Felix at 45: A Trailblazing Ficus Looks Back—and Forward

    He beat the streets, conquered office politics and returned to the wild

    Felix sits on the slate floor next to the old blue-and-gray striped couch. His branches stretch to roughly six feet now, though their clusters of leaves are thinner, more spread out than they have been. The bulbous terra cotta pot, the same one that’s cradled him since his sapling days, shows signs of wear: chips and gouges around the lip, fading color. Everything about the scene speaks to the essential truth of Felix’s existence: Potted ficuses usually live about 20 years. Felix is 45.

    He doesn’t need a party or a cake with a few dozen candles to tell him this; he feels it in his rings. But old is not all he feels. For anyone who comes upon Felix, a subtext undercuts the image of a once-proud master of home and office in slow decline. Although the sun streaks through the windows, Felix’s branches extend toward the small panes at the top of the door, as if they’re reaching for the exit. As if, after all he’s been through, all he’s seen, there’s still more to do. 

    So it is that Felix, boughed but unbroken, bathed in the morning light, asks a deceptively complex question: Is there more?

    It started, as few lasting love stories do, in the back of a van. It was the late ’70s and Felix was peddling himself on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, shepherded by a laconic hippie who stuffed the vehicle with a dozen or more potted plants, parked in prime locations and threw open the back doors to entice passers by. Where he got the plants no one knew for sure, and no one asked. 

    Fischbein, fresh out of law school, had opened an office downtown replete with the beiges and greys typical of the era. 

    The place needed signs of life. 

    One day Fischbein’s law partner spotted the van parked near the office. He rushed back and shared the info. Together, the two young lawyers negotiated a deal—for a 25-percent discount, they’d take everything in the van. For Felix and Team Green, it was a whiplash inducing rise—they fell off the back of a truck for the second time and landed in Legit City. “After we made the purchase the place looked like an arboreum,” Fischbein says. 

    Some of the gang had trouble adapting. They dropped leaves, they browned, but the suite life suited Felix fine. The office had climate control and ample light. Familiar faces, Fischbein’s in particular, and a steady influx of new people provided a mix of stability and stimulation. The conversations could get stuffy, but nevertheless, they remained interesting. 

    And when Felix didn’t think it could get any better, he found out the deal included summers in the Catskills, posting up with the crew at Fischbein’s house in Woodstock, N.Y. The fresh mountain air stirred him, the scenery and relaxed atmosphere recharged him. 

    When fall came, it was back to the office. Fischbein’s career was on the rise and Felix went along for the ride. Ambition flared. Felix grew determined to emerge from the forest as the tree. He sunk his roots, he reached for the sky, he aimed to break the grass ceiling. Suits, negotiations, contracts, Felix saw and heard it all, absorbing the finer points like carbon dioxide. He became known in meetings for his bright if often stoic presence—a good listener who brought color and injected a breath of oxygen to the room. He steered clear of office politics and continued to rise until found himself seeing over if not exactly overseeing his leafy companions. 

    The seasons rolled by like billable hours: the office, the mountains, the office, the mountains. The ’70s crept into the ’80s. Felix flourished, professionally and personally. There were shared sills, abutted pots, entangled branches. Office trysts and summer romances, they sprouted and dropped like leaves. He recoils when asked for specifics, a signal that the questioner is barking up the wrong tree. What happens in Woodstock….

      The losses though became part of a pattern. Old friends and new didn’t seem to share his vitality and perseverance. The cactuses went first—done in by the bleak New York City winters. Felix felt their loss, but his other friends from the back of the van remained, and so did the work. 

    Then the rubber tree plants proved unable to bounce back from the subzero Catskills’ winters. Other potted partners came and went; clients too. Felix, rooted in place, dug in and stretched upward. He relied on the daily ebb and flow of events and the respites in the mountains to hold off any sense of encroaching despair. 

    The ’90s had dawned and Felix forged on. Then, as he basked in a particularly glorious spring day, he looked for someone to share the moment with, only to find he was the last plant standing.

    Last plant but not last person. Fischbein became Felix’s primary connection to the world and Felix became the lawyer’s floral focus. “I think Felix really helped me with my law practice, and I really helped Felix with starting a new chapter in his life,” Fischbein says. Left with just each other, their bond became more personal, more intense than it had been before.

    When some sort of sticky oil built up on Felix’s leaves, Fischbein hand cleaned them. When Felix got aphids, Fischbein treated them with a mild solution. A decade slid by. Then another. 

    Fischbein, and by proxy, Felix, began to slow down. The summers in the Catskills grew longer, the weekend trips more frequent. Finally, a few years ago, Felix made the move full time. Semi-retired, he still sits in on the occasional deposition or settlement negotiation, but he mostly enjoys listening to music and watching the clouds drift by. “Whenever I’m not home, I tell him, ‘You’re in charge of the house,’” Fischbein says. “I think my dogs are jealous of him.”

    On sunnier days, Fischbein carries Felix outside to sit in the driveway—a two-person maneuver given Felix tips the scales at 50 pounds and sports about 10 branches that jut out in every direction. Whenever Fischbein makes corn, he pours the whole gallon of leftover water into Felix’s terracotta pot, a special treat: “Felix goes bonkers for corn water,” he says.

    And while the pace has slowed, the chlorophyll still burns bright. Felix volunteers with a non-profit consortium working on decarbonization and he’s planning a memoir with an accompanying podcast. He may not be able to work the handle, but Felix will never stop reaching for that door. 

    “There’ve been times I’ve looked at Felix in the morning and his leaves are falling out, and I’ve said to my wife, ‘This may be it for him,’” says Fischbein. “Then a week later, I’ll see he’s got a tiny new shoot coming out of his branches—out of nowhere.”

    Credit: Scott Fishbein

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