his approved permit. Geraldo remembers her asking him to make the display "really pretty." He felt like the belle of the ball.

Morales says she regularly delivers permit approvals in person, as a gesture of goodwill, but Rios was surprised. He feels the powers that be are trying to make amends. Whatever the case, neighbors say Geraldo is finally getting the treatment he deserves. He's done so much for the neighborhood. He volunteers at Morningside Elementary School, where he teaches kids to prune flowers; always finds odd jobs for neighborhood rugrats; and is a regular Silver Sponsor donor to the Miami-Dade County Court system. Rios has also helped revitalize his community. He bought his building in 1993 for less than $200,000 and spent an additional $100,000 on renovations. "My building is the prettiest one on the street," Geraldo brags gently, saying he was recently offered one million dollars for the property.

But all these successes and the adulation of neighbors and friends wouldn't have comforted him if he hadn't been able to set up his displays. Now he can cope. This week he erected the word "MOM" in seven-foot-high red-and-white letters. What matters to him is the opportunity to honor the sanctity of motherhood in bright red splendor. Even though this holiday could never be meant for him, Geraldo reveals that sometimes he truly feels like its Queen.

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